Jack Elliott - Racing television's trailblazer

04:58 AM 26 Jun 2014 NZST
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Jack Elliott, harness racing Jack Elliott, harness racing
Jack Elliott today
Jack Elliott during World War II
Goshen, NY -- His nickname was 'Ace.' Many didn't know him as Jack. But after 38 years operating the television camera system at the Little Brown Jug, millions have enjoyed Jack Elliott's work.

Although an Ohio legend now, Jack Elliott's first experience with communication equipment is different than you might think. Infantryman Elliott served in WWII active combat duty in the European theater as a forward observer radio operator.

"I was 18 and turned 19 on the Rhine River before crossing on pontoon bridges into the main part of Germany," Elliott recalls.

"I froze my feet in the Battle of the Bulge. Had to rub them with snow, to get them numb to be able to slide into the sleeping bag."

After the war with Germany ended Jack was being sent home to another infantry division, the 8th, to head for Japan to fight. Fortunately half way home the war with Japan ended.

Born in 1926 in Buffalo, New York, Elliott grew up in nearby Gowanda. After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge with the 79th Infantry as a teenager, Elliott came home and attended broadcasting school in Kansas City.

He began his career with WBEN-TV in Buffalo and then with NBC's WNBK affiliate in Cleveland as that station's technical director. Jack remembers his learning curve with some of the equipment.

"My first camera job was a disaster. In December 1947 I was assigned to run a camera at a professional wrestling match. It was in Buffalo and the place was packed. I had never seen a pro match before and thought it was for real. The crowd was very loud. There was a switch on the camera, that no one had mentioned to me, that could cut off the microphone, so I could hear the truck's control room better.

"Well, I had a close-up of the two wrestlers in the middle of the ring, and as they rolled over to the side of the ring, I moved my head around the camera and did not pan with the wrestlers. I was really digging the match. The truck could not get me since the crowd noise was overpowering their signal. They sent a man up from the truck and he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the viewfinder, which was showing nothing but an empty screen."

That was simply a bump in the road as Jack tells it. "Back in the 50's I was the number one cameraman at the TV station owned by NBC. I was flown around the country doing football games and if a big star came to town, I was removed from my technical director's job and moved over to the number one camera. Bob Hope was just one of the stars I filmed."

Neither fame nor technical glitches could get in the way of Jack's love for camera work and television. Ultimately, Elliott got into sales and made the deal with Northfield Park for its first TV system in 1967, and installed the first color cameras at Scioto Downs in 1974.

While at Northfield in 1967, Jack recalls some of the earliest equipment he had to work with. "Back in those days there were no computers. Instead we had a room called the Calculating Room with about 32 men in it. Each had a Monroe Calculator which was a super adding machine. It could also subtract and divide, and had a big crank handle on the side.

"The Mutuel department placed two men on each price. Their figures had to match for it to be an official payoff. They had runners who would take the results to the "propper" so the winning ticket holders could get paid. This took about 10 minutes after the race. My company installed about eight cameras in that room and we televised the price payoffs and sent them via cable to the proper area."

Elliott continues, "We also installed the first race camera for the judges. I had a cable that went from my video playback room to the judges office on the backstretch. They could hold hearings and I would playback the video of the race in question. The General Manager hated to lose those calculating room guys when the computers came. The computers didn't bet on the races and these guys bet big time."

In 1975 Elliott realized that the sport of harness racing was lacking celluloid history. He started gleaning footage from USTA films of historic races such as the Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug. This built the foundation for the groundbreaking series Great American Trotters and Little Brown Jug Greats through Elliott's company, Colorigination. Eventually, these premier works encouraged Elliott to produce four annual Year End Review collections for the best trotters and pacers, the Breeders Crown and Canada's Best, beginning in 1993.

After nearly four decades filming the Jug, and 32 years as Scioto's director of televised production, Jack retired in 2007.

The immortal Stan Bergstein noted in a 1997 issue of Times: In Harness that, "If video historian Jack Elliott of Circleville, Ohio had not started collecting and organizing the films and videotapes of the modern era's great races, the sport would have no visual record of its equine stars."

The impressive collection of harness racing videos assembled by Elliott constitutes a catalog of greatness, invaluable to the history of the sport. A decade later in Hoof Beats, Bergstein reiterates, "the sport owes Jack Elliott a debt of gratitude."

Museum director Janet Terhune agrees. "Back in the 90s the Sulky Sweeties of Scioto Downs awarded Jack their "Good Guy" award. But Elliott's efforts mean so much more to the sport than his pleasant demeanor. He has single-handedly ensured that the motion picture history of the Standardbred has been preserved and protected for generations to come."

In addition to the videos Jack Elliott has contributed to the Harness Racing Museum's collections over the years, it is his intention to entrust his life's work to the Museum's care.

That is only one of the many reasons that at the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on July 6 in Goshen, Elliott shall be honored with the Museum's Pinnacle Award, which recognizes and provides appreciation for exemplary efforts put forth by members of the press and public relations professionals, in the promotion of the sport in general and The Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame in particular.

By Chris Tully

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