Michael "Mike" Todd was an Oscar winning American film and theatre producer. He is best remembered for producing the blockbuster hit American epic adventure-comedy film ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ that earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture. Todd commenced his career in construction business, however had a hard luck. Moving on, he strived with failed ventures and became bankrupt several times. Eventually he forayed into showbiz and found success on Broadway where he produced 17 shows. Two of his most successful shows were the American musical revues ‘Star and Garter’ and ‘Michael Todd's Peepshow’. He played instrumental role in technical innovation in film industry during the 1950s. He formed Cinerama Company with Lowell Thomas and Fred Waller, to put to use the widescreen film process called Cinerama invented by Waller. Todd later left Cinerama Company and developed the widescreen, 70 mm film format called Todd-AO along with American Optical Company. He later sold his interest in the Todd-AO format to aid in financing ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. He succumbed to a private plane accident while he was married to famous British-American actress Elizabeth Taylor. He was her third husband among seven.
Childhood & Early Life
Michael "Mike" Todd was born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen on June 22, 1909, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, as youngest son of a poor family of Polish Jewish immigrants, Chaim Goldbogen and Sophia Hellerman. His father was an Orthodox rabbi. Todd had eight siblings. Years later, he changed his name to Mike Todd, deciding to take the step on the day of his father’s death in 1931.
On November 11, 1918, the day that marked end of the First World War, Todd’s family reached Chicago. While he was in sixth grade, Todd was caught running a game of craps within school premises and was thus ousted from school. During his high school days, his production of the school play ‘The Mikado’ became quite a hit.
He left high school before completing his graduation and began doing several odd jobs. These include working as soda jerk, shoe salesman, and security guard at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center.
He later endeavoured into construction business but as luck would have it, he lost all the fortune he made through the business. He also tried his hands in teaching bricklaying by coming up with the College of Bricklaying of America. However objection from the Bricklayers' Union led to closure of the school.
He opened a construction company with his brother. While transition to sound from silent pictures was taking place, Todd worked with different Hollywood studios as a contractor soundproofing production stages. As the Great Depression set in, his company with his brother became bankrupt. Todd lost more than a million dollars while he was yet to reach 21 years of age. This was followed by other failed ventures that saw him becoming bankrupt several times.
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While Chicago was celebrating its centennial at ‘The Chicago World's Fair’ from May 27, 1933 to October 31, 1934, Todd presented a show called ‘Flame Dance’. A dancer with wings would dance on-stage and eventually gas jets would burn her costume stripping her seemingly naked, although actually she would be wearing a close-fitting one-piece garment. The show became a huge attraction leading Todd to garner offer from Casino de Paree nightclub in New York City. This again paved his way to a fruitful Broadway career.
Todd found success in Broadway producing 17 shows. He wrote for American comedians Olsen and Johnson and produced and co-wrote several Broadway revues, starting with the 1937 production of ‘Call Me Ziggy’.
Todd offered to manage the WPA production of musical theatre adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera ‘The Mikado’ called ‘The Swing Mikado’. After his offer was rejected by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), he produced a jazzier version of the comic opera on Broadway, titled ‘The Hot Mikado’. The show with an African-American cast starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in titular role opened on March 23, 1939 and became a considerable success leading to financial crisis of FTP which eventually closed same year.
One of his most successful Broadway shows was the 1942 American musical revue ‘Star and Garter’ that starred comedian Bobby Clark and featured burlesque striptease artists Georgia Sothern and Gypsy Rose Lee. Musical comedy revues produced by Todd that featured partly or scantily clothed actresses including the 1950 produced ‘Michael Todd's Peepshow’ garnered him immense success.
He joined hands with Lowell Thomas and Fred Waller, inventor of the widescreen film process called Cinerama, to form the Cinerama Company in 1950. The company was formed to exploit the process that broadens the aspect ratio thus involving peripheral vision of the viewer. However before the first Cinerama feature released in September 1952, Todd left the company to create another widescreen process sans some of the flaws of Cinerama. This led him to develop the widescreen 70 mm film format Todd-AO along with the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s.
Meanwhile, his 1952 production of the three acts operetta ‘A Night in Venice’ by Johann Strauss II that was staged at the Jones Beach Marine Theater at the Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh, New York and featured floating gondolas ran for two seasons.
The first feature film photographed using the Todd-AO process was the October 11, 1955, released musical ‘Oklahoma’. Todd made his debut in film production with the October 17, 1956, released American epic adventure-comedy film ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. The film that used the Todd-AO 70 mm process and starred Cantinflas and David Niven became a huge commercial success. It won five Oscars including winning Todd Academy Award for Best Picture. He also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama for the film.
Todd purchased the twin theatres called Harris and Selwyn Theaters located in the Loop community area of Chicago, Illinois in the 1950s. He converted both into movie theatres and renamed the Harris as ‘The Michael Todd Theatre’ and the Selwyn as ‘Michael Todd's Cinestage’. The former sometimes featured live performances as well. The two theatres were later closed and although their interiors were demolished, the facades of the two still remain within the Goodman Theatre complex.
Family & Personal Life
On February 14, 1927, he married Bertha Freshman in Crown Point, Indiana. Together they had a son Mike Todd, Jr., born in 1929. Todd separated from Freshman and filed for divorce in August 1946, however Freshman died within a week on August 12.
He was married to actress Joan Blondell from July 5, 1947 to June 8, 1950. The actress cited mental cruelty while filing divorce against Todd.
On February 2, 1957, he married actress Elizabeth Taylor in Mexico. The mayor of Acapulco performed the ceremony. The couple’s daughter Elizabeth Frances (Liza) Todd was born on August 6 that year.
While he was travelling to New York to receive the New York Friars Club ‘Showman of the Year’ award, he met with a fatal plane crash on March 22, 1958, with his private plane the Liz crashing near Grants, New Mexico.
Todd’s remains were identified through dental records and although his son wanted to cremate his body, Taylor turned down such suggestion saying that Todd would not want cremation. His remains were thus interred in the Beth Aaron Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.
His remains were desecrated by thieves in June 1977. They were looking for a diamond ring worth $100,000 that was rumoured to have been placed by Taylor on Todd’s finger before his burial. His remains were later identified again through dental records and re-interred in a secret place.