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No. 2128:
Ken Richmond and the Gong

Today, the death of an icon. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

After Ken Richmond died on August 3rd, 2006, his obituaries appeared in all the big papers. For those of us of a certain age, he was famous. Well, not his name; he was famous for just a few seconds on movie screens. Richmond appeared in one of the most powerful of all the logos for yesterday's movies.

Deeply woven into the imagery of my childhood are the MGM lion, RKO radio tower, Paramount mountain, Columbia's lady with the torch, and 20th-Century Fox's monumental statue of the number 20th. All those remain in updated versions; but the British J. Arthur Rank Studio, which is no more, had the greatest logo of them all. 

Today's movies begin with far fancier graphics -- with stunning special effects. But there was an era when unreality was a lot rarer on the screen. When I was six, and the MGM lion turned to roar at me, it was all too real; it scared me out of my seat.

And then there was the J. Arthur Rank logo: A powerful and sinister man lifted his great mallet to strike a huge gong. He did so with slow inexorable deliberation. The dark and sinister scene had exotic oriental overtones. We felt the reverberations of that gong in the pit of our stomachs. We knew that the movie to follow was going to be a trip into Ali Baba's cave. 

The first gong was struck in 1932 by 6-foot-5 circus strongman Billy Dane. Richmond took over in the mid-50s -- last of the four gong-sounders to appear. Well, maybe I shouldn't say gong-sounder, since his mallet never actually hit the huge papier-mâché model of a gong.

You see, the actual sound was made by percussionist James Blades. As a boy, Blades had first played bass drum in a Salvation Army band. He became a pit percussionist for silent movies, and he was chosen to create the J. Arthur Rank gong sound. Four years later, he teamed up with a very young Benjamin Britten to do music for a Post Office promotional film. 

He and Britten would team up again later for Blades was a fine orchestra percussionist -- the first to receive the Order of the British Empire. He was a leading inventor of percussion techniques who worked with the great composers and conductors of his day. Yet that single shimmering splash of sound was his one greatest note. 

Ken Richmond had been an Olympic wrestling medalist before he stepped up to the gong. He was also a pacifist who'd done jail time for his beliefs during WW-II. Later in life he joined the Jehovah's Witnesses whose pacifist beliefs he greatly admired. In his sixties he took up windsurfing, and won medals in that sport. 

So an age passes: The Rank Organisation is diffused into the sea of movie-making companies. Blades died in 1999. Now the last gong-striker follows him. The gong that once heralded The Lavender Hill Mob and the original Gaslight also heralded my own awakening to a world larger and more mysterious than I'd ever suspected.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

See the Wikpedia article about Ken Richmond:

And this Wikipedia article about James Blades:

And finally, J. Arthur Rank:

And to see Ken Richmond hitting the gong, click here