PORTLAND, Maine — While attempting to get a novel angle, a daredevil newsreel cameraman lashed himself beneath a bouquet of hydrogen-filled balloons 84 years ago this month.
Then he floated away into the skies above Old Orchard Beach.
It took guts to get up there but, when his tether failed, it took a priest with mad marksmanship skills to get him back down.
It was front page news in the Sept. 29, 1937, edition of the Bangor Daily News.
“A New York newsreel photographer went on an unscheduled, un-scientific ascent into the atmosphere today,” the Associated Press reported.
The newsman’s name was Al Mingalone of Paramount and it wasn’t his first stunt. Mingalone was already well-known for his dangerous antics.
He once let a roller skater twirl him around a platform atop the Empire State Building without a railing. Mingalone also reportedly hung onto the outside of a submarine while it submerged and he filmed with a waterproof camera.
He was so well known, he was even a pitchman for Camel cigarettes.
“I’m for Camels. My experience proves that Camels are a big aid to digestion,” read ads in the BDN that same year. “I smoke a lot of Camels. They don’t jangle my nerves.”
Both large endorsements showed Mingalone at work, dressed in a trench coat and fedora, cigarette between his fingers.
But back to the story.
On Sept. 28, the day before the article ran, Mingalone strapped into a parachute harness connected to 30-odd, four-foot balloons on a golf course in Old Orchard Beach. He’d planned to get aerial footage of the area.
At the time, the town was already a long-standing summer resort, known for aviation and motorsports. Planes, including Charles Lindbergh’s, would land on the beach while cars and motorcycles held races on the sand.
According to the AP story, and another published by Time Magazine in October, Mingalone was at first tethered to the ground by a 200-foot rope.
A young man named Thomas Bowman, who worked for the golf course, ran and leaped for the ragged end of the rope. But, like something out of a movie, he tripped and the cord drifted upward, just out of reach. Soon, Mingalone was lost from sight in a rain cloud about 2,000 feet overhead.
Also on hand that day was a Catholic priest and aviation buff the Rev. James Mullen. Along with another Paramount photographer, Philip Coolidge, Mullen jumped into a car and headed in Mingalone’s last known direction. Lucky for the newsman, winds took him south, not east and out to sea.
Around two miles from the point of departure, Coolidge and Mullin spotted Mingalone. Rain-soaked and shivering, he’d dropped to just 600 feet above the ground. The priest was reportedly fond of skeet shooting and somehow then produced a .22 caliber rifle.
“Mullen jumped from the car, chanced a shot at the balloons 25-feet above Mingalone’s head, missed,” Time wrote. “His second shot punctured two of the spheres.”
That might have brought him down but, at the same time, Mingalone accidentally dropped his 12-pound Bell & Howell movie camera. With the loss of ballast, he shot back up into the heavens, still traveling south.
“Dangling from a harness beneath the runaway balloons, Mingalone attracted considerable attention when he soared over the mill cities of Biddeford and Saco,” the AP wrote.
Mullen and Coolidge gave chase and finally caught up with the floating cameraman about 13 miles from his original launch sight. Mingalone was scudding along, about 200 feet above a farmer’s field.
“Father Mullen sprinted into a cornfield, kneeled, plunked another balloon,” Time wrote. “That was all the exhausted, dripping Mingalone needed to bring him to earth.”
Almost a year later, a page three story and photo in the BDN said the National Headliner’s Club had awarded Mingalone a silver plaque in Atlantic City for his adventure. In the photo, the daring cameraman wears a monocle and white tuxedo.
Mingalone went on to live through several more stunts and died at age 86 in 1991. Many of his newsreels still exist in the Getty collection.
Mullen died in 1954. There’s no record of him winning anything, even though his marksmanship saved the day — and Mingalone’s noggin.