Reddingite’s ‘All Things Bakelite’ to be shown at Bethel Cinema

All Things Bakelite director John Maher and executive producer Hugh Karraker.

Most people know that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer, Bill Gates developed Microsoft, Thomas Edison invented the first lightbulb and Henry Ford developed the first assembly line that allowed for the mass production of the automobile. Interestingly, there is one common component that enabled all of those inventions to be more fully realized: plastics. But how many people know who invented that?

Hugh Karraker of Redding certainly does, for it was his great-grandfather, Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863–1944), who filed the patent for a product he called Bakelite in 1907 (it was granted in 1909), the first wholly synthetic plastic, from which all plastic products derived. Karraker attended a centennial celebration of the filing in 2007 at Ghent University in Belgium, where his great-grandfather was initially educated and later taught, and came home determined to expand the awareness of Baekeland’s contribution in his adopted country. Baekeland and his wife, Celine, came to the United States in 1889 (Karraker’s mother was named after her grandmother).

Karraker teamed with director and former Reddingite John Maher of JEM Films to develop a film “to celebrate my great-grandfather and help put him on the map.” The result is All Things Bakelite

The 58-minute film will be shown at Bethel Cinema Wednesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. as part of FilmFest52, a weekly film festival event created by the organizers of the Connecticut Film Festival and Bethel Film Festival in partnership with Bethel Cinema. Doors open at 6:30 with a reception featuring refreshments by Bethel caterer Michael Bick of Some Things Fishy and an opportunity to meet the filmmakers.

Karraker and Maher will conduct a Q&A after the viewing.

Entertaining as well as informative, All Things Bakelite uses a mix of interviews — with Karraker and a cousin, chemists, authors, a professor of design and a Bakelite artist — along with photos, journal entries, re-enactments, animation, archival footage, and three amusing original songs to tell the story of Leo Baekeland, his curious mind and inventions, and the impact of plastics. Before focusing on creating a synthetic plastic — a combination of heat and pressure in a machine he designed and called The Bakelizer being the key — Baekeland had invented Velox Photographic Paper in 1894. Five years later, Velox was purchased by George Eastman for $750,000, which Baekeland split with his two original backers.

Karraker, a former actor, met Maher, who had been a cameraman for several network and PBS news programs, when Maher was working on a project about former Redding town historian Margaret Wixted, and Karraker and his wife, Sherry, participated in a scene. Maher also made the movie on the history of Georgetown, A Georgetown Story.

Karraker contacted Maher with the idea for the movie on Baekeland “because John is an unconventional director and I like that approach. Baekeland was creative, he thought outside the box and had great success. I wanted someone who worked outside the norm. John’s original approach to filmmaking, especially documentaries, is to take something that could be dry and make it lively, inform using humor. He’s a wonderful showman with great ideas.” Maher also provided Karraker with a reality check on how long, and expensive, the process of getting a documentary made can be. Karraker acknowledges that the project was and remains a labor of love — and that promoting it has been harder than making the movie.

Most of the movie was filmed in Connecticut using local people (talent and crew), but Maher and Karraker flew to Austin, Texas, to interview Jeffrey L. Meikle, author of American Plastic: A Cultural History. While there, Maher also filmed the humorous musical numbers with cast members of Esther’s Follies, a local comedy group that bills itself as “Austin’s Answer to SNL.” Another location shoot took place in San Jose, Calif., at IBM Research-Almaden with Jeanette Garcia, a research chemist, who discusses “the new plastics” and the future of plastics.

All Things Bakelite has been well received since its initial showing at the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield last March, said Karraker, but he added that a few changes have been made since then as new information came to light. Craig Mikhitarian of Ridgefield is the film’s editor. At the urging of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), which has been active in promoting the film, a 21-minute version has also been created for educational purposes, to show in middle and high school classrooms. After that first showing last year, audience member Russell Broom, managing director of SPE, stood up and announced that he loved the film and would encourage his organization to do everything it could to promote it.

“The SPE has been extremely supportive,” said Karraker. “They offered to use the 21-minute short in their educational program. And they plan to show both versions at a conference in California in May.”

The 58-minute film has been shown at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, the Yonkers Film Festival (YoFi), at a meeting of former Union Carbide employees (Union Carbide bought Bakelite in 1939; Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical in 2001), and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, among other places. The Smithsonian’s archives also house Baekeland’s diaries and notebooks — 62 of them spanning 1907 to 1941 — and The Bakelizer.

Before its appearance in Bethel, the movie will be shown at UMass Lowell, and after, it will go on to the University of Texas, Austin, and WorldFest — Houston Film Festival, where it has already been awarded a Remi. At the end of May, All Things Bakelite has a return engagement at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Bethel Cinema is at 269 Greenwood Avenue; general admission is $10.50, $9 for seniors and children under 12. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.bethelcinema.com or from the box office. Tickets purchased online are subject to a $1 per ticket service charge. For more information, call 203-778-3100.

For additional information about the film and to view the official trailer, visit allthingsbakelite.com.

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