John Orval Thomas (1919–2012)
John Orval Thomas was a teacher, mentor, and role model for many television and film industry professionals in Arkansas. He worked as a sound engineer on major motion pictures, produced political campaign commercials, and had a variety of jobs in the television industry.
Orval Thomas Jr. was born in Slocomb (Saline County) on November 25, 1919, to John Quincy Thomas Sr., who was a traveling preacher, and Eliza Eldridge Thomas. When Thomas was four, his parents started taking him on various “speaking engagements” of the revival circuit, where they would play one-reel silent movies in between his father’s sermons.
When he was fourteen, Thomas took a job at a photography studio, the Deluxe Studio in Hot Springs (Garland County). There, he edited 15mm film for wealthy people—such as film of birthday parties and weddings. He worked there for five or six years and bought his first “moving picture” camera with his earnings. One of his earliest projects was a marketing piece for a local funeral home.
After the fifth or sixth year at Deluxe, Thomas was drafted for World War II. With his background in shooting, developing, printing, and editing film, he immediately qualified to be in the motion pictures division. However, all the U.S. and local slots were full, and in 1943, he was sent to India by the U.S. Air Force. He spent three years in India and was headquartered in the radio division there, where he learned sound recording.
When the war was over, Thomas returned home and married Catherine Houpt; they had four children. He bought an old photography studio in Hot Springs called Eckler Studio. That venture was short lived, however, and he answered an ad for a job at a new television station, KATV Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock (Pulaski County). In the early 1950s, while working at KATV during the day, he began working at night at the NBC affiliate, KARK Channel 4. He then began processing the news film at the CBS affiliate, KTHV Channel 11. For a long time, he was the only person working in news production at the station. He worked on Sports with Benny Craig and other shows with Jimmy Woodard, as well as Bill Hadley’s News Show. He was also responsible for producing the first full-length Razorback game to air on television.
After those early days in television, Thomas went into the motion picture industry, working with such directors and actors as Harry Thomason (The Great Lester Boggs and So Sad About Gloria), Charles Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek and Winterhawk, where he also worked with Peter Fonda), Jay Russell and Mary Steenburgen (End of the Line), and Billy Bob Thornton (One False Move); he worked in many different capacities but mainly as a sound engineer. His daughter, Jane Emma, worked sound with him on Stone Cold (1991).
As movie making began to dwindle in Arkansas, Thomas took other jobs. He traveled with Winthrop Rockefeller during his campaign for governor and helped produce his commercials. In the 1980s, he became an instructor in the Department of Film, Radio and Television at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR). He was also the first projectionist at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival at its inception in 1992.
Thomas died on August 31, 2012, in Little Rock. He is buried at Fairplay Cemetery in Benton (Saline County).
For additional information:
Hinkel, Nate. “Outtakes: Tribute Time.” Arkansas Business. October 10–16, 2005, p. 30.
“Orval Thomas.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1387667/ (accessed September 21, 2022).
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