This page is dedicated to the late producer-director and humanitarian Christopher Eric Speeth (1939-2017). He was a key consultant here at Elfenworks Productions, LLC since our inception, lending his expertise, acting as a sounding board for projects, helping us document events, and even going so far as to share his exclusive footage (e.g., his footage of Martin Luther King can be seen on the website we built for The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, inequality.com). We all called him “Uncle Chris,” for who among us wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a wonderful uncle? His influence on our core team goes back many decades, well before the organization itself was founded. Once, when he and his brother were working on the sfx for his horror film at Motion Picture Sound Recording in Cleveland, he also invited his niece – our founder Lauren Speeth – to tag along. He’d already inspired his family by screening funny old films on a reel-to-reel projector. Now, here was filmmaking, in action, and Chris made it seem like such fun! And so it was that the filmmaker bug was passed along from one generation to another. As we mourn his passing, we know that his legacy will continue to shine and inspire us in our work. As Time Magazine once wrote of him, “Speeth has lifted the horizon to the loftiest levels of literary and artistic achievement and has made an exemplary success of it.”
Chris cared deeply about social causes, and dedicated himself for a time to teaching theater arts to disadvantaged children in Philadelphia. In December of 1964, his work with Friends Neighborhood Guild in Philadelphia was documented the local newspaper (“Clevelander, 23, Stirs Staid City”) and in an article in Teachers College Record (Vol. 66, No. 3) entitled “Black Magic in Philadelphia,” which wrote: “With a background in the arts of the theatre and experience as a teacher, Mr. Speeth is Director of Cultural Activities at a Philadelphia settlement house. Under a grant from the Loeb Foundation, he holds daily classes in literature and dramatics for children drawn primarily from slum schools. One outcome has been a series of widely acclaimed productions, with these culturally deprived youngsters as actors of Shakespearean and other classical plays. Mr Speeth here presents the faith–in kids and in knowledge–that undergirds his achievements.”
He also cared about the environment, and had dreamed of creating a television series entitled COPE (Condition of Planet Earth), and had done some work towards that project with Daniel Mayer Selznick, creating a database for a TV series. Having captured the very first Earth Day on film in the 1970s, he shared this footage with us, an exciting feature of the Elfenworks Productions, LLC release, “What Green Can Be,” which was an official selection of The Sedona International Film Festival and was coincidentally screened there on Christopher’s 75th birthday. The film “Exploring Hope for Better Times,” under production while he was alive and released to film festivals in 2018, is dedicated to his memory.
A producer-director since 1970, Speeth’s work included art films, horror, and segments featured on architecture for BBC and segments for America’s Most Wanted, Final Justice, and Nightline, Cinematographer for Country Western Video for Cliffty Creek, in Nashville; A-V Consultant for Windmill Films for the Computer Museum, University of Pennsylvania; and Director of film segments for the show Science in the Seventies. He also had filmed E.R. Fennimore Johnson and his dog Nipper III (owner of the Victor Talking Machine Company and underwater cinematography pioneer under the pseudonym E.R. Fenjohn). During his lifetime, he spoke before the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and was the recipient of a working fellowship, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminars, where he learned from Bill Alexander, the son of Thomas Edison’s projectionist. In addition to having been the subject of articles in Filmmaker, Variety, and Time Magazine, he was also noted by Architecture Magazine in October, 1985 (page 58), for work creating sound effects in the Philadelphia Zoo’s “treehouse.” His accolades included first place for one of his films at the Festival dei Popoli in Florence. He was also cited in the NY Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, and Moscow Film Festival, as well as the Eerie Horror Film Fest.
Christopher Speeth grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where he studied violin for seven years under the famed pedagogue Josef Gingold. He won contests for piano, violin, and chamber music, and was concertmaster of the Cleveland Youth Orchestra. He once attended a music camp where Gingold taught violin and Piatigorski taught chamber music. Gingold, who once let Chris play his Stradivarius, introduced him to Fritz Kreisler, who bought him a malted milkshake, a kindness Chris never forgot. Chris also sang, and at the age of nine, he sang in a chorus with the NY Metropolitan Opera, on tour in Cleveland. As a child actor, he worked at the Cleveland Playhouse with his brothers (“You’ve heard of the Smith brothers so gruff and so hairy, well we are the Speeth brothers, I’m Chris and I’m Sherry…”) At age eight, he played Dirk, the crippled boy left behind by the Pied Piper. He was valedictorian of his high school class, where he showed an early gift for computers, earning a medal for excellence at the Seventh National Science Fair in 1956 for a symbolic logic computer (pictured). He went on to earn an bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Kenyon College, and an Masters in Communications at the Annenberg School (Annenberg Center of the University of Pennsylvania) where he studied film under Solomon Wishnepolsky (Sol Worth).
Although film-making was his main passion, his love of computers and music also persisted. His non-film work focused on nonlinear editing, satellite downlink, interactive computer authoring, and, eventually, he assumed responsibility for the entire U.S. telephone query routing system for the IRS. At the time of his passing, he’d been working on a documentary film focusing on computer pioneers John Mauchley, Herman Goldstine, and J. Presper Eckert.
“A lawyer’s son, Speeth grew up in Cleveland with a bewildering variety of talents. He began studying the violin at 3 1/2, won numerous musical competitions while also acting at the Cleveland Playhouse. He also painted; Washington’s National Gallery owns some of his work. In high school he won third prize at the National Science Fair for building a symbolic logic computer. Speeth started his theatrical training with his three brothers under K. Elmo Lowe and Esther Mullen at the Cleveland Playhouse where he performed in many plays on stage, radio and television. He appeared in Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding at The Karamu House with his brother Jeffrey who had a leading role alongside Ethel Waters. Later, at Kenyon College he won a dramatic competition by directing Wozzeck. Mr. Speeth went to Philadelphia where he started the Philadelphia Theatre for Children and became known for staging hundreds of classical plays ranging from early Greek Satyr Plays to contemporary plays by Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, Jonathan Kleinbard and Chandler Brossard together with a staff of fifteen people in the old Drew-Barrymore House which later became the Friends Neighborhood Guild. During the Sputnik scare of the 60’s, he worked with Jerome Bruner of Harvard University in developing educational materials for children. ” –Time Magazine
A memorial will be held in the Fall of 2017 (with details to be posted closer to that time). Meanwhile, memorial gifts can be made in his honor to the ACLU.