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Des Moines Forgotten

Remembering Ron ‘Busby’ Burnell

3/6/2024

Iowa film industry lore is a niche topic that captivates my interest. If I hear anyone telling a story about the old days of film production, I stop what I am doing to join the conversation. My early Des Moines Forgotten articles included stories on the Varsity Theatre, filming a TV show inside Video Warehouse, and one that will be directly referenced here, Iowa’s era of producing religious features about the end of the world.

Whenever I am on set with some of the old guys, I often hear them mention a man named “Buz” or they refer back to the “Busby” days. Ron “Busby” Burnell is a legend among people who came before me. “Busby” was his nickname, but he preferred to go by “Buz.” He got the name because he would turn any shoot into a gigantic production like Busby Berkley from the depression era of American cinema. He would suggest big things that might be outside of the project’s scope, much like the man he was named after. Buz was born in Carroll County just after World War II and then moved to Paton where he attended Jefferson High School before moving to Des Moines in 1971.

Paul Hickey, a legend in his own right, is one of those guys that I would often hear mention Buz in reference to the early days of his career.

“I met Buz back in 1981 when his studio was inside the BMS building downtown,” Hickey said. “He had been a shooter at Iowa Public Television. In fact, a documentary that he shot called ‘Take Des Moines, Please’ had won a National Emmy Award for community service back in 1972. A lot of guys working with him are still around today. George Christ, who would later open Applied Art and Technology, was doing the lighting back then. Brad Morford was working with us on some of the Mark IV productions that were in what is now Alba in the East Village. I was technically working for Iowa Public Television, but I would still freelance on some of these projects for extra cash.”

Brad Morford and George Christ, who worked with Buz in the 1980s, went on to open their own studios in the 1990s. Brad would open the legendary Screenscape Studios (first called ITC) in West Des Moines, and George would go on to open Applied Art and Technology, which still operates to this day.

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“Buz was always willing to do anything that was needed,” Morford said. “We were working for Heartland/Mark IV pictures on a project. At the time, they were the No. 1 producer of religious features. The idea was footage that looked like the devil had taken over, Armageddon, etc. We got a call one night about midnight and were told there was a forest fire in northern Minnesota raging. Buz called me and said, ‘Meet me at the office ASAP.’  We loaded some film and hit the road in his production vehicle. We drove all through the night just in time for the sun to come up as all the firefighters were celebrating having extinguished the fire. We got a couple shots of smoldering trees, grabbed some coffee, and hit the road.” 

Busby eventually opened his studios at what is now Django on Locust. It was 50 feet by 70 feet and originally housed a company that sold wind generators to farms. They produced commercials for AE Dairy, Iowa Lottery and Hy-Vee. Work was aplenty back then, and Busby had the majority share in it. Some of you might remember the Iowa Pork Association’s “America is leaning on pork. The other white meat.” Buz was part of all of that. 

“Busby Productions was also known for some terrific parties, and the Christmas celebration during my second year was no exception,” Heckle said. “The parties always included bonuses handed out by Buz himself.” 

Buz died Feb. 11, 1999, but he left a legacy and film production in the state of Iowa that wouldn’t be what it is today without him. 

Liz Gilman, who has been running the Iowa film office now for more than 10 years, also worked for him right out of college. 

“Buz was larger than life,” she said. “He did everything big and had this creative enthusiasm and a twinkle in his eye. He brought this Hollywood style to Iowa.” ♦

Kristian Day is a filmmaker and writer based in  Des Moines. He also hosts the syndicated Iowa  Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9  FM KFMG.  Instagram: @kristianday 
Twitter: @kristianmday

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