The turning of the leaves atop the Palisades here in Fort Lee connote many things to many people. Most people think of Halloween and tricks or treats as the calendar creeps closer to Oct. 31.
But since 2003 this time of the year in Fort Lee brings back memories of Alois Dettlaff. Al was an aged film collector from cosmopolitan Cudahy, Wisconsin, who visited us not so many years ago. Like the meeting of Abbott & Costello with Frankenstein, this meeting of Al Dettlaff and the Fort Lee Film Commission is legendary and worth unearthing during this ghostly season of Halloween.
Jim Beckerman, noted entertainment reporter for The Record, spoke to me after a film screening back in 2002. Jim had covered the Fort Lee Film Commission for many of our events.
“Why don’t you do something that no other organization has been successful at doing up to this point?" he asked. "Did you ever hear of Al Dettlaff?”
Of course my answer was “Al who?”
Jim went on to detail the life story of this gent, doing a piece on Al for Film Comment magazine.
Apparently, Al had become a film collector from the 1940s on via the purchase of film, not by titles, but by quantities. He would then screen these films for his friends at his workplace at lunch.
The fun didn’t end there as he would take these films home to teach his kids to read via the intertitle cards from the silent films. Kids from other families played baseball and made go carts for fun but not Al’s kids for they were learning the ins and outs of silent films while using Vitafilm, a chemical solution used to preserve film.
Among the films Al had purchased in the 1950s was the first film version of Frankenstein produced by Thomas Edison in his Bronx Studio in 1910. Al screened this film as early as the 1950s for his co-workers all along not knowing how rare this film actually was as unbeknownst to him, it was the only remaining print.
Al edited this film and removed portions that were damaged all the while using Vitafilm on the 35 MM film every six months. By the 1970s, Al became aware of the special film he had acquired and he started to see the financial value in Edison’s Frankenstein. Al developed a character he played, Father Time, and he would assume this role in a long white robe, tri-corn hat, a scythe and a large hourglass as well as his own long white beard, as he introduced this film in and around Cuddahy, Wisconsin.
In 1980 the American Film Institute had declared Edison’s Frankenstein to be one of the top ten most “culturally and historically significant lost films.” That would be music to Al’s ears, for by 1986, Al was contacted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and traveled out to California to meet with officials from the Academy including its then President and famed director Robert Wise.
I have a copy of this meeting that Al’s son videotaped; it was given to me by Al. This is one of the most hilarious clips I have ever seen in my life. Here we have this professional board and one of the deans of American film, Robert Wise trying to speak sense to Al. They encourage him to allow them to preserve this rarest of films in return for a print of the film and certain rights Al would retain via marketing the film.
Al spoke about everything under the sun, and at one point, Robert Wise just shouted “let’s see the film!” Al then started to unspool the film on the conference table like so many yards of ribbon.
The panicked look on the face of Robert Wise is an image I will take to my grave – here is the man who was Orson Welles’ editor on what many consider the greatest American film of all time Citizen Kane.
This is a man whose whole life has been devoted to film and film preservation. You can understand the shock he had in the person of Al Detlaff. The bottom line is there was no deal struck as Al wanted cash up front and he wanted to be presented with an Academy Award for his film preservation efforts.
Robert Wise did let Al hold his Academy Award he won as Best Director for The Sound of Music. Al’s son took a photo of Al holding the Oscar and that photo would become one that Al would make thousands of copies of as he would bring them to personal appearances and sign them as an Academy Award winner Al Dettlaff.
This brings us back to our conversation with Jim Beckerman – as a result of this conversation, Lou Azzollni, former Cchair of the Fort Lee Film Commission, was elected our outreach coordinator to Al. Lou called Al’s home in Wisconsin and he heard an elderly man’s voice shout, “I’m not answering the phone right now. If you are a telephone solicitor, please leave your name and phone number so I can report you! If not, leave a message and I will get back to you.”
Lou left a message and unexpectedly received a return call from Al. Lou developed a friendship with Al over the next few months via these phone conversations and understood that what Al wanted was a chance to market his film, recently placed on DVDs and also to see New York City as he hadn’t been back since he came back from the World War II as a sailor.
Thus the bargain was struck – Al and his family would come to Fort Lee in April 2003 and would spend two weeks with the Fort Lee Film Commission. The first week would involve various public screenings of Edison’s Frankenstein including the largest screening of the film since 1910 and that would take place at the wonderful classic Loews Theatre in Jersey City.
The Fort Lee Film Commission would also, that same weekend, take Al to the Chiller Theater convention / nostalgia show at a large hotel in the Meadowlands not far from Jersey City. The deal was sealed and Al and his daughter, her husband, their son and Al’s son left Wisconsin via van with the film and rolled into the Holiday Inn on Route 4 in Fort Lee a few days later. We were greeted with Al dressed as Father Time as he held a megaphone that played the University of Wisconsin football fight song “On Wisconsin.”
The rest as they say is history. Two whirlwind weeks took several years off all our lives at the Film Commission. At one point we lost Al at the massive Chiller convention as he wandered off – we found him an hour later in the celebrity tent sitting next to Soupy Sales signing his autograph to his Academy Award photo! Later while relaxing at our table where he sold his Frankenstein DVDs, Al removed his long Father Time robe and sat in a t-shirt with his tri-corn hat. When one of the scream queens at the adjacent table asked us who he was we said he was the last living veteran of the American Revolution – and her retort was “Really?”
The screening of Edison’s Frankenstein at the Loews in Jersey City drew a full house and the massive lobby was the scene where Al met all of these film fans and actually displayed on a split reel the original film to these fans. This screening was a major success. Here I have to give a tip of the hat to author Fred C, Wiebel Jr who attended this event to assist us as he had worked on getting Al to do this for years. Fred also is the author of Edison’s Frankenstein that I highly recommend.
The following week had us give Al and his family a tour of New York City and a memorable visit to Liberty Island during a storm where the wind caused the rain to fall horizontally! Al and his family departed Fort Lee to return to the wilds of Wisconsin with Edison’s Frankenstein in hand. Though Al died a few years later in his house surrounded by films, I can’t but think of him as we prepare for a hurricane that the media has dubbed Frankenstorm for I keep hearing the tune On Wisconsin as I recall our meeting with our own master of horror, Al Dettlaff!