Centron Corporation
Film Studio

Centron Corporation was a Lawrence, Kansas-based educational and industrial film production company that accomplished a number of unique achievements given the business they were in and the small-town location they chose for their business.


Centron, whose name was coined from the fact that it was located in the central part of the country during the electronic age, was founded in Lawrence in 1947 by Russell A. Mosser and Arthur H. Wolf, two friends since childhood from Topeka who had received degrees from the University of Kansas and set their sights on a career in filmmaking. Mosser had been working in the university educational film library, and Wolf had been working as a film director at the Calvin Company in Kansas City. Although it may have seemed to be a foolhardy decision to locate in Lawrence, Mosser and Wolf were soon able to interest Young America Films, one of the top three educational film distributors in the country, in their first film, a one-reel sewing lesson titled "Sewing Simple Seams," and soon Young America ordered a complete series of five or six films on sewing from Centron. Mosser and Wolf obliged, and soon Young America ordered series on basic cooking and public speaking as well.

However, to assure a steady income, Mosser and Wolf partitioned off the front corner of their Lawrence studios in the back of an old vaudeville theater building in downtown Lawrence, and opened their own camera retail store, Mosser-Wolf Cameras. Sometimes the storefront got in the way of the movie business, and so Mosser and Wolf soon hired a cameraman, a soundman, and a film editor. The university put Centron in contact with these talented filmmakers, as well as with acting talent and educational collaborators.

Business was slow for both Mosser-Wolf and Centron at first, but soon Mosser-Wolf became one of the largest camera retail supply stores in Kansas, and after Centron produced well-received public relations films for the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and the University of Mississippi, business began to pick up for Centron as well. More production personnel were added, and by the early 1950s talented woman scriptwriter Trudy Travis had joined the company, as had film director Herk Harvey and another screenwriter, John Clifford. Harvey and Clifford, good friends, often worked together and eventually took some time off from Centron to make the 1962 feature film Carnival of Souls (which Centron is sometimes credited for) in Lawrence, which later gained a devoted cult following.

Centron's most well-known films were produced during the 1950s. Author Ken Smith and archivist Rick Prelinger have both praised and popularized Centron's low-budget educational films for Young America and McGraw-Hill from that time period, and these films, with titles like "The Snob," "The Bully," "Cheating," "What About Juvenile Delinquency?," and "The Good Loser," with nostalgic and funny mannerisms, acting, and styles, have become quite popular. Most of these films featured young, local nonprofessional acting talent, which adds to the naturalism of the films, and Centron used many real locations in and around Lawrence which are still recognizable today.

By 1955, Centron, with ten people on staff, had outgrown the old theater building downtown and had their own new headquarters, the first building in the Midwest designed specifically as a film studio, custom-built for them on a plot of land near the KU campus. Once the new facility was up and running, there were no bounds to the creative films that emerged. Crews were dispatched to locations around the globe to bring back images for geography and travel films. One crew spent sixty days in South America filming the geography and social life there. Later on, several Centron crews spent nearly two years completing an award-winning educational film series on Korea.

Corporate clients, including such Fortune 500 companies as Monsanto, John Deere, Caterpillar, General Motors, and AC Delco, hired Centron to carry out their message to stockholders and consumers in what are called "industrial films"—-films that would be shown by a manufacturer to his sales crews, and then by salesmen to retailers. In the 1960s, big-name Hollywood stars like Anita Bryant, the Rowan and Martin comedy team, Eddie Albert, Ed Ames, and Walter Pidgeon were flown into Lawrence to be in these films, some of which often featured original skits and music. Centron also produced a number of sales meeting presentations for corporations. In the 1980s, one of Centron's safety films for Caterpillar employees, "Shake Hands with Danger," was presented with numerous national and international awards, which always pleased the client.

Centron also produced a number of films for the armed forces and the government, including training and educational films for the Navy and the Air Force. Centron also did film work for many community and state organizations and associations and did some athletic film work, particularly for KU, as well. Film festival awards were quite important to the Centroners. It often made the client feel good and also let the production staff know that their work was being appreciated by others in the industry. Centron received over 485 film awards from 35 US film festivals and 23 foreign film festivals. The latter group included festivals in Australia, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, Spain, Iran, Belgium, Italy, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Centron received 133 awards from the Columbus Film Festival and 115 from the American Film Festival.

With all these awards, the crowning achievement for the company was an Academy Award nomination in 1971 for a short documentary often called the "Leo Film," about a severely disabled Lawrence man who overcame his disabilities and managed to lead a good life and make a small but content living selling pencils and watches on a streetcorner in downtown Lawrence. The film, titled "Leo Beureman," won at least 13 festival awards and was also named the best educational film of the 1970s by the US Industrial Film Festival. The success of "Leo Beureman" encouraged Centron to organize its own film distribution division, called Centron Educational Films. This continued until 1981, when Mosser and Wolf retired and sold the Centron company to Coronet Films. As many of the remaining Centroners quit or retired, Centron was sold off into different pieces, eventually to disappear into oblivion around the early 1990s. However, the Centron studio continued, serving the many feature film productions that came through Lawrence during the 1980s, including the 1988 film Kansas and the 1990 Michael Landon TV movie Where Pigeons Go to Die.

In 1991, KU professor Charles Oldfather purchased the Centron studio and transformed it into Oldfather Studios, which became the home of the KU film school. There, in what is called the Herk Harvey Sound Stage, students work on the same sound stage with the same lighting equipment that the Centron crews from the last few decades used as well.

As for Centron's vast library of film productions, most of it (along with boxes and boxes of company records, documents, and other memorabelia and materials) were donated by Russell Mosser to the Spencer Research Library at KU.

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