His Newsreel Camera Never Blinked

March 20, 2009

A condensed version of this story was published in the East Oregonian newspaper.

September 23, 1915. A lanky Portland man lugged a hand-cranked motion-picture camera atop a tripod onto the dirt track surrounding the rodeo arena. His cap was turned backwards and a cigar jutted from his mouth. Jesse G. Sill was no cowboy. But judging from his exploits this day and in years to come, Sill may have been as competitive and tough as anyone else at the Pendleton Round-Up, including the daring drivers of stage coaches bearing down on him at runaway speed.

Sill was about to experience the stage coach race more intimately than he had planned. More importantly, he was entering a select circle of people influential in building the Round-Up’s reputation. Arguably his work then and for nearly every subsequent year into the 1930s would do more than anything else to promote the event across the country and around the world.

Others such as artists and writers Col. Charles Furlong, Alexander Phimister Proctor, and Wallace Smith also brought widespread attention to the event. So did still-image photographers, most notably W. S. Bowman and Leander Moorhouse, whose postcard pictures of Round-Up scenes sold by the tens of thousands. But the lesser known Sill, a self-taught newsreel cameraman who would earn a media-star reputation for getting exclusive footage and delivering it to theaters first, reached the largest audience. Such was the power of motion pictures, the new medium transforming the nation’s cultural landscape, and it’s journalistic cousin, the newsreel.

Consumer embrace of the new medium triggered an explosion of theater construction coinciding with the Round-Up’s birth and growth. In 1907, three years before the Round-Up began, Oregonians could see motion pictures at only three places, all described as nickelodeon parlors in Portland. Seven years later, the state had 146 theaters with row seating, fifty-seven in Portland alone.

By the early 1920s, Oregon’s theaters were among an estimated 18,000 nationwide, and the newsreels they featured were precursors to today’s around-the-clock television news. Oregon’s two premier annual events—the Pendleton Round-Up and the Portland Rose Festival—became staple segments in national newsreels shown at this vast network of theaters. Widespread viewing of the footage made the state seem less a distant frontier outpost and more a place with a distinctive cultural identity.

Sill followed an unlikely route to his role as preeminent motion-picture chronicler of Northwest news. Born on his family’s farm near Bloomington, Illinois, in 1881, he won his county’s corn-husking championship as a teenager. Restless, Sill drifted west for several years, taking farm and ranch jobs. He then tried new pursuits, running a hotel in Yakima, Washington, and later working as a waiter, cook, and restaurant owner.

His first brush with the fledgling movie industry came as owner of a small theater in Sunnyside, Washington, about a hundred miles northwest of Pendleton. Business was good in the winter, and he employed a family vaudeville troupe, including Joy Davis, whom he would marry seven years later. But the theater was so hot in the summer that nobody came, and profit proved elusive.

Sill ended up in Portland during the winter of 1911. Three feet of snow blanketed the sidewalks. Broke and hungry, he had reached what he later called his life’s low point. Though jobs were scarce, Sill found work waiting tables at a downtown hotel for seventy-five cents and two meals a day.

Scraping together a $250 investment, he partnered with a man seeking to start a motion-picture venture. But the man had neither a plan nor desire to work. Sill seized the business’s only asset, a primitive handmade camera, and set out on his own, teaching himself how to film and develop his work. He shot his first newsreel in 1912. “Just a jumble of news stuff,” Sill told The Oregonian in a 1976 interview. “But I sure remember what I got for the reel—$84. . . Just nickels and dimes today, but then it was something.”

Sill had found his niche. A year later, he won the exclusive contract to photograph the Rose Festival, beating out American Lithograph, an established Portland film company. In 1914, he became the first person to film from the peak of a major North American mountain, Mt. Adams in Washington State.

The next year he again outmaneuvered American Lithograph, this time for exclusive rights to film the Round-Up. In 1914, the company had filmed a forty-nine-minute documentary, Where Cowboy Is King, at the event. It was the first Oregon film reviewed by publications in the East and received favorable comments.

Sill’s contracts with the Round-Up gave him exclusive rights to shoot and sell his footage but stipulated that it be distributed nationally. This no-cost approach reaped invaluable marketing exposure the Round-Up board never could have afforded otherwise. Sill created his own spectacular form of marketing by unintentionally making himself part of the story in 1915. That year, despite the popularity of movies and newsreels, cameras were rudimentary one-lens contraptions that required photographers to get close to their subjects. Too close in Sill’s case. The East Oregonian gave this account:

In the stage coach race, always fraught with danger, the lead team of the Jim Roach coach broke loose at the first turn and raced madly around the track. J. G. Sill of Portland . . . set up the machine in the middle of the track near the west turn and directly in front of the oncoming horses. He kept his position too long. The horses struck him and knocked man and camera to the ground with great violence. Sill suffered a fracture of the elbow and a fracture of the cheekbone.

He also had three broken ribs and was unconscious for twenty-four hours. The Portland News reported that Sill had been killed, a story he told interviewers many times over the years.

“I never go back to a Round-Up or to Eastern Oregon that I don’t run across a few people who tell me they saw a motion-picture man killed at the 1915 Round-Up,” Sill told the Oregon Journal in 1929. “I have quite a hard job convincing them that I am still alive.”

Sill was supposed to stay in the hospital for six weeks but left after three days. Another cameraman working for him photographed the rest of the Round-Up.

As camera technology improved, Sill applied it to the Round-Up. He filmed slow-motion shots of bulldogging steers in 1925 and filmed with sound for the first time in 1928. A silent version that year was so popular among South American audiences that Sill filmed narrations in English and Spanish in 1929.

A lover of the outdoors, Sill made documentaries and travelogues across the Northwest, including a harrowing raft trip down the Salmon River in Idaho. His news footage included events as diverse as presidential visits and Charles Lindbergh’s landing in 1927 on Portland’s grassy Swan Island, where construction of the city’s airport had begun a year earlier.

Interest in newsreels was so high in the early 1920s that the Oregon Journal hired Sill to produce “Webfoot Weekly,” a collection of news shown at theaters in Portland and around the state. The newspaper helped to make Sill a celebrity, writing often about his scoops in order to promote the newsreel. At one point Sill noted that he was better known than the Oregon governor. He wasn’t boasting.

The Oregonian, locked in a circulation battle with the Journal, started its own newsreel. But it lacked anyone who could match Sill’s hustle and enterprise.

Sill made headlines after another close call with death in 1927. He and three other cameramen planned to photograph a crew dynamiting a bluff near Longview, Washington, for construction of the Columbia River highway. They agreed the best angle was from a small island twenty-five feet offshore.

In a later interview, Sill said he had had “a feeling” that something wasn’t right. Sill’s son, David, recalled his father saying it was more than a feeling (2008 interview with the author). “He heard a voice in his head—‘don’t go’ ” to the island.

Sill packed up his camera and drove back to Portland. When the dynamited rock crashed into the river, it created a wave that swept the other three men to their deaths.

David Sill said that his mother, Joy, played a big role in his father’s film business, which for years included a film-processing lab in Northwest Portland that was the largest on the West Coast north of Hollywood.

Film strips from those early days were highly flammable, and David Sill remembered his father burning them in the backyard—history going up in huge flames. Some of his footage was eventually copied and given to the Oregon Historical Society.

Sill died in 1981. He was a month shy of one hundred years old.

His son, a retired wildlife biologist, reminisced about camping trips they took in the mountains and listening to his father’s stories about the Round-Up and other news events. “It was like living with a walking history book,” he said.  “He was a great dad, best as you can get, or close to it.”

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