Charles Petzold

King Kong, 1976

December 5, 2005
Roscoe, NY (with snow, of course)

I went to college in the early 70s in Hoboken, NJ, on the west bank of the Hudson River. From the cafeteria we had a 20-mile panoramic view of New York City, north to the George Washington Bridge and south to the Verrazano-Narrows. And, of course, we witnessed the final stages of the construction of the World Trade Center.

It must have been 1976 when I first took the elevator up to the WTC observation deck. It could have been earlier, but I'm pretty sure that it was my first time up when the elevator operator told us that we could be extras in the new King Kong movie being filmed if we could come back tomorrow. It was a subtle way of warning us what we'd see when we got to the top. From the indoor observation deck, where you could get as close as you wanted to the windows and even take advantage of little steel benches all the way around, we could see what was clearly a giant ape sprawled in the plaza 1,300 feet below in preparation for the death scene. As the New York Times reminds us today, "5,000 extras were positioned at World Trade Center Plaza — while cameras rolled — to gaze in horror at a Styrofoam ape covered in horsehair." (page B5)

I was not one of those extras. For me it was enough of a kick to see the dead Kong from the 107th floor.

Although the indoor WTC observation deck was nice, I much preferred the outdoor deck on the very top of the south tower. It was the complete antithesis of the totally enclosed and cramped disappointing upper observatory of the Empire State Building. You were truly outdoors on the top of the building, and I found the experience very exhilarating. I never thought the World Trade Center made much sense when viewed from the ground. But on top, it was great.

I must have gone up to the WTC observation deck about a dozen times over the next 25 years. Some time around 1997 or so I took a Speed Graphic up there to make some "hyper-stereo" photographs. I configured a brace on the camera so I could sit it on top of the outdoor rail but tilted downwards. I took a bunch of photographs at different positions along each side, and then made some traditional stereo cards from photos taken from parallel positions some 20 or so feet apart. The south view didn't work, however, because of the constant moving ships in New York Bay.

My last visit to the top of the WTC was also experimental in nature. I was in the early stages of working on the problem of determining the offset from true north of the avenues of Manhattan. I thought from that vantage point I could get a good sense of when the sun broke through the tunnel of buildings lining the major avenues, and then later determine the position of the sun at that time. That experiment was not a success; the effect was much less dramatic than the way I had pictured it in my mind.

The 1976 King Kong was disappointing as well. It was Jessica Lange's first film, and it nearly killed her career.