Interview with Harry Persanis from Captain Video, Special Effects

Interview date: January 2001

ROARING ROCKETS: It’s the fate of those who labor behind the scenery of TV and movies to remain anonymous forevermore, so we are very glad you surfaced. Maybe you can introduce yourself.

HARRY PERSANIS: Hi, my name is Harry PERSANIS and I was surprised to see a picture of me on the Roaring Rockets website, standing on a ladder, looking over a miniature set for Captain Video. I was in high school in NY at the time CV was being broadcast, and worked afternoons for CV’s special effects team, Russell and Haberstroh Studios, as a camera operator, prop-maker, editor and often delivery boy for that day’s 16 mm special effects film showing the Galaxy and many other space ships doing battle in space. I would take the subway to the DuMont studios, film under my arm.

RR: Who are the other guys in the photos?

Leo Russell, Alex Haberstroh and Harry Persanis filming Captain Video special effects.

Leo Russell, Alex Haberstroh and Harry Persanis filming Captain Video special effects.

HP: Appearing in the asteroid field picture with me is Leo Russell, the partner of Alex Haberstroh (he appears at the center of the other picture, peering over the landscape with the Galaxy looming in front). These two were my bosses and produced all the special effects that appeared. They were photographed on 16 mm film and were cut into the live performance as needed. The same footage could be used over and over.

RR: You are a treasure as far as we are concerned, because you are the only contact with that vanished world that was so magical to us as children. The special effects of the Russell-Haberstroh Studio often came pretty close to our wildest dreams, but at the same time they had a faintly homemade aspect, which made us think we could someday build models and miniature sets like that! Can we probe your memories a bit more?

HP: OK! Ask away, but please don’t be disappointed at my lack of total recall. I was only 17 when the LIFE pictures were taken. As far as full-time work is concerned, I got out of the special effects business about 40 years ago. I did continue to work for Russell & Haberstroh on a part-time and weekend basis for another 20 years. My beginning pay was 50 cents an hour! However, in a few years I was making upwards of 15 dollars an hour depending on the job. Good with my hands and a quick learner, I picked up motion picture photography and film editing from cinematographers and editors who were hired as needed. Economics forced my employers to turn over filming and editing to me ($100/day for each, to a few dollars per hour for me). As to models and other artifacts— when CV went off the air, I was given many of the miniature spaceships. I gave these to my son who did to them what most kids do to plastic toys. There may still be some around in my basement.

RR: A new photo of the Galaxy II just surfaced on the Internet. I hope this sparks your memories anew!

HP: OK, Lou, you got me. The pictures did bring back memories but not as detailed as I or you may have thought. Keep in mind that in those good old days, I was 17 years old with my first real job that I got on my own. I was looking to be doing something exciting and interesting. No deliveries (flowers, newspapers), no washing cars, no helping my uncle by delivering his lunch made by my Mom, nope, this was real professional work. I was a “Special Effects Man” making models, setting up and lighting landscapes, shooting scenes, editing clips, delivering the edited film to DuMont Studios, and of course sweeping out and cleaning up! At the beginning I was paid 50 or 75 cents an hour. Soon that went to one whole dollar an hour. When I left more than fifteen years later, still a part time employee, I was typically making fifteen dollars an hour.

Harry Persanis and Leo Russell filming Captain Video special effects.

Harry Persanis and Leo Russell filming Captain Video special effects.

RR: We can see why it didn’t become a career! Do you remember anything more about Russell and Haberstroh?

HP: Both were struggling artists with very little success as artists in an era of giants. They were as different from one another as night is to day. Leo Russell was flamboyant and a dreamer, Alex Haberstroh was overly organized about his work and very creative mechanically. Both were exceptionally kind and understanding, strong liberals and in their youth active in the labor movement. They had to be kind and understanding, to deal with a maverick like me!

RR: Did you ever get to see your own work on TV?

HP: I did not watch much of Captain Video since we knew in advance what was about to happen. So the pictures that show up on eBay, although familiar, do not relate to any particular story line that I remember.

RR: What can you tell us about the Galaxy II itself? It has a maddeningly, wonderfully complex shape. I tried over and over to sketch it as a kid, and those sketches helped me to remember it before photos of it surfaced. It is not your usual V2 with wings!

HP: I can tell you that the Galaxy was designed mostly by Alex and put together by me using two identical halves from two plastic model kits of a contemporary jet plane.

RR: So the Galaxy was perhaps the first example of what movie modelmakers in the late 1970s called “kit bashing”?

HP: Yes, If you look closely you can see that the large tail fins are really wings glued to the back of the model, that the tail fins with the fuel tanks are the original jets’ tail with the fuel tanks added. The model was approximately 13 inches long and spray painted silver. All of the scenes that showed a planetary surface were created on a table 10 feet wide by 7 feet deep. Ninety percent of the landscape was made up of sifted ordinary sand with papier-mache mountains. Powdered colors were sifted onto the sand to accent shadows, to give it texture and to cover the grain of the sand. The background was very flat-black-painted canvas approx. 25′ feet long by 10′ wide, sewn together lengthwise to form a loop, and then four rollers (round cylinders 2″ inches in diameter and 14′ feet long) were inserted in the looped canvas to form a rectangle. When spaceships were to be seen in flight, the rollers were mechanized to roll the canvas in a never ending loop. This was the “Starfield” into which Alex spent hours punching holes to resemble stars in the galaxies as they were known at that time. Very bright lights were placed behind the canvas to light the holes in the canvas which then filmed as stars. When clips of the Galaxy moving in space were needed, the Galaxy was hung on a string (painted with a secret formula of acetone and black powder to make the string appear invisible) in front of the looped “Starfield” which in turn moved slowly in the continuous loop, making it appear as if the Galaxy were moving through space. Only the camera and the “Starfield” moved giving the illusion that the Galaxy was going faster, slowing down, stopping, or turning. It took great skill and a very steady hand to make a 13″ Galaxy appear to be a hundred feet long. Both Alex and Leo were members of the American Rocket Society, which was a world-renowned organization whose membership included the top rocket scientists of that time.

RR: Their genuine love for space travel shows up clearly in their work, I think. What about you?

HP: I loved what I was doing, but it was still only a job and I loved playing stickball, drinking beer and falling in love every two weeks, a lot more. As to the show’s artifacts— both Alex and Leo are long gone. Alex’s sister, who became his partner as office manager during the final years, is also gone. She was left in possession of all the artifacts, including the film library. Where they went to, I do not know. As I said earlier, I may have some things in my basement that I gave my son to play with some twenty-five years ago but I’m not sure. One of these days I will take a look and if there is something there I will be sure to let you know. There isn’t a lot that I remember that I have left out, but if you have questions please ask (again). Keep the faith! Stay healthy.

RR: Thanks, Harry, and stay in touch!