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History: Elda Hartley

The history of the Hartley Film Foundation starts with a woman named Elda Hartley, who throughout her life asked of those she met, "What are you doing to change the world for the better?"

Hindeburg zeppelin exploding

Elda had a long career in filmmaking before she answered that question and realized her longtime dream of producing films that explored world religions and interfaith issues. She was first a Broadway and Hollywood actress. It was as a starlet that she met and married filmmaker Irving Hartley, with whom she partnered to make newsreels and travel films from the 1930s through the 1960s. Some of the most well-known images that now illustrate American history were shot by Irving Hartley, including the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin in 1937.

He and Elda also produced the very popular series of Pan Am travelogues, a prototype for so many travel shows on television today.


In many different ways, Elda served to advance art and filmmaking in the 20th century. She worked as North Carolina State's Director of Visual Education and, in the 1930s, she helped found the Documentary Film Association, which exhibited at the first New York World's Fair.

Elda realized her greatest dream in 1965, while on a vacation tour to Japan with Alan Watts. She decided to make a film on Zen and Alan Watts volunteered to narrate the film. At the age of fifty-six, Elda Hartley was on her way to producing documentary films of a spiritual nature - the beginning of her third career.

After completing many films about the world's spiritual and religious traditions (including the well-known documentaries Requiem for a Faith and The Sufi Way), she turned to films about personal growth and worked with some of the foremost spiritual leaders, consciousness researchers and healing pioneers of our time. Elda collaborated with Margaret Mead, Joseph Campbell, Edgar Mitchell, Jean Huston, Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Huston Smith and Larry Dossey, among others.

Elda Hartley

Hartley often said that the goal of her work was greater than simply making religious, spiritual and interfaith films and so, in 1976, she co-founded the Hartley Film Foundation. Through the Foundation, Elda promoted an understanding of "interconnectedness," in her words, "... that transcends race, religion and national boundaries - promoting wisdom across the ages - an understanding of our spiritual oneness that can ultimately lead to world peace."

Elda Hartley passed away on her 90th birthday, March 6, 2001.

The Hartley Film Foundation will continue to honor her legacy by cultivating, sponsoring and distributing the very best documentary film, video and audio programs about world religions and spirituality.