Bret Wood's Efforts and Exploits

An updated guide to film and DVD work.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Earle J. Deems R.I.P.

Just found out from Skip Elsheimer (A.V. Geeks) that Earle J. Deems died last week.

Earle is one of the last instrumental members of the Highway Safety Foundation, and Highway Safety Films, which made the "Death on the Highway" classroom films which were the focus of my documentary Hell's Highway.

Here's a link to his obituary.

Earle's late wife Dottie was also one of the original members of the Highway Safety Foundation, and she was the sister of Phyllis Vaughn (one of its founders). After Highway Safety Foundation founder Richard Wayman left the organization, Earle took over control of the film library and continued making films, sometimes under the banner of Edcom Films. Earle complained that some people thought Edcom meant "Earle Deems Company," when it is actually an abbreviation for Educational and Commercial.

Earle (right) with HSF founder Richard Wayman.

When I approached him to discuss the highway safety films phenomenon, Earle was very cautious and a little skeptical, because the films were a source of some controversy, as was the foundation itself. But over time, I earned his trust and gained his support for the documentary project (he allowed me to use footage from the various films, and provided access to photos, documents, etc.).

Here's an interview I conducted with Earle very early in the project:

Interview with Earle Deems

Earle called me on the phone last summer to tell me that his health was declining... to basically say goodbye. But he hung in there. I occasionally sent him a small royalty check, and I was always a little relieved when the check would come back with his endorsement (in his characteristically shakey hand -- having developed essential tremens after his experiences fighting in the Pacific during WWII).

Earle Deems (sitting) with (l-r) Bret Wood, producer Tommy Gibbons, d.p. Steve Anderson.

When I met him, Earle drove a white Cadillac with the license number DEEMS. One of my fondest memories was having an evening out with him and HSF photographer John Domer, at the Skyway East in Mansfield, Oh (along with my collaborators Tommy Gibbons and Steve Anderson). The Skyway is Mansfield's most swank restaurant, and the maitre d' gave everyone a pack of matches embossed "Earle Deems" when we left the restaurant.

I still have the matches.

Earle Deems on the set of The Third Killer (1966).

Earle was always proud of his accomplishments with Highway Safety Films, but it seems like the organization never got the respect it deserved. Yes, there is some question as to whether it was the most effective and humane way of educating teenagers, but I'm also talking about the historical importance of the films they made. He donated most of the film elements to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and several years ago I tried to get access to the negatives in order to strike new 16mm prints. Much to my dismay, the people at the OHSP had very little knowledge of the location and format of the elements (even though Earle had a very detailed inventory).

The films have not been properly preserved and, as far as the history of the "death on the highway" movement, the book comes one step closer to being closed, now that its lone guardian has died.

Earle J. Deems
1919 - 2008


At 12:05 PM, Blogger Todd Boebel said...

Thanks for the news of Earle Deem's passing. I'm from Mansfield and have been living in New York the last 13 years. I enjoyed your documentary very much. In 1995 a good friend of mine from Mansfield visited me in NYC. He had just come into a collection of 16mm reels that the Mansfield Courthouse was disposing of. In exchange for travel expenses he donated them to Rick Prelinger who we met up with for the trade. In that collection of 16mm reels were several HSF films including Signal 30. I'm amazed at the indifference in which these films have been preserved and how quickly they might have been forgotten. Nice work, Bret.


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