Filming Ronald Reagan’s Announcement for Presidential Candidacy in 1979 Remains One of Heralded Cinematographer John Simmons’ Best Memories
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
When cinematographer John Simmons was in his late 20s, he was working as a camera assistant in Los Angeles when in the fall of 1979, he received an assignment at the Pacific Palisades home of Ronald and Nancy Reagan—one that, as fate would have it, opened more doors than he ever imagined.
Back then the Reagans were living on San Onofre in the Riviera and Simmons, who celebrated his 70th birthday in December, admitted he was a bright-eyed, ambitious young man who found himself in the right place at the right time.
“I went to Ronald Reagan’s house every day for two weeks,” Simmons remembered with vivid detail. “We were shooting other announcements and there was talk that Ron would announce his candidacy for the presidency.”
Simmons explained that every day when he went to the house, he would park on the side street, jump over a hedge and go through the kitchen door.
“I did that for I don’t know how many visits,” Simmons said. “The whole relationship was very casual. At lunch we’d order sandwiches and everyone ate in the same room.”
One day, Simmons explained, the cameraman didn’t show up, so he had to do the filming, as well as filming over the next three days.
“One morning I hopped the fence like always when several Secret Service agents with suits on scream, ‘Get on the ground!’” Simmons recalled. “Then I heard Nancy yelling from the back steps of the kitchen, ‘That’s Johnny … he’s the cameraman!’ She made me a cheese sandwich and revealed her husband would make the announcement.”
So it was that day, November 13, 1979, Simmons filmed one of Reagan’s most famous speeches from the study of his Palisades home (the clip of the 24-minute video is on YouTube), where the Reagan family lived from 1957 until they moved into the White House in 1981. The property was not far from their previous residence on Amalfi Drive, where the couple lived for four and a half years after getting married in March 1952.
“You don’t realize how valuable and special those experiences are,” said Simmons, now an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, photographer and painter. “A lot of my photos are historical. I can remember being there but not knowing the historical significance until many years later. As I recall, there weren’t even any still photographers there that day when Reagan made his announcement.”
Over the decades, Simmons has shot and filmed in various locales throughout the Palisades. He has met four U.S. Presidents—Gerald Ford, Reagan, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (whom he interviewed about the Miss Universe Contest in New York 25 years ago).
Four of his photographs are currently being featured in an exhibit titled “In Focus: Protest” at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibit, highlighting images made during periods of social struggle in America, is on display through October 10.
Simmons also donated a photo he took in 2017 in LA called “Observatory” to the Getty’s permanent collection and recorded an audio tour for the exhibition, which is available on the Getty Guide App.
“I began my career at age 15 as a photographer for the oldest African American-owned newspaper, The Chicago Daily Defender,” Simmons reminisced. “I segued into work as a cinematographer, which has been my mainstay for many years.”
Simmons shared he is glad to see the photographs he took back in his teens are still relevant today.
“I’ve come to learn the general public’s opinions are influenced by optics and what we see,” he explained. “I still have great curiosity in my heart for what I see through my lens. My photos represent my perspective, and are the total sum of who I am at the moments they’re taken.
“A photo needs to have its own soul. It needs to have a ghost in it. It needs to be something you feel and experience. Moving images, still pictures and music create the soundtracks of our lives. They shape our culture and who we are. If you ask me what inspires me to do what I do I’d say I’m in a state of becoming. I’m always approaching new horizons. It’s an endless process and each day is a new beginning.”
While Simmons was a graduate student at Fisk University in Nashville, African American screenwriter, actor and director Carlton Moss came to town to lecture. He saw Simmons’ still photos one day and told him, “My God, you have the eye of a cinematographer!” and encouraged Simmons to apply for a scholarship to USC’s School of Cinematography.
With that, his love affair with the City of Angels was rekindled—one that was sparked on a spontaneous road trip many years earlier.
“When I was little boy in Chicago I’d walk home from school in the snow,” he recalled. “I’d see shows on TV of California with the palm trees and mountains, and I knew in the fifth grade I’d live here one day.”
Simmons explained that he had a mentor, Bobby Sengstacke, and one day the two got in his car and started driving.
