“Lawn Chair Larry” Walters wasn’t the first man to take flight via balloons. Walters had an accidental predecessor a few decades earlier in the small town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine on September 28, 1937 with a group of bored news photographers who decided to shoot a story on a slow day.
In late 1937, a company by the name of Dewey & Almey of Cambridge, Massachusetts had recently got into the business of manufacturing latex balloons that can be inflated to a diameter of ten feet and were designed for weather observation. The public relations representative of Dewey & Almey sent a press release about the new balloons to Phil Coolidge, a photographer with Paramount News and the wheels started spinning in Coolidge’s head over the possibilities of these balloons and how they could be used in a story.
Phil Coolidge along with his father and fellow newsreel photographer, Jake Coolidge, hatched up the idea that sending a photographer aloft with a few of these balloons would make for a novel angle for shooting film of the local scenery. “House hopping with weather balloons” was the tentative name of the special feature, and he needed a shooter who was both small and light. The plan was to attach a dozen or so of these balloons to a harness, and then send the photog aloft to a height of 100 feet, with the harness and balloons being ultimately anchored to the ground via a rope tied to a car bumper.
A telegram was sent out from Coolidge to Paramount’s New York office reading: MAKING BALLOON JUMPING STORY MONDAY ORCHARD BEACH GOLF CLUB. HAVE LIGHTEST WEIGHT CAMERA MAN WHO WANTS TO JUMP MEET ME AT EASTLAND HOTEL.
Assignment editor William Montague picked up the telegram and showed it to Al Mingalone, the smallest cameraman Paramount had on staff . Mingalone after reading the telegram, asked Montague, “What are jumping balloons?” Montague ignored Mingalone’s question and told him, “Take the Bell and Howell Eyemo hand camera and the big Akeley camera for ground scenes.” With that, Mingalone was ordered off to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, for what would be what he admitted to be the strangest assignment of his career up to that point.
Before he left for Maine, Mingalone called his wife Angelina to tell her where he was going and that he was going to “hitch-hike on a gang of balloons.” Angelina told her husband bluntly, “You come home right now, Mister M.” He protested that it was for a newsreel story and she replied, “I know you don’t drink.” Mingalone didn’t bother to tell his wife the balloons were to be filled with hydrogen…she had seen too many photographs and newsreels of what happened to the Hindenburg. His three kids on the other hand, begged for their father to remember to bring some balloons home for them when he was done shooting his story.
At the Old Orchard Beach Country Club, Mingalone met up with Jake Coolidge who greeted him with, “Hello Picard.” Without letting Mingalone get a word in edgewise, Coolidge went on, “Wouldn’t it be funny to see you with a flock of balloons tied to your rear, making pictures over somebody’s back yard only to be shot at with a rifle for trespassing on private property! It’s always open season on flying freaks.” Jake Coolidge had no idea what was about to transpire the next day.
The three cameramen went out to the beach alongside the Atlantic Ocean and inflated one of the balloons to see how much weight one could lift. With his camera and the harness plus Mingalone’s own weight, the balloons needed to lift 165 pounds. By the time they were done experimenting, it was starting to get dark and windy. The beach location ended up being vetoed due to the wind—if something went wrong, the next dry spot of land was Europe. The shoot location was moved to the next day and at a golf course a few miles inland.
At the golf course the next day, Mingalone was strapped into a harness tied to a bumper of a car with a hundred feet of line and Phil Coolidge started to inflate balloons and tie them to Mingalone. One of the spectators at the golf course was the priest of a local church, Father James J. Mullen. Jake Coolidge had invited Father Mullen to come watch since he was interested in aviation and newsreels. Much ribbing went on and Mingalone was told there was nothing to worry about since a priest was present. While they were kidding at the time, they didn’t realize how true their joking was to become. Jake also brought a rifle along. Someone asked him what the rifle was for and Jake replied sarcastically, “I’m going to shoot some golf.” He handed the rifle to Father Mullen. Jake also handed Mingalone a pair of scissors in case of trouble. Mingalone though it was more ribbing, but put them into his coat pocket anyway.
After twenty-six balloons were inflated and tied to Mingalone, he jumped and rose twenty-five feet into the air. Not high enough, so two more balloons were inflated and tied on. Mingalone’s next jump brought him to 100 feet into the air, but the winds caught the balloons and he started to spin wildly. The three of them decided that Mingalone needed to be 300 feet up to stop the spinning—and that more balloons needed to be added.
Two hundred feet more of cord was tied between Mingalone and the car bumper. By this time, the harness was starting to chafe and Mingalone was getting tired.
“The devil with it.” said Mingalone in exasperation, “this time let’s put on a load for a decent jump and get it over with.” Jake inflated five more balloons and tied them to Mingalone’s harness and he jumped and started to rise.
As Mingalone rose above the country side, he wound up his Eyemo and started to roll. Seconds later when he was 100 feet up, he felt a jerk. He looked down and saw the rope had snapped. Mingalone kept on rising. He recalled what happened during his ascent:
“I’d entered the lower bank of a quick rising fog, and couldn’t see a thing. I tried to pull myself up the ten feet to the balloon lines. Part way, cramps grabbed me and I stopped. A sudden squall struck. I was jerked backward and dropped to the end of my harness. My camera fell free. Having lost twelve pounds of ballast I shot skyward again. My clothes were wet. The air was cold and raw. I must have been about 700 feet of the ground.”
Jake, Phil and Father Mullen ran for the car and took off after Mingalone. They caught up with the flying cameraman thirteen miles away at Biddeford, Maine. Father Mullen happened to be a sharpshooter, so he started to take pot shots at the balloons. He managed to hit a couple of them and the balloons started to slowly sink towards the ground, taking the frighten Mingalone down with them.
Drifting closer to the ground, Mingalone started to scream for help. The balloons started to drag him across a field, but Mingalone couldn’t free himself from the harness. He only finally managed to stop moving when the lines to the balloons were caught in a tree. Two brothers who were helping the Coolidges at the golf course caught up with Mingalone and helped him out of the harness. They tied the harness and balloons to a nearby tree since Mingalone wanted to keep some of them for his kids. When they turned their backs, a gust of wind came up and took the balloons skyward.
Jake Coolidge came up with Father Mullen. He ordered Mingalone to shake hands with “the guy who shot you down.” Jake also added, “You’d better go to church next Sunday.”
Mingalone’s only worry at that moment now was his camera. “Where’s my camera? You know Father, I ground out some beautiful stuff breezing along up there!”
The Eyemo was found in a field a half-mile from the golf course. Caked with mud, it was no worse for wear. The exposed film inside was unharmed and used in Paramount’s next release.
Nineteen years later Al Mingalone would be working as a television news photographer for ABC News and looking back to that odd story in Old Orchard Beach, reminiscing about the slower-paced and less hectic newsreel era.