- Historic Sites
“Good Evening, Everybody”
An Interview With Lowell Thomas
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
As the lights of London’s Covent Garden dimmed that early August evening in 1919, few people, including the young narrator waiting nervously in the wings, sensed the historic nature of the occasion. A full house of formally dressed English gentry listened expectantly through the overture by the Royal Welsh Guards Band as the rising curtain unveiled the Moonlight on the Nile. An exotic dancer glided onstage, while a tenor voice in the background spread a lyric Mohammedan call to prayer through the vast theater.
The man who then stepped into the spotlight was a young American war correspondent with a unique invitation. He offered to take them “to lands of history, mystery and romance” through the magical combination of music, motion picture, and narration. Thus, “through the nose of a Yankee,” as he put it, his audiences relived the triumphant conquest of Jerusalem and the hitherto unreported exploits of the legendary T. E. Lawrence.
Lowell Thomas and his illustrated show, The Last Crusade—With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, received a ten-minute standing ovation the first night. In the following weeks, the cream of England’s social and political nobility flocked to the show; finally, there was a command performance for the King and Queen. Later, Thomas moved to cavernous Albert Hall, where matinee and evening performances frequently played to more than ten thousand people in a single day. More than a million came to see him, including the prime minister and all members of Parliament.
Encouraged by his London triumph, Lowell Thomas launched his production on an equally successful world tour—Australia, India, Ceylon, Malaya, Canada, and finally the United States of America, all of which served as a prelude to the world-girdling high adventure that has distinguished his unusual lifelong career as a traveler, author, newcaster, and moviemaker. His remarkable voice, heard by literally billions of people through radio, Movietone News, television, and his Cinerama productions, has made Lowell Thomas “the stranger everyone knows.”
He was born April 6, 1892, in Woodington, Ohio, but his school-teacher-turned-doctor father soon moved the family westward to Iowa and thence to the booming gold camp at Victor in the Cripple Creek district of Colorado. High in the Rockies, caught up in the excitement of a gold rush, young Lowell worked as a miner, a range rider, a gold assay carrier, a mining-camp reporter and editor. He delivered newspapers, watched the growing tide of labor violence from his father's office window, absorbed the tales of danger and excitement related by the itinerant gold miners and muckers around him and wondered always what lay beyond the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
His high school diploma launched Thomas on his pursuit of adventure. Financing his studies with newspaper jobs, he quickly gathered four degrees from two universities. He experimented with motion-picture equipment on summer trips to Alaska and worked these up into illustrated talks on the Yukon, which he delivered while a law student and then head of the speech department at Princeton. They attracted the attention of the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane, who saw to it that Thomas got an assignment to tell America about the Allied war effort.
During his 1917 visits to the battlefields, Thomas learned that the British had named General Edmund H. H. Allenby, a Boer War cavalry hero, as their new commander in chief in Egypt. Correctly assuming that a major offensive against the Turks was about to be launched, Thomas, with his cameraman Harry Chase, hurried to the Near East in time to cover the campaign that succeeded in what Richard the Lion-Hearted had failed to do: capture Jerusalem. Then, at Allenby’s suggestion, he went to Arabia to see something of the revolt in the desert led by Emir Feisal, Colonel Lawrence, and others, the most important of his many scoops as a journalist.
Returning to Europe after the Armistice, Thomas got through the Allied blockade of Germany’s borders to bring back the first eyewitness report and news film of the revolution that overthrew the Kaiser. Following his successful world tour (he says he has lost track of the number of times he has traveled around the globe) with his Allenby-Lawrence production, he managed to penetrate what was then the forbidden kingdom of Afghanistan, returning with the first filmed report of that mysterious land beyond the Khyber Pass. (It was a feat he would duplicate in 1949 when, with his son, Lowell, Jr., a future lieutenant governor of Alaska and an author and explorer in his own right, he journeyed to Tibet for his memorable visit with the young Dalai Lama, surviving on the return journey a near-fatal accident high in the Himalayas.)
Numerous expeditions throughout the globe followed his Afghan adventure, but from 1926 on, he made a permanent home for his wife, Fran, and son in the rolling Quaker Hill countryside of southeastern Dutchess County, New York. There he produced many of his fifty-six books—including his recent two-part autobiography Good Evening, Everybody: From Cripple Creek to Samarkand (1976); and So Long Until Tomorrow: From Quaker Hill to Kathmandu (1977). From there, too, he often broadcast his national nightly newscast, which began in 1930 and lasted for forty-six years, interrupted only when atmospheric conditions made it impossible for him to transmit from some obscure corner of the world.