With the moon glinting off the distant pyramids and the 60 piece Welsh Guards regimental band playing in the pit, the Moonlight on the Nile scene opened the show. Incense wafted through the hall as a woman glided through the Dance of the Seven Veils while an Irish tenor in the wings intoned the Mohammedan Call to Prayer. Then impresario Lowell Thomas hit the spotlight and invited his audience to come “to the lands of mystery, history and romance.” The movie that followed made Lawrence of Arabia famous.
World War I was over and civilians were ready for Orientalism again. After playing to sold-out crowds in Madison Square Garden in New York Thomas opened at Covent Garden in London in August 1919. The movie-lecture presentation With Allenby in Palestine featured Field Marshall Sir Edmund Allenby, commander of the successful British Egyptian Expeditionary Force, but the film catapulted T.E. Lawrence into worldwide renown. So in early 1920 Lowell retitled his film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. The Welsh-born Thomas Edward Lawrence went out a colonel and came back a star.
Lowell Thomas went out a promoter and came back a rich man. The wildly popular movie made him $1.5 million or almost 20 million dollars in today’s receipts. His later best-selling 1924 book, With Lawrence in Arabia, became the first of his 56 books, which concluded in 1977 with the autobiography titled with his broadcasting catchphrase So Long Until Tomorrow. He died at the age of 89 in August 1981.
Lowell Jackson Thomas was born on 6 April 1892 in Darke County, Ohio, on the Indiana border just west of Dayton. Through his father Harry, he could trace his ancestry five generations back to Edward Morgan the Tailor, born 1670 in Bala, Merionethshire (now Gwynedd). Family members immigrated to the Welsh Tract west of Philadelphia and Lowell’s grandfather David moved to Ohio. Lowell’s father then moved the family west to Victor, Colorado in 1900. Lowell later moved back east.
After Valparaiso University, he wrote for the Chicago Journal before getting a master’s degree from Princeton. He had already started on his freelance travel career by train, paid for by his promotional articles. He expanded into film when he took his new movie camera to Alaska and then promoted his travelogues in theaters. His popularity got him noticed eventually by former Princetonian, President Woodrow Wilson. Thomas ended up traveling to the Western Front after the US entered World War I.
Finding nothing for home front promotional material in the trenches of France, he carried on to Palestine as an accredited war correspondent. In Jerusalem in March 1918 he met General Allenby, who sent him on to Aqaba in Arabia. There he photographed Lawrence. Thomas knew a scoop when he found one. And Lawrence knew something about public relations, too, as he posed in his robes for the camera.
On a raid with the “blonde bedouin” and 200 Howeitat tribesmen, Thomas watched an attack on a Turkish troop train. The story played well later. “The mysterious Englishman” didn’t handle his own fame well as Lawrence of Arabia, though, and after the war re-enlisted in the British military twice under assumed names. But fame still followed him. As Thomas put it, “He had a genius for backing into the limelight.”
Lowell Thomas enjoyed the limelight for the rest of his life. After promoting Lawrence, he broadcast his own radio shows for CBS from 1930 until 1976. For NBC he anchored the first-ever television newscast in 1939 and had a show, High Adventure, on CBS from 1955 to 1958, a strong echo of his early travelogue days. The “ globetrotter,” when recognized in Rome, was asked, “Don’t you ever go home?”
For his efforts, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976, two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and induction into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989. Of course he had a part in David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O’Toole, but fictionalized as “Jackson Bentley.” That movie about Lawrence was a hit, too. As Thomas once said, “I’m not a journalist, but an entertainer.”