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In Memoriam: Ken Curtis – He Brought Christian History to Life
By Ted Baehr with Dan Wooding
Ken Curtis, one of America’s most talented Christian movie makers who specialized in featuring the stories of early Christian pioneers through an amazing collection of feature films, passed away on Monday, January 3, 2011, at 1:55 PM in Brookside Hospice house in Palm Harbor, Florida, after a long battle with cancer.
Ken Curtis and I (Ted Baehr) first knew each other in the 1970s when I became President of the Episcopal Radio TV foundation and produced the television movie for CBS based on the C.S. Lewis book in The Chronicles of Narnia series: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE.
At the same time, Ken produced the television movie SHADOWLANDS about the life of C.S. Lewis.
Thus, our paths crossed through our common connection to C.S. Lewis, and I became a fan of Ken Curtis. Ken was brilliant, dedicated to his Christian faith and honestly humble.
In 2004, at the 12th Annual MOVIEGUIDE® Faith & Values Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment, I was blessed to present a Special Lifetime Faith & Values Crystal Teddy Award to producer, minister, and professor Ken Curtis, chairman of Vision Video and president of the Christian History Institute, for their selfless Christian work in the mass media of entertainment.
In giving this lifetime achievement award, I noted the dedication of Mr. Curtis to “redeeming the values of the entertainment media” with such dramas and documentaries as THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE, CANDLE IN THE DARK, MAN DANCIN’, JESUS THE NEW WAY, and DISCOVERING THE BIBLE.
Accepting his award, Mr. Curtis said, “Thanks to Ted, MOVIEGUIDE®, and the Christian Film & Television Commission®. They are a lonely voice crying in the wilderness.” Ken understood the ministry of Christian Film & Television Commission® and MOVIEGUIDE® better than almost anyone, because he had first hand experience with the Protestant Film Office and the other church activities during the Gold Age of Hollywood.
As Dan Wooding notes in his story for Assist News Service:
I met Ken in Israel in 2009, during the taping of “Reflections on the Beatitudes for People with Cancer” Curtis, who also founded the Christian History Institute (www.christianhistorymagazine.org <http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org> ), was beloved by everyone who knew him, including myself.
Even during his darkest days as he battled cancer, that famous twinkle in his eyes was always there and he constantly had a word of encouragement when I would meet him at various events.
In the dark and distance past of the last century, I was the chairman of a London-based Christian film company called Grenville Films that was founded by my friend, Tony Tew, a former BBC film editor. One day, when we had a board meeting in, of all places, one of the royal palaces, Tony introduced us to a new board member. He had flown over from the States and his name was Ken Curtis.
So began a long friendship with this wonderful man, who I was soon to discover was a legendary figure in Christian movies with a whole string of films that have chronicled many of the heroes of the church.
Recently, Glimpses, a publication of the Christian Film Institute, published a tribute to Ken Curtis under the headline, “Ken Curtis: Bringing Christian History to Life.” It was prepared by Beverly Miller, Dawn Moore and Beth Johnson:
After graduating from college, Ken married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Stevenson, in 1961. He acknowledged that he’d never dated anyone else since their first date when he was a junior and she was a sophomore. They moved into their new home in Boston and Ken started in on his seminary degree at Gordon-Conwell.
He soon had an interim pastorate position at Evangelical Covenant Church in Orange, MA. He then became the youth minister at Tremont Temple Baptist in Boston. Ken made many connections during this time and became involved in radio and television production and fortunately for him, rubbed shoulders with many prominent men in Boston. While still in seminary, he was permitted to begin a weekly television program on the CBS affiliate in Boston. This job enabled him to work his way through seminary, but also gave him an invaluable experience in the TV industry.
During this time Ken and Dorothy were blessed with two children, Bill and Karen.
Through a network of friends and work associates, Ken became involved in the feature film business and began gathering funds for an exciting new Christian film entitled, THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE. This film was unusually effective and successful, but despite the box-office success it was followed by a backlash of mounting debt. Ken was not prepared for the financial difficulties that followed when the newly formed production and distribution company he was a part of was put in Chapter 11 receivership.
Ken was appointed to carry on the distribution of THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE and, as a result, ended up starting his own distribution company, Gateway Films/Vision Video. Finding his way around creditors and the court system was difficult and Ken admitted, “If I had had any idea what would be required of me with THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE, I would never have had the courage to take the first step. But day by day there was a guiding hand that carried me through this time of crisis.”
