The Historic Film Company produced by a Love Story
When, as Americans, we look back at the decade of the 1930s, we often see only the Great Depression. It was a calamitous time for the country and it may be difficult for us to imagine that anything good actually occurred during it. People, we may think, didn't thrive during this decade. At best, they just survived. But for the two people who are at the center of this story, the decade of the 1930s was the one in which events conspired to bring them together in Cleveland; to allow them to fall in love; and to finally inspire them, just as they started their life together, to take a huge risk and start their own industrial motion picture company. Today, more than 80 years later, that company—Cinecraft Productions, Inc.—is still in business and, according to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, is now the oldest surviving industrial film company in the United States.
First, a few words about industrial films, otherwise known as sponsored or non-theatrical films. These were films produced for the benefit of, and paid for by, private sector companies, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, the federal government, or state or local governments. In the first half of the twentieth century, the making of such films by motion picture companies developed into a large industry in the United States. Thousands of such films were produced in this period, many more than the number of entertainment films produced in Hollywood during the same period.
Some industrial films were produced to promote the products of large industrial and utility companies like General Electric, Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio), Ohio Bell and Westinghouse; others to train industrial workers at steel mills, auto factories and other production sites; others to train members of the United States military on how to perform their duties; and still others to alert the public to a health risk or other public emergency. In the years before televisions became available in the United States to the general public, many of these films were shown in movie theaters as a prelude to the main attraction.
The story of the two people who founded Cinecraft Productions is itself worthy of a film. One of the two was Elizabeth "Betty" Buehner. She was born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1914. Her father Albin was a soldier who fought in the Great War, as World War I was called at that time. After the war ended, he came home to his wife Franziska and five-year old daughter, and together they experienced the financial and psychological trauma that many German families experienced in the aftermath of that war. Hoping for a better life, Betty's parents decided to immigrate to the United States. Her father traveled first, arriving in Cleveland in 1922, where, according to family lore, his brother found him work as a laborer on theTerminal Tower project. In 1923, the now nine-year old Betty and her mother joined him here. While the Buehner family may have been very optimistic in the first years after their arrival, things didn't turn out for them the way they hoped.
The family struggled to make ends meet and then, in 1928, Betty's mother died suddenly. Her father found himself unable to care for a teenage daughter and sent her off to live with and work as a nanny, first for a family in Shaker Heights and then later for one in Lakewood. Betty survived it all and, in the process, learned to speak English so well that, according to her son, years later no one could detect even a hint of a German accent when she spoke. She attended Lakewood High where she was active in a number of school organizations, graduating in 1934. Before long, the resourceful and hard-working young woman found employment and was living on her own. And then, just a few years out of high school, she landed the job which would change her life. Through a connection she had made as a nanny in Shaker Heights, she was hired to work as a film editor (then called a "cutter") for Tri-State Motion Picture Company, a pioneer industrial film production company whose offices were then located in the Rockefeller Building in downtown Cleveland. Betty Buehner was working there in 1938 when she met Ray Culley.
Raymond "Ray" Culley came from a very different world. He was born in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1904, the oldest son of working-class parents whose families had lived in Norwalk for several generations. Ray dropped out of school in his teens and went to work as a watchmaker's apprentice. In the 1920s, he worked in jewelry stores in Norwalk, Columbus, and West Virginia. In this early work, he demonstrated creativity and a willingness to take risks to succeed. While working in West Virginia, he taught himself how to fly a plane so that he could perform aerial stunts that would not only impress potential customers but also demonstrate the durability of his product.
In 1930, after the economy collapsed and the country lurched into the Great Depression, Ray found himself thinking that perhaps the only people who could now afford to buy his jewelry were Hollywood actors. So, the 26-year-old bought a car and drove across the country to southern California. Once there, he didn't sell jewelry for very long, as he soon found more profitable work at some of Hollywood's early motion picture studios. He first worked as an actor, landing bit roles in Westerns which featured big-name actors like Gene Autry, Hoot Gibson and Hopalong Cassidy. But later, in the way that things sometimes go in Hollywood, he found himself on the other end of the camera, first as a production assistant and then an assistant director. He was working in that latter capacity in 1937 when Tri-State contacted Republic Pictures, where Ray was then working, looking for a director. Tri-State's director, Jack T. Flanagan, had died in October 1936 following a film-shooting accident and the company needed someone to direct an industrial film that the company had contracted to produce for General Electric. Republic dispatched Ray to Cleveland where he directed that film, titled "From Now On." Tri-State must have been impressed by the young director, because, before Ray could return to Hollywood, he was hired as Tri-State's new director. And it was there that Ray Culley met Betty Buehner.
