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PBS to air documentary on Golden Gate Bridge

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  • 5/1 SF Chronicle
    Published Saturday, May 1, 2004, in the San Francisco Chronicle Steel, concrete and poetry: the making of a Bay Area landmark By Peter Hartlaub Charles Kring,
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2004
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      Published Saturday, May 1, 2004, in the San Francisco Chronicle

      Steel, concrete and poetry: the making of a Bay Area landmark

      By Peter Hartlaub

      Charles Kring, who worked as a cable inspector during construction of
      the Golden Gate Bridge, used to speak publicly about the historic
      landmark all the time.

      But interest in his stories waned as the years passed, and the
      94-year- old San Jose resident fell into anonymity. When filmmakers
      for a PBS documentary called last summer, he hadn't been asked to talk
      about the project in decades.

      "I don't know how they got my name," he said earlier this week. "I
      was very surprised."

      When the American Experience documentary "Golden Gate Bridge"
      premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on KQED, Bay Area residents will get a
      studious look at the most recognizable structure in the West. But
      they'll also get a tribute to the people who were on the scene in the
      1930s -- including several who are still around.

      "Golden Gate Bridge" director Ben Loeterman said San Francisco
      officials didn't have a formal list of surviving bridge workers, but
      he was hopeful that a few were still around. He found Kring after
      calling four or five of the main bridge engineers' students now living
      in the Midwest, one of whom had spoken to the veteran bridge-builder
      in recent years.

      "Then we got a name and we prayed that someone or some relative might
      answer the phone," Loeterman said. "In this case he did. It was a
      happy occasion."

      The documentary focuses on the 1920s and 1930s -- from the early
      planning stages to the completion of the bridge in 1937. Along with
      interviews of Kring and still-very-much-alive ironworker Walter
      Vestnys, "Golden Gate Bridge" is bolstered by input from younger
      historians and engineers who have been inspired by the achievement.

      The bridge was built despite opposition from an impressive variety of
      groups -- from environmentalists to ferry owners who were worried
      about lost business. The project's chief engineer originally
      suggested a design that looked more like the worst parts of the Bay
      Bridge, and the Navy wanted the structure painted in black and yellow
      stripes for better visibility.

      Loeterman and producer Laura Longsworth cover the basics of the
      construction, but their emphasis is more on the people behind the

      The driving force behind the landmark, Joseph B. Strauss, was a chief
      engineer without an engineering degree who had spent most of his
      career building two-lane drawbridges.

      "There is an archetypal American kind of personality, I think, who
      comes to fruition mythically in the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain,"
      California state librarian emeritus Kevin Starr says in the
      documentary. "The promoter. The P.T. Barnum. The visionary. Joseph
      Strauss was that kind of person."

      Among his talented staff was local architect Irving Morrow, who was
      responsible for the structure's striking Art Deco look, and an unsung
      number- crunching engineer named Charles Ellis.

      Ellis is in many ways the tragic hero of the piece, working on the
      project at home without pay even after he is exiled by Strauss. Ellis
      has gained more recognition in recent years, but his contributions are
      still mostly unknown beyond the engineering community.

      "Some folks think that Charles Ellis' name should be on the bridge or
      that there should be a way to acknowledge his central contribution to
      the bridge," Loeterman said. "But all there is, really, is a statue
      of Joseph Strauss on the San Francisco side. I don't know, maybe that
      will be reconsidered one of these days."

      With most of the main players now dead for decades, Loeterman was
      hoping to track down one of the hundreds of Depression-era workers who
      helped pour the concrete, heat up the rivets and spin the cable used
      to build the bridge.

      Loeterman said the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation
      District couldn't provide names of workers. ("The Bridge District
      itself has lost touch with many of those people," Loeterman said.
      "They're very anxious to see who we were able to find.")

      But the Bridge District did give the crew an unusual amount of access.

      While feature films are often forced to use footage from helicopters
      or special-effects mock-ups of the bridge, the "Golden Gate Bridge"
      crew was allowed generous access to the bridge site, even permitted to
      film a scene that involved dropping a pair of cameras on a bungee cord
      over the edge.

      The shot was set up to simulate a Feb. 17, 1937, accident that claimed
      11 lives when staging beneath the roadway fell, breaking through an
      innovative safety net that had saved 19 other workers.

      "The first thing (the bungee-cord shot) did of course is put the fear
      of God into the Bridge District people because it brings to mind all
      the questions of suicides and jumpers off the bridge," Loeterman said.
      "We had to assure them we were not interested in telling that story."

      One man, Slim Lambert, survived the fall. But his son Skip explains
      in the documentary that his father was haunted by a friend he couldn't
      save, and he was upset that newspapers labeled him a hero.

      Loeterman said he was lucky to find Skip Lambert. But he expects he
      has missed others who have stories to tell, whether they worked on the
      bridge, walked it on opening day or had family involved with

      Loeterman said he hopes those people understand that the documentary
      is a tribute to them as well.

      "Our only regret is knowing that the bridge has touched so many people
      in terms of their personal experiences," Loeterman said. "One always
      wonders, in our position, is there someone, somehow we missed who had
      a great story."

      E-mail Peter Hartlaub at phartlaub@...
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