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Irvin Yeaworth Jr., 78; Christian Filmmaker Directed 'The Blob'

July 30, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Irvin S. "Shorty" Yeaworth Jr., a Christian filmmaker and theme park pavilion designer who earned his place in pop culture by directing "The Blob," the science fiction cult classic starring Steve McQueen and a man-eating mass of red goo, has died. He was 78.

Yeaworth, a resident of Malvern, Pa., died July 19 in a single-car accident in Jordan, where he was working on a major entertainment complex in the port of Aqaba.

"We assume that he fell asleep while he was driving," Jean, Yeaworth's wife of 59 years and frequent collaborator, told The Times.

As a filmmaker who launched his career producing a religious television program in the late 1940s, Yeaworth made more than 400 missionary, motivational and entertainment films. Over the last 30 years, he also led American Christians on numerous tours of Israel and Jordan and designed and produced World's Fair and theme park pavilions.

At the time of his death, he was nearing the completion of the Jordan Experience, an entertainment complex featuring a walk-through history exhibit and a theater offering a Disney-style "magic carpet ride" over Jordan.

But no matter what else he did professionally, Yeaworth could never escape "The Blob," one of three science fiction movies he directed. The others were the 1959 film "4D Man" and the 1960 film "Dinosaurus!"

"My most distinguished friends get a real charge out of saying, 'This is Shorty, who made 'The Blob,' " Yeaworth, whose middle name was Shortess, told Associated Press in 1995.

At the time he directed the low-budget film about a meteor that lands on Earth and feeds off humans, Yeaworth's Good News Productions had been making religious and educational films for several years at his filmmaking colony in Chester Springs, Pa.

Yeaworth once said he took on "The Blob" "to see if we really could communicate with the secular audience."

"The Blob," one of the few 1950s science fiction films shot in color, provided star billing to the relatively unknown McQueen, who is listed in the credits as Steven McQueen. The 27-year-old actor was cast as a small-town teenager who battles what one critic called "a lethal lump of interplanetary plum preserves" and another critic called "a crawling roomful of Jello that eats you instead of the other way around."

McQueen once said of his role in the campy classic: "The main acting challenge in this one consisted of running around bug-eyed and shouting, 'Hey, everybody, look out for the Blob!' "

Yeaworth and his filmmaking colleagues had struggled over what to call the film, which was originally titled "The Molten Meteor." (The Blob was actually a lump of red-colored silicone rubber.)

Among the titles that were considered: "The Night of the Creeping Dread" and "The Glob That Girdled the Globe." They also considered calling it simply "The Glob," but they discovered that "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly had the rights to that name. Finally, producer Jack H. Harris came up with "The Blob."

The odd title paid dividends in free publicity: Steve Allen and other TV comics were unable to resist joking about "The Blob," whose catchy title song was sung by the Five Blobs. The song was written by an uncredited Burt Bacharach and Mack David. "Shorty's contribution was enormous," Harris told The Times this week, recalling the six-week shooting schedule in which the cast and crew worked up to 20 hours a day, six days a week. But on Sundays without fail, Harris recalled, Yeaworth "had to go to church and play the organ."

"The Blob," which cost about $140,000 to make, became an unexpected box office smash for Paramount, which distributed it.

Yeaworth took what he made from directing the film and put it into "Secret Island," a television program providing moral lessons for preschoolers.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Yeaworth was born in 1926 in Berlin, where his American-born father was working on his doctorate.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., in 1947, he studied briefly at Temple University's School of Theology but decided he would be more effective working behind the scenes rather than in the pulpit.

In 1949, Yeaworth began producing "Youth on the March," an evangelistic program for young people, on the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia.

Three years later, he founded Good News Productions to make films for the Christian market. The company was based on the former summer school campus of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Chester Springs. The 150-acre campus had three large art studios, which Yeaworth converted into sound stages for his team of struggling filmmakers, who lived with him and his wife on the site.

It's there -- and on location in nearby towns -- that he made "The Blob."

For the last five years, the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, one of the film's key location sites, has organized an annual, three-day "BlobFest," which drew more than 1,300 people two weeks ago. Among the highlights: a reenactment by costumed "BlobFest" participants of the sequence shot at the Colonial in which hysterical moviegoers run screaming from the movie theater after the oozing alien mass devours the projectionist.

"There is a real cult following for 'The Blob,' " said Kathy Whittle, Yeaworth's daughter. "He had people calling him all the time for pieces of the Blob or some kind of Blob memorabilia."

Yeaworth's wife added: "He often said it will follow him to the grave, which it has."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Yeaworth is survived by four other children, a brother, two sisters, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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