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December 14, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Clay filmmaker Strosnider lived among the stars

TERRE HAUTE — An esteemed Hollywood filmmaker, Clay County native Lee Strosnider, died Nov. 29, 2013, in Los Angeles, following a disabling stroke. He was 82 years old.

The son of Oran and Lelia Strosnider, Lee was born and raised on a farm in Asherville, an unincorporated village in Jackson Township. Christened Parvin Lee Strosnider, he attended a “little red schoolhouse,” with all eight grades in the same room.

His father managed a small country store that failed in 1939, the same year Lee’s infant sister Ruth died. As a result of the twin setbacks, Oran suffered a nervous breakdown, and Lee’s mother resumed her premarital career as a high school teacher.

Upon regaining his health, Lee’s father worked the family farm and developed a reputation as a skilled painter. Lee frequently helped.

The family sometimes went to movie theaters in Brazil and Terre Haute, one of their few luxuries. Yet, it was enough to whet Lee’s appetite to learn the mysteries of cinema.

By the time Lee graduated from Staunton High School in 1949, the Strosniders were in a position to pay his tuition to Indiana State Teachers College, where he majored in theatre and radio.

Lee treasured memories of his youth and his years at Indiana State. Theater professor Gladys Rohrig exposed him to every aspect of the stage by assigning him to work on Community Theatre, Sycamore Players, Children’s Theatre and Municipal Musicals productions.

Lee later referred to Miss Rohrig as “my finest teacher.” She was crushed when her prize student told her in 1951 that he was transferring to UCLA to study film. Lee insists he told her of his plans many times, but she apparently thought he was kidding.

His parents paid for Lee’s trip to California and the $50 tuition for his first semester. Using a camera he had purchased in Indiana, Lee made money taking actor’s photos. Later, he became the official photographer for the UCLA theatre department.

With the training and experience he received in Terre Haute, Lee was far ahead of most of his peers in matters related to lighting, sound and stagecraft. Among his early California friends were classmates Carol Burnett and James Dean. Burnett, who lived a couple of blocks away, “was as poor as I was and Jimmy was little better,” he said.

Ruth Roberts, producer of the weekly Loretta Young Show, assigned Strosnider to polish up the television scripts, his first professional job.

While working on an educational film produced by the UCLA theatre department during the summer of 1952, Lee met skilled cinematographer Austin McKinney, who became a life-long friend.

 Lee’s impressive cinema photography landed him a job in 1954 with a promotional film company in Atlanta. He wrote, directed, photographed and organized several commercial films. He struggled upon returning to Hollywood in 1956 as a film editor.

His father died in September while Lee was traveling the country to eke out a living.

Lee’s first theatrical film was “The Beast of Yucca Flats” in 1958 for Coleman Francis. He was the only technical person associated with the production. Upon earning the distinction of being dubbed “the worst film of all-time,” it developed a cult following.

 “The Sky Divers,” another Coleman Francis film, was not much better.

Strosnider soon became a non-union technical expert in the burgeoning independent film industry. He worked on “Beach Ball,” the first movie featuring The Supremes, The Righteous Brothers and The Four Seasons, popular musical groups.

Lee also worked nature films for Walt Disney Studios, including “Charley the Lonesome Tiger,” filmed in Idaho on rugged terrain. Beginning in 1972, he plied the Mississippi River while making a film series for the Delta Queen steamboat company.

He also worked campaign films for Ronald Reagan, Edmund G. Brown, George McGovern and Alan Cranston and traveled with Robert Kennedy during his 1968 campaign. He was not working the night that Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1969, Strosnider produced the Hollywood film,”Pit Stop,” a romance centered on stock car racing starring Brian Donlevy and Ellen Burstyn. It was largely financed by Roger Corman, recipient of an Honorary Academy Award in 2009. Though it was a modest success, Lee rejected subsequent offers to produce but frequently worked with Corman.

By the 1970s, Strosnider was working steadily as a sound mixer and/or cinematographer for several large studios, including Disney, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia and Universal. “I found a home at the Burbank Studios,” he later wrote.

Sam Peckinpah, Andrew McLaglen, Don Siegel, Delbert Mann, Dick Compton, Tim Carey, Steven Spielberg and Josef Von Sternberg were among Lee’s favorite directors. He regaled friends with stories about working with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Jayne Mansfield, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, George Burns and Lucille Ball, among others.

Once he was supporting himself, Strosnider took photography seminars from Ansel Adams to improve his still photo technique. A Disney animator asked him to teach a production class at the Chouinard Art Institute, precursor to the California Institute of Art. Soon he was asked to teach film classes at UCLA, Southern California and Los Angeles City College.

Before he retired in 1989, Lee had worked in a technical capacity on more than 90 Hollywood productions, including television series.

In the late 1960s Strosnider established a motion picture equipment rental business named “Lee Motion,” which served independent producers and technicians. He also helped young filmmakers by loaning them cameras, recorders, mixers and other necessary paraphernalia at little or no charge. His generosity made him a Hollywood icon in the independent film industry.

Though he loved his California home and his friends there, a part of his heart remained in Indiana. In retirement, he tried to spend two months each year at his Clay County farm visiting with close friends Buddy and Ellen Knox and several former classmates. He also savored Clay and Vigo County history.

Clay County Historian Jeff Koehler was among his close associates.

Strosnider suffered his fatal stroke just one day after he returned from spending nearly five weeks in Indiana. While visiting here, he was saddened to learn that his long time friend Austin McKinney passed away in a Los Angeles nursing home.

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