Their sons don't know—and it's unlikely that anyone now still living knows—the complete story of how, when and why the two Tri-State employees fell in love. What we do know is this. Shortly after Ray's arrival at Tri-State, Betty left the company and moved to New York where she hoped to learn more about the film editing business. As part of his duties with Tri-State, Ray was required to make regular trips to New York to have new industrial films edited. Ray and Betty likely met in New York during these trips, because, in the spring of 1939, Ray made a special trip to New York and, on that trip, the two married. They then returned to Cleveland where, after a very short period, they founded the company they called Cinecraft Productions.
In 1999, some sixty years later, Ray's younger brother Paul stated in an interview that Ray and Betty started Cinecraft Productions because Ray had had a "falling out" with Tri-State. It is not known whether this "falling out" preceded his marriage to Betty, but the two certainly were ready with a plan when they returned to Cleveland. Ray's father lent the newlyweds $1500—the equivalent of approximately $30,000 today—to purchase a camera and tripod. Betty persuaded Ray that he should shoot movies with 16mm film, instead of the traditional 35mm, as she believed it was the future for industrial films. And the two quickly went into business together, at first operating Cinecraft Productions out of their west side apartment, but later out of an office and studio in the Card Building, which then stood on St. Clair Avenue East, near Ontario Street, where the Cleveland Marriott Hotel at Key Tower stands today.
In the same year that Ray and Betty Culley started their business, they successfully produced their first film. Titled "You Bet Your Life," it was made for the Cleveland Railway Company and designed to alert riders about the rules of safety while traveling on the company's streetcars. In time, other businesses came their way, some via advertising companies impressed with the couple. Ray's artful script work, skillful directing and affable personality, coupled with Betty's knowledge of film editing, frugality and business management skills, made the two an early era power couple in Cleveland industrial filmmaking. It enabled them to survive the early years, as difficult as they may have been, and to then begin growing their business from the ground up.
In the 1940s, Betty Culley was presented with a new challenge as she gave birth to the couple's twin boys in 1944 and then to a third son several years later. She continued to work for Cinecraft Productions, the 1950 federal census listing her as an "executive" with the company. Her sons, looking back to when they were children, remember the nanny who came to their house in Rocky River to watch them, allowing their mom to jump into her car to drive to the company's offices and attend to . . . well, to whatever needed her attention. In 1947 that drive became a little shorter after the company purchased the historic building at 2515 Franklin Boulevard on the west side of Cleveland and moved all of its operations there. The Culleys remodeled the building—which was designed and built to house Cleveland Public Library's first branch library—creating a large studio and offices for the company's art work, film editing, and other departments.
The Culleys operated Cinecraft Productions from this west side location for decades, creating hundreds of quality industrial films for entities like the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Transit System, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, Republic Steel, Westinghouse, Sohio, General Electric, and many other business and government organizations. Along the way, the company became one of the early pioneers in the film industry to use three cameras with teleprompters operating in synch with each other to shoot the same movie scene from three different angles. The industrial films that Cinecraft Productions produced often featured local talent from the Cleveland Play House, but the company was also able to land some big names from Hollywood and other parts of the country. The list of actors and other notables who traveled to Cleveland to be in industrial films directed by Ray Culley included Basil Rathbone, Merv Griffin, Joe E. Brown, Don Ameche, Danny Kaye, Joel Grey, Tim Conway, Ernie Anderson (Ghoulardi), and future United States presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
In 1970, Ray and Betty Culley retired, selling Cinecraft Productions to Ray's younger brother Paul. In 1986, Paul, after 16 years of ownership in which he guided the company in its transition from 16mm films to video films, retired too. Cinecraft Productions was then purchased by a company employee, Neil McCormick, and his wife Maria Keckan. McCormick and Keckan shepherded in another major change in the company's history by transitioning it from video to digital media production, and positioning the company to become a local leader in the production of e-learning courses.
The love story of Ray and Betty Culley, which produced Cinecraft Productions, Inc., came to an end in 1983 when Ray died. Betty went on to live for almost three more decades before dying at the age of 102 in 2016. Today, as noted earlier, Cinecraft Productions is believed to be the longest surviving industrial film company in the United States. This suggests that not only does love conquer all, but sometimes it also survives all too.