Don Cooper, Travel Adventure Film's Funny Man, Dead at 89
Travelogue’s Funny Showman Don Cooper is Dead at 89
By Stan Walsh
The wit and humor of Don Cooper—Alaska Lumberjack with a camera—is silent. He passed away October 12 in Bozeman, Montana.
For four decades—from 1958 to 1998—Don Cooper was the most entertaining travelogue producer-narrator on the national circuit. He packed performing arts halls and theaters from coast to coast.
Born on the family homestead and schooled in the small logging town of DeBorgia in western Montana, he possessed a droll humor reminiscent of Will Rogers.
He said much of his education was on the end of a cross-cut saw. After a stint in the Army in the Pacific during World War II— earning two purple hearts plus a Bronze Star for bravery.
After the war, like Will Rogers, he went to South America to log and to prospect for gold. Neither was successful, so he abandoned the senoritas of the south and joined the “sourdoughs” of the north, where he worked in logging camps all over Alaska.
Don carried a second-hand 16mm camera in his knapsack and filmed loggers and wildlife. (Acquiring the camera was a lucky break. Don had loaned a fellow logger $75, taking the camera as collateral—and kept it when the logger reneged on the debt.)
In 1958, three Hollywood TV producers were in Alaska on a hunting trip. Their yacht got caught in a storm and they took shelter in a bay where Don was working in a logging camp.
One night Don showed the storm-bound visitors some of his Alaskan footage. This informal audition led to an invitation for Don to appear on Jack Douglas’ TV series Bold Journey. Seen nationwide, Don’s personality clicked—and the rest is history. Don’s first-ever travelogue presentation was at the Beverly Hills Women’s Club in 1958. This was the beginning of an award-winning career in Travel Adventure Films.
Headlines can best describe Don’s appeal: “Lecturer’s Wit Make Travel Shows Popular,” “Alaska Logger CutsComic Figure.” The Pasadena, California, Star-News proclaimed: “Don Cooper’s Back in Town.” The Detroit Free Press writer, Judd Arnett, wrote, “The cheeriest half-hour on television is when George Pierrot presents Don Cooper’s saga of scenic adventure spiced with good-natured tomfoolery, more falling-out-of-a-canoe fun, than a whole season of made-in-Hollywood comedies. Having him in Detroit is a recurring delight.
On Don’s 10th year appearance in Spokane, Washington, the sponsoring newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, stated that Don had entertained over 99,000 travel film fans in the Coliseum. “When you see Don Cooper on the theater marquee you are sure of an evening of rare entertainment and old-fashion fun.”
On stage Don opened with a monologue good for as many laughs as one by Bob Hope. His show was a relaxing, chuckle-filled two hours with striking photography accompanied by amusing, thought-provoking commentary. His narration was light-hearted, but was also a sound argument for conservation and protection of wildlife.
The Cooper Brothers with Assistant Camera Person Ruth, Don’s wife, produced nine films ranging from Nova Scotia to Hawaii.
Don’s approach to adventuring was so unusual, his narration so fresh that his signature film, Lumberjack in Alaska, charmed oldsters and students alike. A laugh meter would record startling decibels.
Dennis, Don’s brother and “Arnie” his partner, were unseen silent straight men for Don’s jokes. The Cooper Brother’s Trails of the Mountain West was a montage of scenic beauty and zany homespun backwoods humor. Their prop was a 1922 Model-T Ford converted into the most hysterically funny-four wheel camper ever to take to the road—looking like a shanty shack on wheels.
In their Northwestern Adventure Don put the audience aboard a leaky little makeshift steamboat. Their “cruise ship” huffs and puffs upstream with many breakdowns, but Don’s camera never falters. The result was a film filled with beauty, excitement and laughs.
Don met the love of his life, Ruth Lloyd, in 1965 while entertaining a travelogue audience in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Together, Don and Ruth made their home in DeBorgia where they raised two sons—Matthew and Michael— while traveling the world filming their adventures and sharing them with audiences across North America.
Don won the Travelogue of the Year award from the National Geographic 10 times.The Travel Adventure Cinema Society (TRACS), honored Don with its Hall of Fame award and its Lifetime Achievement awards after his retirement at 75.
(“Ol’ Coop” was one of three acknowledged travel-humorists. The others were Stan Midgley creator of “Chuckelogues” and Bill Stockdale with “Downeast” New England style humor. All have passes now.)
Don is survived by Ruth his wife of 48 years and by sons Michael of Bozeman and Matthew, residing in Switzerland and four grandchildren. A graveside memorial was held on October 20t in DeBorgia, Montana.
The Cooper email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are a few comments from his many travel film friends:
I am terribly saddened to hear this. I regard Don as being the ultimate representative of our profession... naturally funny, always engaging and, most importantly, he always put a huge dose of humanity into his programs. I doubt anyone else has had the close connection to the audience that Don almost always achieved. It has little to do with the film content and so much to do with the filmmaker.
As anyone knows who has seen Don on stage, the film was the platform that allowed him to connect with the audience. Wow, what a showman and what a great personality to boot! Few of us could ever emulate Don and he will always remain in a class by himself. First of all, his library of jokes is unequaled and he always laughed along with the jokes, and at his brother Dennis, and most of all, at himself. The audience was always in on the joke...
Don almost always had a deeper message in his programs. In spite of his lumberjack background, it was often an environmental message or his love of the land that was woven into his programs.
I saw this in film after film and finally realized that Don's presentations were far deeper than hasty observations could ever reveal. I learned a lot.
Most of all, Don's films were lovingly made and lovingly given. The audience couldn't help but see them in the light that they were given.
There are two things I remember most about Don:
1) He was a true personality on stage. This is something that has gradually
slipped away. The idea of him having a recorded narration would have been
crazy. He was a comedian, timing was everything and he was a master at it.
2) With all the back biting and quibbling that went on during the halcyon
days of the business, Don truly lived by the adage: "If you can't say
anything nice, don't say anything at all."
I never heard him ever say a negative
thing about another speaker—and believe me there was plenty of
opportunity for all of us to comment on each other's work.
Don had a heart as big as his home state of Montana. He will be missed but
remembered with great affection.
One of the finest compliments I ever got was from a sponsor who had booked my film The Marsh, a quiet mystery." It has several humorous sequences in it. In his (the sponsor's) promo for the next show I did for him, he advertised me as "Audubon's answer to Don Cooper."
When Don would do my home town he would often stay with me and my wife. I really appreciated his willingness to sit in a rocker and gab endlessly about the business. Those were real learning sessions for me.
I think one of the finest legacies you can leave is for a smile to cross the face of whomever speaks of you.