Elmo turns 100
Written by Bill Schlichting, Pilot staff writer   
May 03, 2013 07:29 pm

Elmo Williams opens a birthday card signed by the staff and board of directors of the  Motion Picture Editors Guild. The Pilot/Bill Schlichting
Elmo Williams opens a birthday card signed by the staff and board of directors of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. The Pilot/Bill Schlichting
Guests filled the dining room of the Chetco Activity Center Tuesday to wish Hollywood filmmaker Elmo Williams a happy 100th birthday.

Most guests attending the invitation-only, costumed affair were from the Brookings area, but there were a few people from Washington state, the Portland area, Arizona and, of course, Hollywood.

People were dressed in Renaissance-era costumes. It was planned that Elmo would be dressed as a king but, according to Master of Ceremonies Ted Watkins, owner of Gold Beach Books, the centenarian preferred to come dressed as a jester. It was Elmo who requested organizers make the event a costume party.

During the first hour, guests visited with each other as well as with Elmo, took pictures and enjoyed hors d’oevres and wine.

Following the buffet dinner, mostly prepared by Anne Boulley, Elmo was roasted, followed by Elmo reciting limericks about the person who roasted him.

Incidentally, Elmo wrote more than 100 limericks for the event, many published in a special program that was placed at each table setting.

Speeches about Elmo were also shared with the crowd, including one presented by his daughter, Stacy Williams.

“In 1913, a kerosene lamp lit the room when a young boy screamed so loudly as he was born that his older sister said the neighbors came over to complain.” Stacy said. “During the Great Depression, struggling to raise his siblings after his parents had died, he kept the fire of hope alive by showing his love through humor and lots of practical jokes.

“As he began his movie career, he burned the light of his Moviola machine through many nights as he edited films into works of art, crafting them into finely tuned  pieces of storytelling. 

“With the help of his creative life partner, beloved wife and my mother (Lorraine), he shined a bright light on many friends from many countries and cultures through the making of two documentary films chronicling the stories of cowboys and Tyrolean Christmases.

“Fireplaces and candlelight have always been a staple in our homes in many countries, in many places.  But their warmth has been eclipsed by dad’s gentle presence and his expansive heart that everyone in this room has experienced,” Stacy said.

Also appearing to wish Elmo a happy birthday was Bill Elias of the Motion Picture Editors Guild in Hollywood. He presented Elmo with gifts and a giant card signed by the board of directors and office staff of the union.

Elias lauded Elmo for his contribution to the film industry and for receiving an Oscar during the first-ever televised Academy Award ceremony. At the event, Elmo received an award for best editing of the movie “High Noon.” Presenting the Award was Director Frank Capra.

He also mentioned Elmo receiving a Filmmaker of the Year award in 1971 and a lifetime career achievement award in 1990.

Film editors today, “people who are 25, know Elmo’s name,” Elias said. “For this reason, his name will be around a long, long time.”

Afterward, the roasting continued, as well as a few skits, bringing many laughs to the crowd.

Some of the roasting involved pigs, not just the roasted pig that was served during dinner, but a stuffed pig.

Perhaps this was because, when Elmo was a teenager in New Mexico, he fed the family’s herd of swine bad food and they all began to die within a half hour. His father gave him a spanking he will never forget.

Perhaps Elmo will never live that one down.

A summary of a century of living

James Elmo Williams’ century of life began April 30, 1913, in Lone Wolf, Okla, He is the son of Oscar and Audra Etters Williams. Since then, he has gone from eking out a living as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant to becoming an award-winning movie producer.

According to his book, “Elmo Williams: A Hollywood Memoir,” longevity is common in his family, especially on his mother’s side. Elmo has never been known for a healthy lifestyle. He is not big into exercise and he has been spotted many times enjoying a chicken lunch at KFC.

Rewind the movie back to Elmo’s teenage years.

Williams’ father died when he was still a teenager. By this time the family had moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico. However, his father’s death sent the family back to Oklahoma where his mother raised the children and ran a restaurant, which began to prosper when oil was discovered nearby and the town grew.

Then in 1929, when Elmo was 16, the economy collapsed and the Great Depression began. Hard times fell on the Williams family as the business faced hardship from the Depression and, in 1930, the death of his mother.

As an orphan, Elmo made his way west and landed a job as a carhop at a drive-in in Los Angeles. Many Hollywood celebrities would go there to eat, but Elmo, being the new kid on the block, would end up waiting on the grumpy customers who were bad tippers — including a man named Merrill White.

White was a director for Paramount Studios. It was only the third time that Elmo waited on White when the director told the carhop that he had just received his first overseas assignment. White dropped a surprise, asking if Elmo wanted to go with him.

“The man was essentially a stranger. I knew nothing about his work or his studio. Merrill, always in a hurry, forgot half his sandwich on the tray, paid his bill, and left a 50-cent tip!” Elmo wrote in his autobiography. “When I told him my shift was over at 10 that night, he raced off saying he’d be back to pick me up. He was.”

