Remembering Lowell Thomas

When I was in the kid in the late 1970s there was a regular feature/program on PBS called Lowell Thomas Remembers. Ironies abounded, then and now, in the heart of that title, for the time quickly arrived when posterity would require some help remembering Thomas himself. You’ll soon agree that it should not be so, I think, but sadly it is. Even at the time, I had at best a vague sense that Thomas (1892-1981) was some kind of revered and esteemed broadcast journalist, like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, but little more than that. But the specifics are dazzling. We’ll take them roughly backwards:

The PBS show in question was launched just after Thomas had retired from his long career as a radio newscaster and commentator — which he been since radio began a half century earlier, working at CBS and NBC in their earliest days. At the time of his retirement, no one had been in radio longer, although he was later bested in career longevity by Paul Harvey. Thomas is said to have been the first radio reporter to broadcast live from a ship, an airplane, or a helicopter. One of his airplane broadcasts was delivered from a bomber over Berlin at the end of World War Two. He made films of the war as well.

Thomas had also been the key narrating personality of Fox Movietone News, America’s primary newsreel producer starting at around the same time he started in radio (1929) through 1952. He left Fox because he was busy with a new project: Cinerama, the curved widescreen film format that was used for certain ambitious screen spectacles like How the West Was Won (1962) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). His partners in the venture were Mike Todd and Merian C. Cooper.

Thomas was also the first TV newscaster, although his period of dabbling in the medium occurred during the early experimental phase of the late ’30s and early ’40s, and consisted largely of simulcasts of his radio programs. He was also one of the founders of Capital Cities Television in 1957, which after his death bought ABC, which later merged with Disney to form the huge conglomerate it is today.

All of these accomplishments (and they are many, right?) were all built on how Thomas originally made a name for himself. Your jaw will drop. He is the man who nicknamed T.E. Lawrence “Lawrence of Arabia”! A professional print journalist, Thomas had been dispatched to Europe with a cameraman by President Wilson to make a record of World War One. While there, he heard about Lawrence’s exploits in the Middle East as he encouraged the Arabs to rebel against the Ottoman Turks (enemies of the Allies at the time). When Thomas returned, he developed a large scale road show such as vaudeville might envy, featuring his films, a lecture, and all sorts of environmental enhancements, such as dancing girls, and a live band. He toured throughout the U.S. in 1919 and then took the show to Covent Garden in London. Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom didn’t come out until 1926; Thomas’s lectures no doubt fed the impetus for the original book deal.

Speaking of books — Thomas wrote 50 of them, mostly on travel subjects, as well as inspirational biographies of military men and the like.

Thomas had three baccalaureates and two master’s degrees, taught oratory at Princeton and elsewhere, and wrote for the Chicago Journal early in his career. His first journalistic work was as a teenager at the local paper in Victor, Colorado, where his family moved when he was 10 years old. He also tried his luck at gold mining and made a trip to Alaska as a young man, the beginnings of his love for adventure and wanderlust.

His son, Lowell Thomas Jr (1923-2016), became Lt. Governor of Alaska, was an Alaska State Senator and operated a charter airplane service in that state. As a young man he traveled with his father to Tibet to cover the Chinese takeover in 1949.

So, today, we glean a lesson from the prospector’s trade: always scratch beneath the surface. It’s the only way you can tell if there’s anything under there.

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