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A Death in the Family: Al Wolfheimer

Albert Daniel Wolfheimer (1922-2013)

Albert Daniel Wolfheimer (1922-2013)

Albert Daniel Wolfheimer, who died June 5th at age 90, was the epitome of a community-theater volunteer. A sweet, humble man, he was also a mechanical genius who performed yoeman’s work behind the scenes not only for Raleigh Little Theatre but also for The Cinema, Inc. As former Raleigh actor Scotty Cherryholmes put it on Facebook: “Al was a force of nature. A one of a kind. A team of techies couldn’t replace him.”

On its website, RLT acknowledges “Wolf’s” incalculable contributions to the 77-year-old community theater:

“In the 1989-90 season, the Volunteer Service Awards were renamed the Al D. Wolfheimer Awards [a.k.a the “Wolfies”] to honor the man who, since 1964, has dedicatedly supported the technical and general well-being of Raleigh Little Theatre.

“Formerly an IBM engineer, Al Wolfheimer has poured his heart, finances, and considerable expertise into meeting the technical and maintenance needs of RLT efficiently, creatively and at the lowest cost. He was instrumental in overseeing the construction of the Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre in 1987-88 and the refurbishment of the older [Cantey V. Sutton main-stage] theatre in 1990-91.”

I first met Al Wolfheimer in December 1980, when I joined the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., the Triangle’s oldest, continuously operating nonprofit film society, which has been screening fine films since 1966. Al was Cinema’s projectionist and vice president-technical while the organization screened its films twice on Sunday nights at RLT. But he was also Mr. Fix-It for many of the Triangle’s movie theaters. Whenever their projectors brokedown, Al’s phone would ring, and off he’d go. (They must have had him on speed dial!) If he couldn’t repair broken projectors from parts on hand, he could fabricate new parts in a workshop in the basement his north Raleigh home. Triangle film buffs, movie-theater owners, and theatergoers owe Al a HUGE debt for all of his contributions to the arts.

Born on Nov. 16, 1922 in Philadelphia, PA, Al was the son of Albert Wolfheimer and the former Anna Armstrong. While still in high school, Al worked weekends as a projectionist in various movie theaters in the City of Brotherly Love. He later graduated from vocational school and worked for Lippincott Pictures by day and as a projectionist by night.

After his service overseas in Air Force during World War II, Al joined IBM in 1947 and worked there for the next 39 years before retiring in 1986. If you Google “Albert Daniel Wolfheimer,” you will find his name on a whole slew of patents for revolutionary new technologies, such as the bar code scanner.

Current Cinema, Inc. president Dr. Peter B. Corson remembers:

“Al was one of the co-inventors of the bar code scanner. Some years ago [the Raleigh News & Observer] wrote an article on his partner, and recently … ran an article on the co-inventor of the concept of using bar codes to identify products and control inventory. Concepts are one thing, but implementation is the hard part, and his work at IBM has left us all with a remarkable invention that has changed business practices around the world.

“Al’s story is one of those unique histories that catch us by surprise. What follows is my recollection of conversations with Al from long ago, so I may be incorrect about the details. He grew up around Philadelphia and worked as a theater projectionist during his teenage years. From that he carried a lifelong love of projection equipment and of films. Al was known here by all of the theater owners as the person to call when their projection equipment failed in the middle of a screening. He was incredibly professional, and everything he did was done to the highest standards. On top of that, he was a superb trouble-shooter and problem-solver.

“Al built a small theater on the back of his house to screen films. It was a miniature in every way of a commercial movie house. There were three banked rows of theater seats totaling 18, the screen was approximately 10 feet wide and had a remotely-controlled motor-driven curtain, and there was even a popcorn machine in the back of the theater. His projection booth had 35 mm and 16 mm projectors, and more recently digital equipment. CP&L/Progress Energy/Duke Energy had to re-wire their power supply to his house because of the equipment power draw. His screening room was used on occasion by movie companies filming locally to screen the daily rushes from their work.

“Al did not go to college and was hired by IBM because of his technical skills. Having spent my life as a mechanical engineer, I can’t imagine how a button-down company like IBM (remember the 1956 book by W.H. Whyte entitled The Organization Man, a sociological study of conformist corporate culture) had the audacity to give him the carte blanche authority to develop the bar code scanner. He and his partner worked whatever hours they wanted, and they had full control over the development of the project.

“Al was a mainstay of Raleigh Little Theatre as their technical go-to person. Others can provide … more details of his tenure there, but he was involved in all of their set constructions at the points that needed particular expertise.

“I got to know him through his support of The Cinema, Inc., our local nonprofit film society. He was not an original member of the board of directors, but he joined the board two years later, around the time it was incorporated in 1966. He was the first person I met when I showed an interest in the organization and joined the board in 1974. He served on the board for many years and rented his projection equipment for a nominal sum for our screenings. His equipment was mounted permanently in Raleigh Little Theatre in the projection booth, the sound system, and the projection screen. For many years, he was the driving force that made it possible for us to show films and achieve our goals of bringing the best in cinematic history to the Raleigh area.

“Al and his wife [Beverly] loved opera. When I visited his house, there often would be opera music playing. I am told that Al was 90 when he died. I am surprised because I never felt that much age difference between us. His loss to the Raleigh area is a major one and [he was] one of our more remarkable citizens.”

Named “Tarheel of the Week” by the N&O in 1982, Al Wolfheimer was awarded the Raleigh Medal of Arts in 1989, and his invaluable contributions to Raleigh Little Theatre and The Cinema, Inc. were recognized in countless other awards which — knowing Al — he accepted with quiet humility, because Al avoided the spotlight whenever he could.

R.I.P. Al Wolfheimer. We will not see your likes again.

RECEPTION: Al Wolfheimer’s family will receive his friends at his home at 5421 Thayer Dr., Raleigh, NC 27612 from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 13th. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Al’s memory to SAFE Haven for Cats, 8431-137 Garvey Dr., Raleigh, NC 27616 or Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, NC 27607.



Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Review, a FREE weekly e-mail arts newsletter. This eulogy is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review.

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