Lowell Thomas Exhibit Explores The World of Lawrence of Arabia and Beyond

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TE Lawrence and Lowell Thomas in 1918 photo in front of their tent. From Marist College Exhibit reenacting Lowell Thomas' performance, "With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence of Arabia"

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Palestine with Lowell Thomas – From “Journey to the Land of Our Past with the Lowell Thomas Travelogues”

As a war correspondent, Lowell Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase met and traveled with archaeologist, poet and British Army officer T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, in Palestine. Returning home in 1919, Thomas put together a legendary travelogue that he took around the world and captured the imaginations of millions. Imagine, if you were living then, flying over the Pyramids of Egypt. New York’s Marist College has paired documents, film, photos and audio from its vast collection with the original script in its online exhibit  “Journey to the Land of Our Past with the Lowell Thomas Travelogues.”

In 1980 I escorted the great writer,  broadcaster,  traveler and some would say, self promoter, on a media tour.  By the time I met Thomas, he had retired from his famous “Lowell Thomas and the News” radio program that ran almost five decades.  I remember his sparkle and how easily he laughed. Perhaps too easily as his on air  bloopers were legendary. After he commited one, he usually couldn’t control himself until the broadcast ended.  Thomas had a tale at the ready for every person we met, including me. As we stepped into a limo on Townsend Street in San Francisco, he said he remembered when the Bay came up to that very street before a whole new neighborhood, which now includes AT&T Park, was created on land fill.  (It really was town’s end even though it was named for a Dr. John Townsend in 1848).

Lowell Thomas

Thomas and Chase met and traveled with Lawrence in Palestine while he supported General Allenby’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire to help the Arabs gain liberation from the Turks.

They returned with nearly a thousand photos and footage of life in Palestine including the locals, soldiers, and of course Lawrence  himself, who dressed in the flowing robes of the Arab uniform. By 1919 Thomas turned it into a road show with a splashy promotional campaign and toured the world with it, eventually to the dismay of the admittedly shy Lawrence. Lowell and Chase introduced many breakthroughs in travelogue production including hand-colored slides, dissolves between images and music scored to support the specific images. The show captured the imagination of naive audiences who themselves would never get to fly over the pyramids or see camels feeding in a trough. It is estimated that four million people saw the film and Thomas pocketed $1.5 million, quite a sum in 1919 dollars.

In 2011, New York’s Marist College digitized 36,000 rare documents, photos, film and audio from the Lowell Thomas Papers and paired many of them with the original script in their new multimedia online exhibit: “Journey to the Land of Our Past with the Lowell Thomas Travelogues”.

The exhibit also documents his travels to Alaska, India and Tibet and tells about Thomas plucky wife, Frances Ryan Thomas, the only woman to visit the Italian Front during the war.  She was responsible for archiving much of the content of her husband’s life.

For a sense of the Thomas character, check out his letter to cameraman Harry Chase where he advises him on everything from desired table manners to manly criticism of Chase’s characteristic pessimism,  which no doubt got under Lowell’s skin. 

You can see it all here: The Lowell Thomas Travelogues

As Lowell Thomas would say “And so long until tomorrow.”

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