Jul 30

Celebrate the birthday of the Watermelon King!

Leo Altmayer, Watermelon King

The Watermelon King

All but forgotten today, Leo G. Altmayer was once Pittsburgh, PA’s “Watermelon King.” In 1934, Altmayer announced a new holiday, “Good Samaritan Day,” to be observed on July 29 every year. Not coincidentally, July 29th was also Altmayer’s birthday. For years he had been celebrating by distributing as many as 50,000 watermelons to a variety of organizations and institutions, including orphanages, hospitals, prisons, and the Boy Scouts.

Why watermelons? According to his obituary in The Pittsburgh Press, it was because he began work at the age of 13 in a glass factory, and he “never forgot how gratifying refreshment could be.” At the pinnacle of his watermelon-philanthropic career, Altmayer had 150 institutions on his birthday list, and he donated as many as 7500 melons to each one.

The launch of Good Samaritan Day was held at the Leech Farm tuberculosis hospital. The Pittsburgh Press counted “more than 20,000 men, women and children,” “several motion picture camera crews,” and even the famous author/broadcaster Lowell Thomas in attendance. Surprisingly, watermelon was not served.

Today’s feature seems to have been shot the day before (Saturday the 28th), when Altmayer was making the watermelon rounds. It’s a strange and fascinating film, for a number of reasons:

• Children are pretty irresistible. I’m also rather taken with the watermelons, which look so different from the ones we can buy in stores now.

Staged watermelon joke

The cameraman stages a watermelon joke

• It documents not only newsreel recording technology, but also filmmaking practice. You can see the cameraman coaching the kids to misbehave, rearranging them into more pleasing compositions, and feeding them dialogue. On a more distressing note, if you turn up your computer speakers, you’ll catch the behind-the-scenes construction of a watermelon joke at the expense of one of the African-American boys.

• Like many of the outtakes in the Fox collection, it includes bad takes and retakes. Sometimes the effect is comical, as when Altmayer wanders out of frame while struggling to deliver a line: “always remembering … be … good …” Other times it borders on the surreal, as when the children are prompted to repeat the mantra “Oh, I’m so tired, and so full.”

So far as I can tell, this newsreel was never released, and neither Altmayer’s birthday nor his Good Samaritan Day are celebrated today (a different holiday by the same name is observed on March 13). But I, for one, have marked the occasion–and shared the gratification of refreshment–by bringing watermelon to work.

— Heather Heckman

Watch the movie in the new MIRC Digital Video Repository!


    • Sally Altmayer Buske on October 7, 2014 at 9:55 pm
    • Reply

    I am the daughter of Leo Altmayer and have the pictures of my father “The Watermellon
    King”. Please let me know how I can chat with you on line. The article you wrote about my father is well done and I am very proud of my Dad.

    1. How exciting! We would love to speak with you about your father! Please send us an email at mirc@mailbox.sc.edu.

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