Ken called this time period Ken his “desert years,” adding, “It was devastating to have gotten people involved in THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE, see it go into bankruptcy, and to disappoint all those people. I didn’t think I’d ever get involved in another production again. I certainly could not come to the place to ask others to invest in a project for which I was responsible and ever have the risk of leaving them hanging. The burden of that was one of the worst things that I ever experienced.”
Ken also continued pastoring throughout this time in various interim pastorate positions in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, taking a pastorate position in Collegeville, PA., for a while.
Gateway Films and Christian History Institute flowed into Vision Video as the 16 mm film was replaced with video technology. Ken enjoyed working with the distribution of films saying, “It was an extraordinary privilege of being able to give an audience to other producers and their film projects and to be communicating the gospel in the broadest way.”
When he did become involved in production again it was in the area of church history and it came about when a group of Moravians from Bethlehem, PA., consulted with him about producing a film for an anniversary celebration. He began to see the value in telling the story of men and women that passed down the gospel and how these stories can address the deep-seated problems of our church today.
He said, “Telling the great epochs of Christian history shows us where things went wrong and what to avoid; where things went right and what to emulate; and they give us encouragement when we’re down to realize there have been worse moments in the history of the church and yet God has delivered his people. They provide an inexhaustible wealth of wisdom and encouragement that can be extracted from becoming better acquainted with the historical family of Christ, the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us.
“This became Vision Video’s central calling and out of this came a need for written material that could accompany these Christian history films.
“We realized we couldn’t tell in the films all that needed to be told on a given subject, so we actually started a magazine called Christian History Magazine which was to be a companion to the films. It started out as an occasional publication and then we boosted it up to a quarterly publication and that became so much in demand that we realized it needed an existence of its own, so we made it a separate, independent publication. Eventually it became bigger than we could handle, so we turned it over to Christianity Today.
“Then we started a monthly bulletin insert called Glimpses to give people Christian history in little bite-size pieces, so it wasn’t as intimidating or overwhelming. If the Christian History Magazine was for the teachers and scholars, then Glimpses was more for the person in the pew with no scholarly interest but loved to hear the stories.”
“Then we took this a step farther and thought we needed to reach the children, so the major thing that has occupied us in recent years has been to tell the stories of Christian heroes in animation for children aged 8-12. We also produce a companion document to go along with each video detailing the story of, for example, Jim Elliott, Eric Lidell, and Amy Carmichael.”
Ken’s life changed abruptly in December of 2002. He explained, “2002 was one of the best in my life, and I expected 2003 would be even better. And maybe it was better, but not in the way I could have ever imagined, and surely not in a way I would have chosen.” Before a scheduled knee surgery, he had preliminary testing down and his X-rays reports came back with a possibility of lung cancer.
At the time of his cancer diagnosis, Ken was given less than a year to live by some doctors, but Ken’s reaction was to allow the disease to take him into new avenues of service and ministry he never would have supposed imaginable.
He experienced a dramatic epiphany one day as he was driving to his swim session that he called one of the most memorable days of his life. It was on January 8, 2003, not long after his diagnosis that he is filled with a “torrent of gratitude. It feels like a current coursing through my whole body. Somehow this segues into a vivid awareness of [a] little newborn fighting for his life down in intensive care at St. Petersburg.”
Ken felt used by God to intercede for an associate’s newborn son that was struggling with lung problems and later hears that the baby has had a miraculous turn around. “The news sent shivers up and down my spine. This was a unique experience and for me, as real as anything I can remember.”
After a few years, “my son, Bill, who was now running our film company, said that I should consider going to Israel and videotaping a video series on the 23rd Psalm. After telling the story of others for decades, I am thrust into a new arena where opportunity is given to tell my own story. But, what are my qualifications? I am struck with cancer. It is advanced with little prospect for survival. And my calling is to take material I have taught in the past and apply it to the life of the cancer patient. The Psalm 23 Reflection series is born.”
Because of the series’ popularity, the father-son team made additional productions covering the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, finishing in 2009.
After fighting cancer for over eight years, Ken says, “I have been privileged to live an unusually full life. I have had extraordinary blessings, travels, opportunities, ministries, freedom, and honors, so in all honesty I do not feel like I can in good conscience ask for more. I am content to leave it in God’s hands. I am a servant of a faithful master whom I trust more than I trust myself. Surely goodness and mercy have followed me and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
In memory of Ken, I, Ted Baehr, must note that he was one of my very few really wonderful best friends. And, Ken gave me hope because my wife Lili has been on chemotherapy for 16 years. God broke the mold when He made Ken.
Editor’s Note: Dan Wooding, 70, is an award winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 47 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and was, for ten years, a commentator, on the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC.