Chicago film pioneer Ronn Pitts dies

September 23, 2013

Ronn Pitts was such a popular and beloved teacher at Columbia College Chicago, some of his students created a Facebook page praising his “cool”.

Pitts, a native of Bronzeville, died yesterday at the age of 76. He lived a remarkable and adventurous life, including breaking the color barrier in Chicago filmmaking and academic circles.

But his biggest impact may well be as a teacher and mentor, a man committed to community and social activism.

Pitts was both cool and warm. When I met him in late 2012, I felt as if I’d immediately made a lifelong friend. I’ve yet to meet a faculty member or student at Columbia who doesn’t remember him fondly.

Jerry Blumenthal of Kartemquin Films met Pitts when, with Margaret Caples, they set up the Community Film Workshop at the “old” Columbia College (then located at 540 Lake Shore Drive).

“He made you feel very good and very happy about being a member of the film community,” said Blumenthal. “He was a great comrade, extremely friendly and funny and warm.”

Like many others, Blumenthal says Pitts was also humble and never got the recognition he deserved.

Pitts led a life with Zelig-like qualities: He found himself in the midst of history-making events time and time again.

He was the first African-American hired to teach film at Columbia College and was still teaching there at the time of his death. He also broke color barriers as a filmmaker. Pitts and Joe Stratton, the man he called  “my best friend of all friends,” were hired by George Halas in the 1960s to shoot film for the Chicago Bears.

“We were the first blacks to shoot for any professional football team ever,” Pitts said in a 2012 interview.

He also recounted adventures like filming during the 1965 march to Selma, Ala., and being “kidnapped” by Muhammad Ali to document the boxer as he prepared for his big fight against George Foreman in 1974.

Pitts got into film by working as a shipping clerk at a camera rental company, a job his mother got him (before that he was a bookie placing bets on horses). But shooting film was a major struggle.

“There were no blacks shooting (news) cameras until 1973,” he said. “There were no women, no blacks, nothing but white males.”

In our 2012 interview, Pitts told me his own students got the same treatment when he sent them out to cover news, including fires or speeches by the mayor.

“That was a great experience, because then I recognized what prejudice truly was,” Pitts said. “Those old men, they would cut their cords,” and challenged him for training minorities.

Pitts eventually left Chicago, settling in San Francisco for 17 years. While there, he captured the death of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk on film. He was in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem the night Malcolm X was assassinated (Pitts said his footage was seized by police). And, he was behind the camera the day Chicago Bears Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack on the Tiger Stadium field, during a game against the Chicago Bears. Pitts said those moments were the “shocking things” about filmmaking. “You can’t take it back," he said. "And you sleep with that at night, knowing that you captured death in your lens."

Pitts received his share of accolades – there’s a scholarship in his name at Columbia and he’s been recognized by other film organizations.  October 10 was declared Ronn Pitts day in Chicago, and Charles Celander, the Operations Manager in Columbia’s Cinema Art and Science program, says they always celebrate with cake and good cheer.

That’s a fitting tribute for Pitts, who despite some truly heavy experiences, remained a light and joyful spirit.  When we spoke, Pitts said he considered himself a real live servant, a mission he encouraged others to accept.

“We are here on this planet to take care of each other,” said Pitts. “And that’s it.”

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-hosts the WBEZ podcasts Changing Channels and Strange Brews. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram