PLYMOUTH - Local filmmaker John Maher will highlight the life and achievements of Leo H. Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite plastic, in a movie airing today at 5 p.m. on Connecticut Public Broadcasting’s Spirit channel.
“All Things Bakelite,” which will also be shown Sunday at noon, is one of about 23 movies created by Maher. Now 71, Maher got his start filming football games for his father, a coach, when they lived in Darien. That led him to becoming a director of photography and mastering lighting techniques.
Maher later came to live in Redding, where he raised two daughters. A lover of history, he recalled assisting one of his daughters with a school project about the history of the town, in 2002 or 2003. This led to her interviewing the last “one-room schoolteacher” in town while he filmed the interview. He began producing films about local history, including “Visions of Iron,” about Connecticut’s iron industry.
The latest film focuses on Baekeland, who was born in 1863 in Belgium and died in 1944 in New York. Maher said Baekeland developed the first “real” plastic, Bakelite, for which he filed a patent in 1907.
“There were a number of plastics which were invented before Bakelite, but they couldn’t hold a mold very well,” said Maher. “Bakelite was one of the finest molds and it was inexpensive. It took off right away and it started to be used in automobile distributor caps and insulation. Electricity was starting to be utilized more and more to wire houses and street lamps, but the old insulation was not up to the power demands. Bakelite solved that problem and it is still in use today.”
Maher said Baekeland earned $76 million for his invention, which would translate to $4-5 billion in today’s money. Baekeland catalogued his experiments in 68 journals.
“There are several lines in the film which are direct quotes from these journals,” he said.
Maher said that, in his personal life, Baekeland distrusted banks and the stock market. He tended to wear old suits and preferred to eat beans out of a can rather than dine out.
“He was not much of a people person. He liked to read, listen to music and invent,” said Maher. “He would take his yacht and sail up and down the East Coast to Florida.”
Maher said his film will include music composed by Esther’s Follies, a modern vaudeville group from Austin, Texas. The troupe’s performances include magic, juggling, singing, dancing and sketches on current events.
The film also includes an original score by Marty Fegy of Zethus Productions in Enfield, who has written music for many of Maher’s films.
Maher compared his filmmaking technique to rock climbing, in that he searches for something to grab on to, then pulls himself up to a new perspective. He may begin writing in the middle of a script and then work in the beginning and ending. He prefers to do paper editing with Scotch tape and noting time signatures. He then works with his editor, Craig Mikhitarian, from ACM Productions in Ridgefield, who Maher said has “wonderful sensibilities” to refine footage further using computer programs. The two will often evaluate a film they are working on while joking with each other in character personas with a comedic Southern accent.
“The two people I am most scared of are my audience, because I don’t want them to be let down, and my editor, so I come prepared when I work with him,” said Maher. “I have a lot of sub-alternates in place in case he doesn’t like a particular piece of footage.”
Maher also said he appreciates the input of his executive producer, who, for this current film, is Hugh Karraker.
“We like to let someone take a look at it with fresh eyes,” he said. “They may make comments, and I don’t always agree, but if they come up with something to make the film better, then we all benefit.”
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.