|Editor's Note: Upon retiring from the Moviola Company in 1966, Mark Serrurier worked part-time with his son Steve, then a professional float designer. Their collaboration resulted in the creation of award-winning floats for the famed Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. Steve went on to become a successful designer custom props, as well as the unofficial collector of Moviola memorabilia for the Serrurier family. He graciously provided most of the information for this article.|
Iwan, who created the Moviola in 1924, and Mark, who took over in 1946, were humble men who derived satisfaction from work itself, not from public acclaim. They shared a deep sense of obligation toward their product and customers--an attitude that never brought fame or fortune during their lifetimes, but won them the respect of the film industry worldwide.
In 1979, Mark agreed to accept a special Academy Award for Technical Achievement only after it was assured that his late father's name would also appear on the statue. The Oscar sat unceremoniously on Mark's kitchen table until his death from Alzheimer's disease on Valentine's Day 1988.
"It's interesting that my grandfather invented the Moviola because he wasn't a moviegoer or an editor," says Steve Serrurier, the son of Mark and a successful set designer in his own right. "He and my father were structural engineers at the cutting edge of high tech. It's ironic that they realized such success due to the sheer simplicity of the Moviola. I guess that's the trick. It's easy to make something complicated, but it takes genius to create something so simple."
Like a classic Horatio Alger story, the Serrurier saga is defined by ingenuity, hard work and persistence in the face of failure. A Dutch-born electrical engineer, Iwan Serrurier came to the U.S. at the turn of the century, intrigued by the technical advances taking place here. He settled with his wife in Pasadena where he made a hefty profit in the real estate boom, and later went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a draftsman. "He was bored and wanted to do something more creative with his engineering background," says Steve, who spent summers as a young boy working at Moviola Co. "Iwan got bit by the film bug. He took pictures like crazy. Look at all these..." he urges, opening his grandfather's bulging family album.
Around 1917, Iwan got the idea that a home movie projector enclosed in a beautiful wooden cabinet, like a Victrola, would be welcomed by the public. He thought studio executives, in particular, would find it useful for viewing dailies in the comfort of their own offices. He built a rough model, recieved a patent and asked his five children to submit names for the new machine. Of the twenty or more names suggested over dinner one night, "Moviola" seemed the best. "It's a take off on Victrola," says Steve. "Remember, the name initially referred to the projector for the home, and had nothing to do with editing." In 1923, Iwan manufactured about 15 of these machines.
The idea was good, but a tough sell. It's main flaw was the exhorbitant price tag. Costing $600 in 1920 (roughly the equivalent of $20,000 today), who could afford it? Iwan made the rounds of the movie studios, but had little success generating enthusiasm. During 1923 and 1924, he sold only three machines.
Finally, he met an editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios who showed him how movies were being edited at the time. The pieces of film were studied over a light well, spliced and then run in the projection room, this process being repeated several times until the cut was acceptable. It was said that some cutters could move the film intermittantly by hand and see a moving picture. The editor at Fairbanks thought the Moviola might be useful for editing if it could be modified for use on the editing table. No problem. Over the weekend, Iwan"roughed together" an editing machine. He removed the projection lens and lamp house, turned the machine upside down and attached a viewing lens. He didn't bother to adapt a motor, but simply hooked a hand crank to the intermittant movement, which he had brilliantly adapted from a clock. It was a crude mechanism designed purely to determine whether it was something editors could use. The editors at Fairbanks loved it!
In 1924, Iwan sold his first editing machine to Douglas Fairbanks Studios for $125 (approximately $4,500 today). "when you stripped the machine of its gorgeous would cabinetry, the cost came down quite a bit," explains Steve.
Overnight, the editing community embraced the Moviola. Early customers included Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, Charles Chaplin Studios, Buster Keaton Productions, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, and MGM. The first dozen machines were made from mechanisms on hand. When demand continued, Iwan designed the Moviola Midget, powered by a sewing machine motor.
By 1928, the market for editing machines was pretty well saturated, but the advent of sound changed that quickly. In July, Moviola Co. located in the rear of an apartment on Gordon Street in Hollywood, on block from Columbia Pictures. Business grew steadily, and many machines were sold to firms in foreign countries. Iwan ran the entire operation with meager office staff of three. Sales, correspondence, purchasing and production occupied his daytime hours/ In the evenings, he designed new products and improved the earlier ones. He built sound heads for optical sound (Movietone); turntables for disc recordings (Vitaphone); viewers for 16mm, 35mm, and the early 65m and 70mm films; a projector; synchronizers; rewinders; sound readers; and, in 1938, preview machines.
