Hooray for Hollywood! Frogtown’s unique contribution to the early film industry began at 823 University Avenue. A film projectionist named Charles Bell came to St. Paul from Seattle in 1908. He operated his own movie theater for a short time before working at the Gayety Theater.
Bell learned of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s need for scenic film footage for its publicity. In the pre-television days short films were used to promote goods and services. Bell partnered with Gayety Theater owner Otta Rath and Edward Seavolt to form a production company to work with Northern Pacific. The Rath-Seavold Film Manufacturing Company, later Rath-Mills, worked with the railroad for many years and shot more than 100,000 feet of publicity footage.
Reid Ray joined the company in 1915 as a camera technician. Ray had worked at Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, in Ames. He made films for the school’s athletic department. Today Ray is considered a pioneer of sports cinematography, because of his work to shoot footage for coaching staff.
By the 1930s Bell and Ray owned the film company, now Ray-Bell Films, at 823 University Ave. The building was designed to be used for film shoots and for processing and editing film. Crews traveled throughout North America making all types of educational and promotional films.
During World War II Ray-Bell Films produced more films for the federal Office of Education than any other company. By the 1940s Ray-Bell Films outgrew its Frogtown space and moved to 2269 Ford Parkway. Ray took over the company and renamed it Reid H. Ray Films. The Minnesota Historical Society has more than 180 images from the company on file, showing a wide range of clients.
When the company closed in the 1970s it was the oldest operating commercial filmmaker in the United States.