Connections: Alden and Vada Dow and Peters “Pat” Oppermann

Alden B. Dow and his friend Peters “Pat” Oppermann possessed many of the same personal qualities: an inquisitive mind, a love of travel, an appreciation of music, an innate creativity, and a joyful, playful sense of humor. Oppermann was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, the youngest of six boys and a girl. He displayed an early talent for playing the piano by ear. During his one semester at Denison College in Ohio, he perhaps spent a little too much time serenading sorority girls with his piano-playing and not enough on his studies. “I had such a wonderful time there,” he wryly noted, “that they booted me out after the first semester that I was there.”
After leaving Denison, he returned to Saginaw and went to work for a local dealer who was selling radios in a little shop next to the Temple Theater. Eventually, the business grew and he became the owner of the Radio Center, a full-service television and audio equipment store. While attending a Rotary Club of Saginaw meeting, he heard Mr. Dow speak about the use of color in work places and homes and its effect on people and remembered being so impressed with his ideas.
On a personal level, the enduring friendship (and fun) between the Dows and the Oppermanns began and flourished at Higgins Lake in northern Michigan, where both families owned cottages. Mr. Dow was fascinated with motion picture photography and took his Bolex movie camera with him everywhere. As Oppermann recalled in the oral history interview that was conducted at Higgins Lake in 1989, “He had the tripods and he had all these ideas. He was always full of ideas but he needed someone to implement them. I was close at hand and I was willing. It was fun doing it!”
One of their memorable movie collaborations was the weird but humorous “Little Beach Blossom.” In it, Oppermann is dressed as a Japanese woman complete with wig and kimono. Mr. Dow used some novel editing techniques to portray an extended dream sequence in which Oppermann is being chased through the woods by a gorilla. In another film, “Pat’s Bath,” Mr. Dow magically made the Queen Mary ocean liner appear to be sitting in the middle of Higgins Lake.
Mr. Dow designed a home for the Oppermanns in Saginaw in 1958 that gave them everything they wanted, including space for their “organized clutter” and a “to-do room” for Pat’s audio equipment. He also prepared drawings for a beautiful cottage for them at Higgins Lake. Unfortunately, it was never built after his neighbors saw the rendering and declared, “Well, gee, it isn’t very Higginsy.”
The Dows and the Oppermanns were great traveling companions, taking extended trips to Germany and Italy in the 1960s. They took a road trip together to see the 1967 Montreal Expo, with Mr. Dow shooting movies of the futuristic buildings and exhibitions. Of particular interest, of course, was the giant geodesic dome built by his friend Buckminster Fuller to house the United States exhibit. He filmed the interior while riding up and down the escalator.
In a letter he wrote to Oppermann in 1970, Mr. Dow described in detail an idea he had for “a sound machine that will respond to the motion of the human body in a way that transfers feelings into sound.” He hoped a model could be built and put in the Great Hall of Ideas in the Midland Center for the Arts. He ends the letter by asking, “Do you think it’s patentable? How soon can you make it work?” The Moodical, as it came to be called, did get made and did receive a U. S. patent in 1973.
In 1975, as the Way of Life Exhibition at the MCFTA was being planned to celebrate Mr. Dow’s achievements, his friends and colleagues were invited to contribute stories or photos for the display. Oppermann responded in a letter that reads, in part:
“How could I display anything or attempt to describe those whimsical creations of Alden’s (about which he is dead earnest) such as Somniphonics, the Moodical, Dow Corny Film Productions to name a few. Or that Alden is really Harpo Marx in disguise. Yet I agree, your exhibit visitors should know about these things.”
He concluded, however, on a more serious note: “I only wish I were able to adequately express my great admiration and devotion to this man who has so substantially enriched my life… As far as I’m concerned Alden Dow is just TOO MUCH!”
Pat Oppermann died in 1997 and was inducted into the Saginaw County Hall of Fame in the fall of 2019.
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