Wish You Were Here...Mike Roberts: The Life & Times of America's Postcard King

It has taken Bob Roberts a quarter of a century - during which time he was heavily preoccupied running California's ski industry as President and CEO - to get his father Mike's life story into print. The result is a fascinating glossy tome called Wish You Were Here...The Life And Times of America's Postcard King.

Mike Roberts was born on a farm in Missouri in 1905. He was kicked out of school in the sixth grade for lighting a whiskey bottle half full of gunpowder under the schoolhouse. "It nearly blew it off its rock foundation" he would tell his son Bob later, with perhaps a degree of pride. "It was my revenge for being kept after school. The school board determined that I was not a fit person to be attending school and expelled me." It would not be the only time an explosion would affect his career - but the next time it was unintentional!

Roberts junior pinpoints his father's interest in photography to a day when he was 11, after a photographer "came by the farmhouse with a horse and buggy". What happened next mapped out his father's future as sharply as a macro lens. Bob Roberts told him the visiting snapper "lined up all the family, including the kids and dogs, in the front yard and took our picture."

"A couple of weeks later he was back with the pictures for sale, for a dollar and a half" his father remembered. "Our cookie jar was a little low at the time so he drove off without a sale. The next day, while going after the mail about a quarter of a mile away, I found the picture torn into four pieces and lying in a ditch. I retrieved it, pasted it back together, made a frame and hung it on our wall."

It was another year before Mike Roberts got his first camera - "a postcard-sized 'Premo' with one film pack". It came as a prize for saving up tobacco tags.

"The tags were small picks and horseshoes made out of tin" he remembered. "You needed a thousand to get a camera. Every Saturday I would visit the country store and put the arm on the farmers that chewed tobacco. It took a while but I finally got all the picks and horseshoes."

When the camera arrived Roberts took it apart to see how it was made. "It went back together ok" he said, "but when I took the film pack apart I couldn't reassemble it. World War 1 had just ended so I called on a neighbor who had just returned home from duty as a war photographer...I asked his help in putting it back together. 'Why put it back, Mike?' he said. 'It's ruined'. That was my first lesson in photography." Profits in his new-found enterprise were small: 25 cents was the going rate for a picture. Roberts was able to add to his income by selling rabbit and skunk hides at three dollars apiece.

In the spring of 1921, with little expectation of any further need for studying, Roberts, aged 16, took off on a Harley Davidson he'd paid 15 dollars for with a box camera, a blanket, a few clothes, 10 dollars in his pocket and a further 25 dollars pinned to his underwear. "My mother cautioned me to be sure to wear clean underwear" he would say later - "in case I had to go to the hospital." He began his fledgling career by photographing "neighbors, kids, dogs, cows, church groups and new cars". Landing in San Bernardo, California after a year and a half of harrowing tales, Roberts landed a job with a local photography studio and began to hone his skills.

On one occasion he was sent to photograph a personality for a local newspaper. Asked if he knew whose picture he'd taken, he said later: "Since the fellow didn't speak English, I did not get his name." It was Einstein. When Roberts got back to the darkroom he asked his co-workers: "Who is Albert Einstein?"

Back then, the flashbulb had yet to be invented. "In those days we used a pan full of a powder" Roberts recalled. "The powder was ignited by the kind of cap used in a toy pistol. To set off the flash the photographer would pull a wire with his finger. The wire was hooked to a hammer, which would ignite the cap, setting off the pan of powder."

Sent to cover a particularly prestigious birthday party, Roberts was asked if he knew how to use the flash pan. "Of course" he replied a little recklessly, admitting later: "Actually I had never used the powder...When I began pouring powder into the pan, I realized I wasn't sure how much it took. This job was very important. I couldn't afford to miss, so I just kept pouring the powder until I had leveled out the entire pan. It took the entire bottle of powder. I set the camera and pulled the wire. The ensuing explosion left the streamers and wallpaper on fire, the centerpiece bell on the floor burning, the guests' faces black as coal, the room full of smoke, and food ruined.
"For a photographer it was simply one of life's embarrassing lessons. I learned the hard way that each bottle of powder, properly applied, contained enough for 50 flashes. The fiasco cost my boss 100 dollars, a fortune in 1923. I was left with my arm burned from the hand to the shoulder. Amazingly, I did not lose my job. Why, I'll never know."

His fortunes gradually improved as he began to get more illustrious assignments. Before his career developed in spectacular style (no pun intended) into the world of picture postcards, with clients who included Walt Disney, he would have the opportunity to photograph many celebrities, including Herbert Hoover and Amelia Earhart. And even after becoming America's "postcard king" he was photographing William Holden on location. Even the British statesman and future prime-minister Anthony Eden, speaking at the celebrated United Nations conference after the war in 1945, found himself the focus of Roberts' camera. "For Mike, the letter he received from Anthony Eden thanking him for 'Kodachrome reproduction' of his address was far more memorable than the hundred dollars paid by the Saturday Evening Post" writes his son Bob.

He would go on to become one of the most important pioneers of Kodachrome postcards in the US. As his son Bob writes in Wish You Were Here: "He was quietly proud of his role in the evolution of postcards, saying: 'Post war autos, highways and airplanes have been the greatest stimulants to travel, but our cards have helped too.'

"He figured that sending a postcard not only announced your arrival, it was your opportunity to add a bit of humor or a hidden subtext. At the minimum, 'wish you were here' added a touch of affection.

"But he had his critics. One noted Bay Area columnist opined: 'Mike Roberts is the tsar of all the tinted trashola that thong-wearing tourists purchase at resorts, getaways and scenic wonders from Tierra del Fuego to Tonawanda, New York'. Mike roared when he heard this, his son tells us. It was, he insisted, "One of the best advertising pieces we ever had."

Arnie Wilson

Wish You Were Here...Mike Roberts: The Life And Times of America's Postcard King is available at $39.99 at Amazon or direct from www.ancashpress.com