“I fell asleep and when I woke up we were in St. Louis,” he said. “I was 16. We left Chicago in December and by the time we got to California, our overcoats were in the trunk. I stayed at my uncle’s house for a week or two and I took lots of pictures. We flew back to Chicago on Christmas Eve but I knew I’d be back one day. The whole culture appealed to me. Chicago was pretty segregated in 1960s but LA was a different world.”
Simmons has lived in Silver Lake for over 30 years and said he appreciates most the community’s diversity, inclusivity and proximity to Hollywood. Although he loves traveling from place to place for his job, he is always happy to return to Los Angeles, where he is loving life with his wife and best friend Cynthia, a dance instructor for the LA Park District.
“I got a job on a jazz cruise ship and she was there helping with talent,” Simmons remembered fondly. “My friend said, ‘There’s a nice wife for you!’ Cynthia came by where I was working after I shot the TV show to drop off my hat, my shirt and some swag from the boat trip, and two or three years later we were married.”
Simmons has two sons: Malachi, who used to work with him as lighting technician, and Sancho, who recently opened a restaurant in Humboldt. He has three daughters: Veela, a stay-at-home mom back in Chicago; Sasha, who handles all of John’s social media; and Chela, an esthetician in Oakland.
Still lugging a camera wherever he goes, Simmons serves as vice president of the American Society of Cinematographers and is presently a governor of the Cinematographers Peer Group at The Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is co-chair of the ASC Vision Committee, which helps underrepresented cinematographers reach their goals and expands diversity for those hired on TV and film sets.
His photos are in the permanent collections at the Harvard Art Museum, High Museum of Fine Art, Houston Museum of Fine Art, David C. Driskell Center, University of Maryland and the Wesley and Missy Cochran Foundation.
He has been honored with the ASC Cinematography Mentor Award for his commitment to advising many young talented cinematographers and he won the Best Cinematography Primetime Emmy Award for the Nickelodeon multi-camera series, “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn” in 2016.
Three years later he garnered a Los Angeles Area Emmy Award in the Crime/Social Issues Category for the PBS/SoCal documentary “Finding Home: A Foster Youth Story,” and this year he won a second Los Angeles Area Emmy Award in the Culture/History Category for the PBS/SoCal documentary, “Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story.”
He was an adjunct professor in the TV/Film and Theater Department at UCLA for 26 years and continues to mentor many up-and-coming, as well as seasoned, cinematographers.
Simmons shot the pilot for Nickelodeon’s upcoming live-action buddy comedy, “Warped!” and has collaborated with filmmakers, including Spike Lee and Debbie Allen. He has photographed more than 25 television series, including “Family Reunion,” “No Good Nick,” “Prince of Peoria,” “Men at Work,” “Good Luck Charlie,” “Dog With a Blog,” “All of Us” and “The Tracy Morgan Show.”
His feature credits include “The Killing Yard,” “Collected Stories,” “The Gin Game,” “Asunder,” “The Old Settler,” and the documentaries “Cool Women” and “Dark Girls.”
Simmons has also shot music videos for artists Stevie Wonder, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Naughty by Nature, Jessica Simpson, The Whispers and Fishbone. He has photographed iconic figures like Nina Simone, Fidel Castro and Rosa Parks.
“When I was a young guy in the 1960s shooting a civil rights demonstration in Macon, Georgia, I got knocked out by a policeman,” Simmons recalled. “I woke up looking at him. No reason for it. When I was coming along it was like a pathless land. We had to cut through a lot of stuff. Opportunities for minorities were few. To change the optics of this industry was important. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still more to be done. Our passion has to be greater than any obstacles.”
In addition to the Getty photos, Simmons has free exhibits on display at AzizGallerie in Leimert Park (titled “Chronicles of Our Culture”) and The Jean Deleage Art Gallery at CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights (called Capturing Beauty”). The latter, which features three of Simmons’ multi-layered paper collage cartographies and 17 of his black and white photography images from 1965 to present, was just extended through October 31, making it the longest running art exhibit in the theater’s history.
“The Getty isn’t far from my house and I’m proud of the other exhibits too because of the communities they’re in,” he concluded. “I’m grateful for the mentors I’ve had along the way, and as long as I live, I’ll never forget that day in the Palisades.”
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