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‘To Fly!’ still soars: Air and Space Museum opened in 1976 with film’s first screening
Ezekiel, the top-hatted balloonist, has recited his “little poem” on the glories of flight and barely missed the white church steeple more than 20,000 times now.
He has called out his warning of white water ahead to the unsuspecting canoeist far below for 36 years.
Before giving way to hang gliders, barnstorming pilots and the Navy’s Blue Angels flight team, his silver balloon with the four American flags attached to the gondola has soared above the rolling green Vermont hills and churning, roaring Niagara Falls every single day the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum has been open.
Scheduled for a one-year limited run when it opened during the Ford administration, the modest 26-minute Imax film “To Fly!” has become an unlikely Washington institution, one that shows no signs of crashing back to earth anytime soon.
The longest-running documentary to play in one theater opened July 1, 1976 to mark the opening of the Air and Space Museum. For the first time, audiences were able to experience the thrill and terror of the barnstormers’ devilish swooping and the majesty of the Blue Angels flying in tight formation above the clouds on a giant six-story-high Imax screen. Ten languages, almost 150 theaters, and many generations of filmmaking technology later, the experience has not faded.
“It had a dreamlike quality,” said Richmond Holt, a tourist from London visiting the museum with friends at the beginning of July, just as “To Fly!” was marking its 36th anniversary at the museum’s theater with a daily 2:40 p.m. showing. “You were able to fly without being scared about it.”
When “To Fly!” debuted, “The Omen” and “All the President’s Men” were playing in local commercial theaters, although Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” raked in the most money that weekend. Like other documentaries created to celebrate the country’s bicentennial, “To Fly!” was originally scheduled to play only one year. However, when the museum tried to close the film, it was met with an outcry and the film has remained open ever since.
Producer Greg MacGillivray admits he never expected the film to run this long.
When he asked the director of the museum at the time, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, what the film should be about, Mr. Collins simply told him to make it fun. It should be a break from the learning going on in the rest of the museum, he said.
“It’s so innocent and optimistic,” Mr. MacGillivray said. “It kind of has an unpretentious, carefree vibe to it that people, when they’re on vacation in D.C. and are seeing grand buildings and the pride of a nation, this is sort of a little tweak of comedy and unpretentiousness and lightheartedness that works.”
Triumph and tragedy
The film’s opening came mixed with personal sadness for Mr. MacGillivray. Two days before the opening in 1976, Mr. MacGillivray’s film partner, Jim Freeman, was killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for a Kodak commercial. Mr. MacGillivray kept his best friend’s name in the title of his company, MacGillivray Freeman Films, as a tribute.
“[The film] holds a certain emotional context with me and my family and the crew members still working with me,” Mr. MacGillivray said. “The film itself is a tribute to his (Freeman’s)abilities to shoot from the air.”
Mr. Collins first approached Mr. MacGillivray and Freeman about producing an Imax film for the Smithsonian in 1975, when the two producers were beginning to get a reputation for their aerial filming techniques. The two began filming in the spring of that year, completing the final editing in time for the grand opening.
Traditional camera mounts were not good enough for the filmmakers, who wanted to give their audience the experience of “flying like a bird.” Instead of shooting from the side door of a plane or helicopter, they designed new mounts for the belly of the aircraft. They sought out the perfect locations and often waited days for the right lighting and subject for their shots.
“This, we felt, was our big opportunity,” Mr. MacGillivray said. “We just poured our heart and soul, seven days a week working 14-hour days.”
It paid off. Grossing more than $120 million to date, “To Fly!” is surpassed as a money-maker among documentaries only by another MacGillivray Freeman production, “Everest,” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Since 2000, almost 1.5 million people have seen the film.
All told, the works of MacGillivray Freeman Films have grossed more than $1 billion at the box office. A 2003 Los Angeles Times profile of the filmmaker dubbed Mr. MacGillivray “Nature’s movie mogul.”
A place in history
One of the first Imax films ever made, “To Fly!” quickly worked its way into the local culture. President Reagan took the film with him on a trip to Moscow to show Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and President George H.W. Bush brought Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the film on a visit to Washington. Heads of state from Spain, Great Britain, Indonesia and Greece are among those who have watched the tribute to American aviation.
“We’ve had people who said, ‘I saw this movie when the museum opened,’ and now they’re bringing their kids and grandkids,” said Holly Williamson, a communications officer at the Air and Space Museum. “It’s a tradition kind of thing.”
Already in the Imax Hall of Fame, “To Fly!” in 1995 became the first Imax film selected for the Library of Congress’
National Film Registry, joining films such as “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind.” It has been shown at film festivals in the United States and around the world. The Information Film Producers of America awarded it “Best Film of the Decade,” and Cine Golden Eagle awarded it a Golden Eagle Award.
Kim Hatten and her 9-year-old son, visitng with the boy’s grandmother from Lakeland, Fla., were taking a tour of the museums to escape the blistering heat outside. Despite knowing nothing about the film’s history, they enjoyed it, although they walked out of the film slightly disoriented from the swooping, banking aerial shots.
“It really shows how far we’ve come,” Ms. Hatten said.
In just 26 minutes, viewers are taken from a hot-air balloon launch in 1831 to the wonders of commercial and military flight and, finally, out to space. In the end, as the audience dips and swoops with a colorful hang-glider, they are left feeling lighthearted and satisfied, even though the film has not reached a conclusion the way traditional movies do.
“It’s a different kind of enjoyment,” Mr. MacGillivray said. “It’s almost more profound and, in a way, more lasting.”
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