In the summer of 1938, a young German immigrant named William Gruber and his new wife honeymooned at the famous Chateau in the Oregon Caves National Monument. Gruber, an organ maker and piano tuner residing in Portland, was also a serious photographer. He had a fascination for stereographic images, once a commercially popular photographic format in the late nineteenth century (as black and white stereoscopes), but then a novelty mostly of interest to 3-D aficionados.
While at the Chateau, Gruber met another Oregon man, Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s, a postcard publishing company in Portland. There meeting was sheer coincidence—Graves wasn’t on vacation, but had stopped for the day to photograph deer on his way to California on business. And according to View-Master lore, Gruber walked into Graves’ photo set-up and captured his attention by using a strange double camera he’d invented, which took two pictures simultaneously to produce a stereo pair.
The two men began to talk about Gruber’s camera. Later that evening in Graves’ room, Gruber told Graves of his idea of printing seven color stereo pairs on tiny film transparencies and mounting them side-by-side on a thin reel that a person could watch and rotate manually on an inexpensive, handheld, binocular viewer. In 1939, Sawyer’s View-Master: “Three Dimension Color Pictures” debuted at the World’s Fair in New York City.
Seventy years and an estimated billion reels later, View-Master is still in business, now owned by Fisher-Price. Its original concept of seven pairs of stereographic images affixed to a reel and viewed by a binocular viewer has essentially gone unchanged. A reel purchased in 1939 will work with a viewer made today and vice versa. The only object remotely comparable in American culture is that someone using a rotary telephone can still make a call to a cell phone and vice versa.
In 1968, my father, a minister in the Church of Christ, signed the family on for Operation 68, a two-year mission to Belo Horizante, Brazil. The unfortunately named Operation 68 originated at Camp Yamhill, located in the Willamette Valley, after youthful campers issued a zealous challenge to the adults to do something constructive in the larger world as America was coming apart at the seams.
We couldn’t take much with us on our sea voyage to Brazil, but my mother did bring along two View-master players—one for me and my older sister—and a lot of reel packets. “Batman: The Purr-fect Crime” serial, released in 1966 as a companion to the campy television series starring a stiff Adam West as Batman, was one of the titles.
If I recall correctly, my Batman serial was essentially my only connection to American poplar culture, as we had no radio, television or movies. My mother brought along a few other secular titles, but the vast majority of View-Master reels at my disposal in Brazil and after our return to Molalla, Oregon in 1970, were Biblical in nature.
As I search my mind today, and consider how well I know my Old and New Testament stories, I must rank View-Master as my greatest Bible teacher, with my father’s sermons a close second, and Sunday school a distant third. In particular, I remember the three-reel packets “Miracles of Jesus” (water into wine!), “Parables of Jesus” (Good Samaritan), and the “Teachings of Jesus” (Prodigal Son), where I undoubtedly formed my impression of Jesus as blonde haired, blue eyed, and vaguely counterculture hero who fed the poor, healed the sick and lame, and didn’t judge anyone, lest ye be judged.
All of this inexplicably came back to me when I was driving one day, thinking about Oregon. The memory of Julie Newmar as Catwoman simply exploded into my consciousness and I immediately called my mother and asked her about Brazil and View-Master. I also asked if by some miracle she’d held onto the viewers and reels. It’s been nearly forty years and nearly a dozen moves since the missionary days.
Two days later a package arrived from my mother. I ripped it open and the reels spilled out on the counter. Also inside, tucked in more securely, were two viewers. Freeing them both from tissue paper, I instantly recognized mine. I picked it up, and after a nearly thirty-five year absence, two old Oregon friends were reunited.
Then I inspected the reels. No Catwoman! Where had you gone Julie Newmar? No matter. It took less than a minute to locate a coveted View-Master title online and I ordered it for twenty bucks.
While I waited for Catwoman to arrive, I brushed up on my Jesus, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Noah’s Ark, and Samson and Delilah (she wasn’t hot). As I looked through the binocular portals, and the stereo images of the various Biblical characters, some clay, some actors, on the cheesiest of sets, I felt an extraordinary intimacy with these stories that television, video games or even a book could never replicate. The world isn’t flat, you know.
A week later, my order appeared and I loaded up reel one…click click… Purrrrrfect. A digitized alien in Avatar or Lara Croft as the Tomb Raider could never compare to a celluloid 3-D Julie Newmar as the Catwoman—in my hands! It wasn’t even close, but the Oregon boys growing up would never know. Their lust would just have to originate somewhere else, most likely in digitized and boring two-dimension. And for that, I truly pitied them.