Charlotte’s Walter Klein was known as a legendary filmmaker who produced more than 1,000 “sponsored films” that fell somewhere between documentaries and commercials. But there was so much more.
Klein, who died Tuesday at 95, was an historian who wrote seven books. He was devoted to his Jewish faith and that of others, working to preserve the former home of evangelist Billy Graham. His community work ranged from the Boy Scouts to the Humane Society.
And when hundreds gathered at the Charlotte Museum of History on the first night of 2000, they rang a ground-level, 7.5-ton “American Freedom Bell” that was Klein’s doing.
“These were just asides in his life — it just showed how much he did,” said his daughter, Katherine Thiry. “We were always discovering things in Dad’s life because he was so quiet about it.”
A native of South Orange, N.J., Klein wrote and illustrated his autobiography at age 10, Thiry said. He learned to use a camera while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Klein studied journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill and, after graduation, went to work as art director of the The Charlotte Observer. He remained a frequent letter-to-the-editor writer.
In the 1940s, what would become Walker J. Klein Co. Ltd. began producing commercials as television started its rapid ascent.
The company shot 26 interviews with famous Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, for the “Victory in Europe” and “Victory at Sea” TV programs after the war, the Observer has reported. President Dwight Eisenhower appeared in Klein’s first full-length film, “Freedom Celebration Day,” in 1954.
The company would later count AT&T, General Electric and Sony among its clients. Churches and charitable groups got their films free.
Sponsored films can sell products, explain public programs or advance social causes. The sponsors want to get a message out. Klein’s job was to craft it into a story.
“Straight advertising has lying in it — there’s omission, steering people in the direction you want them to go,” Klein said in a 1998 Observer interview. “As a filmmaker, I try never to lie. My motto is the same as a doctor’s: First, do no harm. We turned down things based on false premises. Sometimes we made decisions with our hearts. “
Some 300 of the more than 1,000 films Klein produced won awards. Klein was named to the N.C. Advertising Hall of Fame and donated copies of 916 of his films to the N.C. School of the Arts. In 2018, the International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers, which Klein founded, honored his 50 years of work with a ceremony in Paris.
Throughout his life, Klein was a “passionately optimistic person,” Katherine Thiry said. “Things were not obstacles, but bumps.”
Klein and his late wife, Elizabeth, opened their home to foreign exchange students and once wrote a booklet based on their travels through the Carolinas in search of Jewish connections. Klein served in numerous leadership roles in his faith life, according to his obituary, including as president of Temple Beth El and Charlotte B’nai B’rith.
His history research included erecting monuments to honor Jewish soldiers who served in the Confederacy and documenting the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which is believed to have been written more than a year before the more well-known version signed in Philadelphia in 1776.
Klein became the main champion of the American Freedom Bell as the globe prepared to enter the 21st century. Former Mayor John Belk paid $150,000 for the bell to be made. The Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II were among the global leaders who sent congratulatory messages.
Gov. Jim Martin awarded Klein the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for his contributions to the state.
Klein is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. A service to celebrate his life was to be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Temple Beth El.