Lowell Thomas, The Man Who Invented The Travel Program
He was born in Woodington, Ohio, in Darke County, the son of Harry and Harriet (Wagner) Thomas. His father was a doctor and his mother a school teacher. In 1900, the family moved to the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. There he worked as a gold miner, a cook, and a reporter on the newspaper.
In 1911, he graduated from Valparaiso University with bachelor's degrees in education and science. The next year he received both a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Denver and began work for the Chicago Journal, writing for it until 1914. While in Chicago, he was a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching oratory. He then went to New Jersey, where he studied for a master's at Princeton University (he received the degree in 1916) and again taught oratory at the university.
A relentless self-promoter, he persuaded railroads to give him free passage on their roads in exchange for articles extolling rail travel. When he visited Alaska he hit upon the novel idea of the travelogue--movies about far-away places. When the United States entered World War I, he was part of an official party sent by President Wilson--the former president of Princeton--to compile a history of the conflict.
Soon after arriving, he went to Palestine to cover General Allenby's campaign against the Ottoman Empire. In Jerusalem, Thomas met T. E. Lawrence, a colonel in the British Army, who was spending £200,000 a month encouraging the inhabitants of Palestine to revolt against the Turks. Thomas shot dramatic footage of Lawrence and toured the world narrating his film, With Alleby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia making Lawrence--and himself--household names. He would later write a book, With Lawrence in Arabia (1924), about these events. He was fictionalized in David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia as American journalist Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy. It would be the first of fifty-six volumes. During the 1920s, he was a magazine editor.
In 1930, he became a broadcaster with the CBS radio network. After two years, he switched to the NBC radio network but returned to CBS in 1947. He hosted the evening news for four decades until his retirement in 1976, the longest radio career of anyone. "No other journalist or world figure, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, has remained in the public spotlight for so long," wrote Norman R. Bowen in Lowell Thomas: The Stranger Everyone Knows (1968). His signature sign-on was "Good evening, everybody" and his sign-off "So long, until tomorrow," phrases he would use in titling his two volumes of memoirs.
Thomas never lost his fascination with the movies. He narrated Twentieth Century Fox's Movietone newsreels until 1952. That year he went into business with Mike Todd and Louis B. Mayer to exploit Cinerama, a movie format that used three projectors and an enormous curved screen. Because of both the cost and technical issues in synchronizing the projectors, Cinerama never caught on, but a quarter-century later, Thomas was still raving about it in his memoirs and wondering why someone wasn't trying to revive it.
"The world's foremost globetrotter" took his radio show on his travels, broadcasting from the four corners of the globe. Once on the Spanish Steps in Rome he was asked by a fellow American, "Lowell Thomas, don't you ever go home?" He was a fanatical skiier, helping develop the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec and skiing near Tucson, Arizona.
He was a successful businessman, helping to found Capital Cities Communications, which in 1986 took over the American Broadcasting Company, and developed the Quaker Hill community in Dutchess County, New York, near Pawling, where Thomas resided when not on the road. Among his neighbors there was Thomas E. Dewey, one of a huge circle of friends that included everyone from the Dalai Lama to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Thomas the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.
Thomas died at his home at Pawling at the age of eighty-nine.
His only child, Lowell Thomas, Jr., was lieutenant governor of Alaska in the 1970s.