World War II brought a sharp increase in demand for Moviola machines to fill military and propaganda needs. Thanks to the Moviola, Americans were kept abreast of the latest war developments. Boxes containing a tiny editing device and splicing machine were sent overseas in droves. Journalists shot, processed and edited their films on location, sending the finished result backto the United States--newsreels.
Yound Mark Serrurier, meanwhile, had inherited his father's passion for engineering and was busy garnering his own accomplishments. After graduating from Caltech, he directed the design of the dome and structural parts of the 200 inch Palomar Telescope. This was a major coup and his "Serrurier truss" has been used on every reflector telescope built since. During World War II, he worked on the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Van Karmen wind tunnel for testing jet aircraft engines. When the war ended in 1945, Mark reported to duty of another sort. "as the oldest son in a European family, he inherited Moviola," offers Steve, who has spent the past several months going through his father's papers.
As newly appointed president of the company, Mark set out to upgrade the Moviola. He redesigned it with new castings and patterns, and developed a more effective manufacturing process. It was essentially the same machine, only better. The most visible change: Moviola was now painted green instead of black.
Competitors began springing up in Hollywood, New York, and England, but none could touch the Moviola. The newer mechanisms were complicated to operate and difficult to maintain. "The business took off so quickly that nobody could ever catch up. Besides," adds Steve, "the name--Moviola--was so right. Owning a Westrex or Acmeola simply wasn't the same."
By 1949, Moviola had become a household word. The machine so dominated the market that Moviola was now a generic label, the way Xerox has become for copy machines. Iwan, who had retired and was suffering from diabetes, was delighted when Webster's called to request the correct definition of Moviola for its dictionary. Moviola also played a key role in the murder mystery film Turmoil starring Hugo Haas, and was mentioned regularly in comic strips from coast to coast.
Despite a burgeoning business, Mark maintained a hands-on, personalized approach. He devoted as much time and energy to Moviola Co. as had his father. "He and my grandfather really enjoyed the business," observes Steve. "They stayed in it for years. Most people start a company, pump it up to its maximum and sell it--not them."
A two-year back order not withstanding, Mark and his crew of 75 continued to build the machines by hand--one a day, 30 a month. After several years, he learned to increase his output to 50 a month, but that was the most he could produce without sacrificing quality. "If someone wanted a moviola, he'd say, 'Sign here. It will be delivered in the year 1950' or whenever. Sales were $2 million a year, but he had $4 million in orders on the books."
Moviolas were in short supply, but Mark went out of his way to make them available. He never refused a customer for lack of money. He told young editors who were ambitious but poor, "Pay me when you can." If a machine was on back order--as it inevitably was--he would rent one to a customers at a favorable price until theirs was ready. "My father knew he was the only game in town," recalls Steve, "but he never took advantage or used it over people."
All the while, Mark continued to work on new developments. He designed a preview machine for Walt Disney that was specifically suited for the unique demands of animation. He developed a three-headed machine for Desi Arnaz that sped up the editing process on television shows like I Love Lucy and Our Miss Brooks.
Although Moviola Co. appeared indomitable, it was not immune to the unrest that swept the nation during the Sixties. To Mark's deep disappointment, the men in his shop, whom he had supported and worked beside for years, voted to bring in a union in 1965. "My father took it as a very personal loss because his men had voted him down," recalls Steve. "He had a heart attack shortly after."
Weakened by his heart condition, Mark no longer had the strength to supervise the day-to-day details of running the company. In 1966, he sold it to Magnasync for $3 million. The new owners promptly doubled production, and realized their investment within a year.
Despite retirement, Mark's ingenuity knew no bounds. He made use of his engineering background when helping son Steve design award-winning floats for the famed Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. Together, they created some of the most structurally advanced floats ever seen, equipped with working roller coasters and other elaborate mechanisms.
Toward the end, Mark's life came full circle. He returned to engineering--always his first love, and he developed a close working relationship with his son, similar to the one he had shared with his own father. He recieved acknowledgement from his peers--an Academy Award and a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Today, Moviola is owned by J & R Film Company, but the Serrurier legacy thrives. The fact that Moviola
remains the worldwide film editing standard, 63 years after its introduction, will forever attest to the
by Denise Abbott