Special Effects (Old School) by, Arlie Pearce
Master of Shadow & Light / Smoke n’ Mirrors
May not look like much now, but this photo was cutting edge back in the day. The Photographer? Clarence Arlington Pearce. He was the sign painter that Tom Roberts Senior came to, when he wanted an artist to render his now famous, “DeKalb Ag, Winged Ear.” His initials, first CAP, then AP, appeared on the winged ears for many years. Arlie was not only a classically trained artist (Chicago Academy of Arts), but he was also a: commercial photographer; vice president of J.V. Patten Co., of Sycamore; a special effects genius; inventor; tinkerer; and classical guitarist (playing with a Big Band out of Joliet Illinois in the early 20th century); Civic leader, heading the Christmas program for the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce from the late 1930’s, up into the mid-1950’s; Interior designer (designed the wagon wheel interior for Kendall’s Ranch, in Richardson, now Sorrento’s); Corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWI, making training films and propaganda posters for the war effort.
What Arlie was best known for, was his Christmas murals at the Dekalb County Courthouse, in Sycamore, Illinois. In 1937, America was coming out of the, “Great Depression.” In that year Arlie erected his first Christmas mural at the courthouse. Now, Christmas murals have been around for a long while, but outdoor Christmas lighting didn’t take off until the 1950’s. In 1937 America was still coming out of the, “Great Depression.” What was so unique and special, was the use of industrial, Hollywood style lighting to illuminate his outdoor display. People flocked to Sycamore to view this spectacular art piece, and it was a boom to the downtown merchants, just coming out of the, “Great Depression.”
From the Sycamore “True Republican,” Dec. 22, 1937:
“Biblical Scene Leads
The decoration that is attracting the most widespread favorable comment is the three dimension painting that is placed over the front door of the courthouse. The work was done by Arlie Pearce and shows the three wise men, on camels, making their way to a spot pointed out by the Star of Bethlehem. Attention to this painting has been called to the northern Illinois region by WROK Broadcasting Station at Rockford . WROK is authority for the statement that this is the finest Christmas decorations in Northern Illinois. Passersby on bus and in auto have been struck by the beauty of the scene depicted, especially when it is illuminated by the inverted lighting. The colors of the picture are softened by the lights, which blend advantageously with the lights and shadows.”
This “lights and shadows,” didn’t happen by accident. They were the work of an artistic genius. No one had seen such a thing. In 1938, none other than, General Electric, took note of this young genius, writing about his mural in their magazine, “Magazine of Light.”
Arlie told me of this photo for Bob-Jo Speedway, of Richardson (4 miles east of Sycamore). I don’t remember now if he had the camera on a track, or the cars on a track to pan them. We take these special effects for granted now days, and can perform them with a few key strokes of the Mac. Back then it took hours of hands-on work at the camera, and in the dark room, swishing the film around in big trays, taking them out at just the right moment, and slipping them into a stop bath. Not only that, but the images also had to be color separated for the 4 color, lithography process (yellow, magenta, cyan, and black). All this using up mountains of silver gelatin film, and many man hours; and we do it in minutes now , with a touch of our finger to the key pad, and think nothing of it.
Arlie designed and built his own production camera from WWII surplus scrap that he purchased at Mabel’s junkyard in Sycamore. He designed a filter carousel, to switch the colored lens filters out, for his color separation work, from the guts of a candy machine from the junkyard. Show me a Chicago Academy of Arts graduate that can design and build his own camera, today.
When we say, “The Greatest Generation,” this is what we are talking about. Renaissance men, forged in the “Great Depression,” able to take on any task at hand. They were “free thinkers.” They thought outside the box, because the “Great Depression” had taught them they had to make their own boxes.
Arlie asked me once, “Sam, do you know what an expert is?” Of course I knew what an expert is, “A person who has great knowledge of a subject,” I said. “No, Sam, he said, “An expert is a person that has done everything the wrong way, at one time , or the other, and can recognize what’s wrong when he sees it.” Arlie brought this pragmatic, practical “failure is a learning experience,” to everything he did.
Arlie was a genius, and a prince among men. Arlie & Leona Pearce, you are loved, and deeply missed.
Samuel L. Sells
See Arlie's Christmas Mural here:
See Arlie's Pics & Pre-WWII Roliflex here:
Look-up more about Arlie at the Joiner History Room:
The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection:
Sorrento's in Richardson, for the best prime rib, 3" high Lasagna to die for, drinks stiff enough to make your Sunday-go-to-meeting collar stand up straight:
Bob-Jo's Speedway, whether you like great stock car racing, or just prime people watching, there has to be a great photo opportunity here: