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Cool Things - Centron Films Camera

Centron studio camera

Bullies, gossip queens, and venereal diseases: that is what many Americans think of when they hear the name Centron. Throughout the 1950s, the small studio based in Lawrence, Kansas, used this 16mm movie camera to produce some of the most recognizable educational films of the era.

"Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. . . . It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture."
--Thomas Edison, 1913

Russell Mosser and Arthur Wolf first conceived of the Centron Corporation while attending the University of Kansas in the 1940s. Childhood friends, Mosser and Wolf grew up in Topeka with ambitions of becoming great filmmakers. In 1947 they produced their first movie, a one-reel sewing lesson entitled "Sewing Simple Seams." Shot on a shoestring budget in a Lawrence home, the movie was purchased by Young America, an instructional film company. Soon other companies requested similar films and Centron found itself a national competitor in the field of educational and industrial film production.

Mental Hygiene

The studio was best known for making morality-based mental hygiene films. These short films depicted children or young adults displaying undesirable behavior. Funded by textbook publishers and state health boards, Centron films were shown in classrooms across the country with the intention of altering the behavior of young viewers. Titles like "The Bully," "Innocent Party," and "What About Prejudice" addressed issues like school violence, racial tolerance, and venereal disease transmission.

Mental hygiene films evolved from the training and propaganda films of World War II. Social changes following the war forced parents to re-evaluate their role and they increasingly turned to the social sciences to correct the perceived evils of American youth. New technologies, such as motion pictures and television, appeared to be the best tools for mass adolescent manipulation.

Centron staff filming with the camera include Bob Rose (center) and Herk Harvey (right), who directed the independent horror film, "Carnival of Souls." Photo courtesy of the Spencer Research Library, KU.

Based in Lawrence, Kansas

Centron's location in Lawrence proved advantageous for both the town and the company. Originally housed in an old theater, the firm moved in 1955 to a new facility containing more recording studios, shops for set construction, and animation equipment. Talented scriptwriters, technical crews, and actors were hired locally. Over 3,000 Lawrence residents performed in Centron films, including many children. Their flat Kansas accents often added to the realistic and conformist nature of the mental hygiene films. Local businesses and homes were used as sets and many Lawrence structures can be identified in the background.

While Centron won hundreds of awards for its educational films, the studio was also known for its industrial work. They produced films for corporate giants like General Electric, Caterpillar, and John Deere, and even constructed a secure room for handling military productions. In 1971, the studio reached a high-water mark with its production of Leo Beuerman. The documentary, which chronicled the life of a severely disabled Lawrence man, was nominated for an Academy Award.

This Mitchell 16mm camera served as one of Centron's primary studio cameras throughout the 1950s and 60s. Originally developed for the silent amateur films of the 1930s, companies like Centron increasingly used 16mm for government and industrial films due to the format's lower cost and portability. In 2007, this camera was donated to the Kansas Historical Society by the Oldfather Studio, where it was used by film students at the University of Kansas.

Watch the Centron film, The Bully (collection of the Prelinger Archives):

Listen to our podcast for the Centron Camera Play Audio Tour

Entry: Cool Things - Centron Films Camera

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2008

Date Modified: June 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.