You might not know Russell Campbell, but chances are you’ve seen his “vision” appear in thousands of movies, television shows and commercials. Although Campbell has worked on a number of blockbusters and Oscar-nominated films, he surprisingly has a limited number of IMDb entries. He isn’t a movie specials effects magician, a studio head or agent. Rather, this humble 48-year-old Detroit native is the owner of Old Focals, a vintage eyewear retail shop he runs out of a converted garage in Pasadena, Calif.
For more than 20 years, Campbell has also left his eyewear mark on thousands of actors in Hollywood. He has provided time period style specs for movies including JFK, Forrest Gump, Catch Me If You Can, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He has also worked on the television shows, Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, and That ‘70s Show, among others.
In fact, Campbell has worked on so many productions over the years he literally has lost count of all the titles he’s been a part of. One thing Campbell would never lose sight of is where each of the thousands of different pairs of glasses sits in white boxes inside his storage facilities. Each box is meticulously labeled and contains hundreds of pairs. It is here that Campbell fills orders for prop masters, directors and actors looking to get the right look and feel for their productions.
Campbell first started buying glasses in his early 20s – after he had a dream about a man wearing a cool pair of sunglasses. Campbell complimented the man’s glasses to which he replied, “Oh, these old focals?,” before giving them to him. From then on, Campbell would comb garage sales, the Salvation Army and other thrift shops for old glasses. Of the glasses that weren’t in mint condition, Campbell would fix their hinges using pieces from the same time period, polish them up and bring them back to life. He also obtained new old stock from optical shops – most of which were happy to let go at reasonable prices.
He later got sunglass lenses cut for a few pairs from a local optical shop for $3 a pair. Unhappy with the work being done, Campbell started cutting the lenses himself and selling the glasses to stores in California – including American Rag. It was there his pieces caught the attention of Brad Einhorne, a Hollywood prop master. In the late 1980s, Einhorne was working on the film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and enlisted Campbell to help him get a pair of glasses for the post-World War II picture. That was his first foray into movies and from then on, Campbell has never looked back.
I first heard of Campbell and his collection through word of mouth. Since I’m also an avid collector of vintage pieces – I contacted him because I was looking for a pair of plastic, tortoise Fortune frames from Liberty Optical that my late father wore during the late 1960s and 1970s. Campbell agreed to help me track down the specs since he said it was a cause “he could get behind.”
When it comes to collectors, there is always a substantial amount of digging for stock. How much was involved with your collection?
Russell Campbell: I would buy everything. It wouldn’t matter. If it was from turn of the century – 1950s, 1970s, or 1980s or whatever – it didn’t matter. You would see all these cool Rockabilly frames – the Buddy Holly styles and the style that Roy Orbison had. You had all kinds of glasses – you had the pre-cursor to the Wayfarer, then the Wayfarer themselves and the Wayfarer that didn’t have Ray-Ban written on the side of it – I bought them all. I tried to have at least one of every pair.
Talk to me about a piece that you came across that blew your mind.
RC: That occurs at the strangest times – like the time that I came upon a box at a Salvation Army. I saw a box and I dug through it and came across a pair of solid gold frames. Incredible, museum pieces of artwork-type of eyeglasses that you could buy for $3. This one time, I was in Detroit and there was old optician who used to sell glasses to Eddie Kendricks (co-founder of The Temptations). I bought like 50 pair from him. Those glasses were big back in the day. They were beautiful.
When you’re dealing with the volume of glasses you have, how is your filing system when it comes to storage?
RC: That’s my kooky mind. I know where everything is and I have thousands upon thousands of glasses. I have 200 or 300 of the same pair – others have similarities. A majority of what I have is deadstock and I have to know where all this stuff is at a moment’s notice.