Elmo tried his best to convince White that he had his life planned out, including an education at University of California, Los Angeles. However, White was convinced that Elmo should travel with him. 

In 1932, Elmo boarded a ship in San Pedro, traveled through the Panama Canal bound for New York. From the Big Apple, White and Elmo were bound for London where the director would teach Elmo, who was hired as a gopher with no film experience, the art of editing movies.

Working with White took Elmo to several countries in Europe but, eventually, the job took Elmo back to the film capital, Hollywood.

It was in nearby Long Beach, Calif., in 1938 where Elmo met Lorraine Cunningham. In 1940, the couple married in Glendale, Calif., and they would remain together for the next 64 years, until her death.

Although Lorraine was not directly involved in the movie industry, she was credited by Elmo for her behind-the-scenes work and for her support of his career, which continued to grow after their marriage.

But, before Elmo’s career could flourish further, he was faced with a job diversion after the United States became involved in World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The military saw great potential to use the movie industry. Elmo was put to work for the U.S. Army and was sent to Ohio where he would edit training films. Eventually he would be assigned to work with Col. Frank Capra, which brought Elmo back to Los Angeles where he would be reunited with White. 

After the war, Elmo worked with RKO Pictures as a film editor and parted ways with White.

Elmo’s movie career, which took him into the new field of television, continued through the 1940s. In the 1950s, he went to work on the movie “High Noon.” As the production of the movie progressed, it turned out to be a mess. The executives behind the making of the movie felt they had nothing to lose by letting Elmo edit the film as he saw fit. This would become a big break for the movie editor.

When Elmo was finished cutting the film, it was dubbed an interesting film and well received in 1952.

In 1953, at the first-ever televised Academy Awards, “High Noon” received four Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role — Gary Cooper; Best Film Editing — Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad (although Elmo claims Gerstad’s editing was minimal); Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture — Dimitri Tiomkin; Best Music, Song — Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington for “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” sung by Tex Ritter.

Of note, an article in Wikipedia about the first televised Academy Awards mentions that, “A major upset occurred in the category of Best Picture. The heavily-favored ‘High Noon’ lost to Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ which is now considered among the worst films to have ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture.”

Following “High Noon,” Elmo continued to work in the movie industry, editing and producing more films and climbing the ladder to work for Walt Disney. There Elmo went to work on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which would be nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win. However, Elmo was presented a “Mousecar,” for his work on the giant squid scene that overtook the submarine Nautilus, piloted by Capt. Nemo.

According to Wikipedia, the Mousecar is an in-house award given by The Walt Disney Co. According to the article, there has only been 10 recipients of the award.

After the making of the box-office hit, Walt Disney asked Elmo to stay on and work in his new venture, Disneyland. However, Elmo declined. Despite that, he and Walt Disney had a friendship that  lasted until Disney’s death.

Elmo’s life and career quickly had ups and downs — the ups being the adoption of his three children, Stacy, Jody and Toby; the down being the production of “Blonde Bait,” which took 50 years to find its public in the “Trash” category, Williams wrote in his autobiography.

However, one bad film did not end Elmo’s career, which progressed to his working with Director Daryl Zanuk as assistant director of the epic film “The Longest Day,” a movie that tells the story of the Invasion of Normandy during World War II.

During the 1960s, Elmo continued to work with Zanuk at 20th Century Fox. After Zanuk reorganized the film company, Elmo was given an uncredited assignment of producing the opening scene from “The Sound of Music,” where Julie Andrews is singing in an open field. And later, because of Elmo’s involvement with “The Longest Day,” he was given charge of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” which told the story of the Japanese side of World War II.

Elmo’s career became a roller coast at 20th Century Fox, after he was appointed vice president in charge of worldwide production. During his tenure, he received the ACE (American Cinema Editors) Golden Eddie award. In 1972, “The French Connection” won an Academy Award for film editing, an award shared with other editors.

Elmo continued in the movie career after leaving 20th Century Fox in 1973 to go into independent production, which included work on the TV series “Hee Haw.”

In his final film in 1987, “Ernest Goes to Camp,” Elmo served as executive producer. There is no mention of the movie in his autobiography, and he doesn’t like to talk about it.

Elmo retired at the age of 74 and moved to Brookings. 

Since making his home in Brookings, Elmo received the ACE Career Achievement award in 1990. 

In 1998, Elmo and Lorraine were grand marshals of the Azalea Festival parade, which Elmo would once again do in 2011. After Lorraine died in 2004, Elmo built the Capella by the Sea in Azalea Park as a memorial to her. The Capella opened in 2008 and was donated to the city of Brookings.

Then in 2010, the Chetco Pelican Players presented Elmo’s original play about the humorous effects of aging called “The Corner Pocket.”

What’s next for Elmo? Friends say his 101st birthday will be celebrated at KFC. Stay tuned.