George Eastman, who founded Eastman Kodak, was a complex character. He lived 4 blocks from the garden he loved in Rochester, New York, where he eventually built a mansion. Workers were grooming its lawns and plants the day Ruth and I visited. They were soon to be welcoming both spring and Julia Roberts, who, like Meryl Streep, would be arriving to receive the George Eastman Award for her contribution to the motion picture industry that Eastman partially founded. Eastman’s mansion is now toward the back of this property. Near its main entrance is a history of photography gallery and changing exhibits of the more than 400,000 photographs in this facility’s collection. Just before we entered Eastman’s dining room we passed the 500-seat Dryden Theatre, which specializes in showing classic films.
George Eastman was both eccentric and lucky. George quit school a the age of 13 and went to work for an insurance company. In 1880 he founded the Eastman Dryplate Company that revolutionized photography. He invented the word Kodak 8 years later. The 1st Kodak camera sold for $25 and was loaded with film that would allow 100 exposures before being returned to the factory for developing, printing, and the insertion of another roll of film for $10. Eastman’s easy-to-use, handheld, portable camera was as successful as the iPhone. Eastman, who believed that the wealthy should give away their fortunes before dying, gave away a lot of his money. Over time, for example, he donated $100 million to educational and arts institutions. He was a chain smoker who biked, hunted big game, and traveled. Although linked to many women, he never married. He slept only 4 hours each night and consistently had 25 guests to dinner every Wednesday evening. Detail-oriented, he installed a phone in every room of his house, but half of that house was devoted to entertainment. He knew and worked with Thomas Edison, developed the film that launched the movie industry, entertained in his solarium where he hung out every morning under a stuffed elephant’s head and surrounded by expensive art. He was generous to 2 schools, MIT and Tuskegee, founded the Eastman School of Music and WHAM radio, provided dentistry scholarships for women, and started the organization that eventually became United Way. I learned some of these details from our dynamic tour guide Marilyn, another devoted biker. While it became a pioneer of digital photography, the Kodak company made its money from film processing, so it went the way of Blockbuster, which rented movies instead of making them.
Eastman’s mother Maria was also a bit eccentric. She lived long enough to spend 2 years in her son’s mansion but could not adapt to it or life as the mother of a wildly rich man.
The Dryden Theatre, which is definitely for cinephiles, celebrated its 68th birthday recently by showing a restored Joan Crawford movie that had not been seen for 90 years. It has collected and regularly shows its more than 20,000 films near the oldest photography museum in the world.
For a very long time, Eastman’s invention became far more than a product name, like Kleenex and Jell-o. People were more likely to say, “Take my Kodak and hand me a Kleenex before I eat my Jell-o” instead of “Take my camera and hand me a tissue before I eat my gelatin”.