Lawrence Public Library to host event at Liberty Hall honoring Centron Films, Lawrence history

Centron Corporation staff film on a set in this undated photo from KU's Kenneth Spencer Research Library archives. Crew members with the Lawrence-based film production company included, from left, Margaret Trudy Travis, Bob Rose and Herk Harvey, who directed the independent horror film, Carnival

In the 1970s most every child in Lawrence was likely pictured in a Centron film in one way or another and shown to people across the country, said Buck Newsom, the company’s former vice president of sales.

“I’m amazed a business like Centron started in Lawrence, Kansas, and was successful,” Newsom said. “In the ’70s and ’80s there were probably 75 to 80 top producers of nontheatrical films and we were in the top five. New York, Dallas, Hollywood, Los Angeles, and one was in Lawrence, Kansas.”

Between 1947 and 1981, Lawrence-based Centron produced more than 1,000 films, many of which were educational or promotional, said Kathleen Morgan, the Lawrence Public Library’s director of development and strategic partnerships.

The company’s list of customers includes General Motors, General Electric, Exxon, John Deere and Caterpillar Inc., Newsom said.

Thursday night at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St., from 7 to 9 p.m., the Lawrence Public Library will revisit many of Centron’s films and honor Newsom and Centron film curator George Gibbs, who has viewed and cataloged each of the company’s productions.

Many of the company’s productions feature bits and pieces of Lawrence, Morgan said, whether they were shot at a recognizable location or featured a familiar face.

Former Kansas University professor Charles Oldfather was one Lawrence resident prominently featured in many of Centron’s productions, Newsom said. Oldfather narrated a number of the company’s films.

“They have all these fun snippets and all these people. The history of Lawrence is in these films and they sold them nationwide,” she said. “It’s really wonderful when you see these films and can say ‘my gosh, the halls of Lawrence High School really have not changed.'”

“Leo Beuerman,” a short 1969 documentary from Centron, was nominated for an Academy Award, Morgan said. The picture will be shown in its entirety on Thursday.

“It’s a documentary of a man from Lawrence who sold pencils at the corner of Eighth and Massachusetts,” she said. “It was made over the course of a couple of years and ended up being really their pride and joy. It’s just such a great story.”

The notorious horror film “Carnival of Souls” was also a product of Centron, Newsom said. Although the company did not produce the work, it was created by several company employees who took a sabbatical to work on the project.

“About 10 or 15 years after it was produced it was introduced in video and shown all over the world, and it received a lot of notoriety,” he said.

A Hollywood-produced sequel to the film was considered but never produced, Newsom said.

Thursday’s event at Liberty Hall is one of the Library’s Everyday Heroes series, Morgan said, but it also serves as an “appetizer” for the upcoming Free State Festival, which begins June 22.

The event is free and open to the public, Morgan said. The evening event will be led by Newsom, Gibbs and Library Director Brad Allen.

A number of Centron film clips will be shown throughout the evening, starting with the company’s beginning and spanning over their decades of work, Morgan said.

“There are so many great stories that came out of that, so many histories and so many people in Lawrence that appeared in the movies,” Morgan said. “We thought it would be a really fun way to start the (Free State) film festival, with the history that is so much a part of Lawrence.”

That history is something many residents will likely recognize when they see it on the silver screen, Morgan added.

“You tell people about the company and you will inevitably hear ‘Oh, I was in a Centron film,'” she said with a laugh.