The Dance Marathon Fad of the 1920s and 1930s


Still image from “Dance marathon fad reaches new peak–outtakes.”

March 21st, from 10am to midnight, is the annual Dance Marathon at the University of South Carolina. “It is an annual spring event that celebrates the culmination of a year’s worth of efforts to raise financial and emotional support for the patients of Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital located in Columbia.” While USC’s Dance Marathon is a fun charity event that lasts 14 hours and raises money for a worthy local cause, dance marathons during their 20th century peak were often grueling contests spanning weeks or months.


Dancers getting into beds for a few moments of rest.

These Fox Movietone News outtakes were filmed on August 1, 1930. The footage covers the tail end of a dance marathon that began almost 16 weeks earlier, on April 11. On the day this story was filmed, the dancers had been going for 2,664 hours, breaking the old world record by over 863 hours. More than 50 pairs began the competition, with just three couples and one single man remaining on the dance floor by August. In this particular event, contestants were permitted to take five-minute naps every hour. The event would end on August 7, 1930, with Anne Gerry and Mike Gouvas taking the $2,650 dollar prize. According to an A.P. piece in the Sterling Daily Gazette on August 8, the pair had danced for 2,831 hours, four minutes, and 30 seconds.


One dancer supports her partner as they continue to move.

The narrator claims that, “the world recently has repeatedly given evidence of a liking for sports and activities of an endurance nature.” Dance marathons began to gain popularity in 1923 as a fun endurance event. By the Depression era 1930s, these competitions were often made into exhausting and exploitative spectacles that abused the financial desperation of the contestants. Though dancers were expected to keep moving 24 hours a day with only short breaks for sleeping every hour or two, most were content with shelter and steady meals, along with the hope of a big payoff if they were the last couple standing.


Still image from “Dance marathon fad reaches new peak–outtakes.”

Marathons could last several months at a time, and objections were voiced to these spectacles even in the late 1920s. A New York World piece published in the Decatur Evening Herald on June 25, 1928 comments on the “idiotic” dance marathon taking place at Madison Square Garden. When published, the event had only begun ten days earlier, but the concern for participants was already intense. “Who knows the ultimate effect that it will have on these couples? Nervous collapse, depleted vitality and badly injured feet seem highly probable, with insanity perhaps as quite possible… We are staging then, a cruel and unseemly show.” This opinion seemed to grow over the years, and as the 1930s progressed, many towns and even entire states banned the contests outright.

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Kate Gleason Home Movies Return to Beaufort

On Sunday February 15th, 2015, MIRC assistant director and curator Lydia Pappas gave a talk on the recent discovery and preservation of some previously unidentified films in the MIRC collections at the University of South Carolina Beaufort Center for the Arts in Beaufort. The screening was a success and well attended by local history enthusiasts as the probable filmmaker, Kate Gleason, was a well known figure in the town and responsible for its revival in the 1920s.

g4Raised in upstate New York in the late 1800s, a time when women rarely played prominent roles in industry and commerce, Kate Gleason (1865-1933) overcame innumerable obstacles to excel in business and engineering. Catherine Anselm “Kate” Gleason was born in 1865, the eldest of four children of William Gleason and Ellen McDermot, Irish immigrants living in Rochester, New York. William Gleason owned and operated the Gleason Works, a machine-tool factory he founded shortly after the Civil War, and Kate quickly became captivated by mechanical devices and engineering. At the age of twelve, she began working at the Gleason Works and at 19 was enrolled in Cornell University’s engineering program, the first woman to ever do so. Kate was employed at the Gleason Works until 1914, and was able to put the company on the map internationally by expanding into Europe in the early 1900s.

g3Her shrewd business acumen eventually led to other careers and notable firsts in the world of business and finance. She was appointed by the bankruptcy court of New York to serve as the first female receiver in a case involving the Ingle Machine Company, and shortly afterwards was elected president of the First National Bank of East Rochester, the first woman to serve as president of a national bank.

In the 1920s she moved into construction and made a career as a builder and developer. Among her many notable accomplishments was the invention of mass-produced, low-cost housing built out of concrete. It earned her the nickname “Concrete Kate,” as well as membership in the American Concrete Institute, again the first woman to be so recognized. In addition, she is believed to be the first woman to have an engineering college named in her honor—the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

g2Using a Basic Preservation Grant from the National Preservation Film Foundation, MIRC is able to preserve the 16mm black and white Kodak safety film recently identified as having belonged to this notable engineer and businesswoman. The films feature Kate Gleason, her family and friends, and eminent members of the engineering profession from the 1920s and 1930s. These unique 16mm prints are not available in any other archive or cultural heritage institution and consist of the master material of this footage. According to Gleason family members, these are the only known moving images of Kate Gleason that document important details of her well-travelled life. The films also feature her sister and brother, Eleanor and James. These are all the more unique since very few images of Kate Gleason exist. Her family disapproved of her lifestyle, and after her death, her sister Eleanor Gleason destroyed her personal effects. These films are therefore especially important documents of Kate Gleason’s personal and professional endeavors.

The films include footage of the Beaufort, SC area, as well as other scenes from her travels, such as footage of the house she built in Rochester, NY–modeled on the Alhambra palace in Spain–boating scenes from around the South Carolina islands she developed, and shots of Septmonts, a French village that she bought and renovated. Gleason won the Croix de Guerre from the French government for her work rehabilitating Septmonts after World War I. Other notable scenes document European vacations in her trusty American station wagon, and shots of France, Ireland and Germany, where she attended the World Power Conference on behalf of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Together, these films constitute a unique window onto the life of a remarkable American woman.

gleason1The screening in Beaufort gathered local history buffs as well as people interested in the legacy of such a well known local figure, including a lawyer and gentleman in his 90s who knew Kate Gleason when he was a young man. USCB history professor Larry Rowland gave a lecture about Gleason. He also narrated the film footage, which was particularly personal to him: his mother Libby Sanders was Kate Gleason’s secretary for many years and also appears in the films. Mr. Rowland’s local knowledge, paired with encouraging the audience to shout out during the screening, led to the identification of areas of footage that were previously unknown to the curators. The screening was accompanied by a talk by Alice Moss, Executive Director of the Beaufort Memorial Hospital Foundation, who spoke of the legacy of Kate Gleason’s involvement with the Beaufort area and her donation of the land on which the hospital stands. Lydia Pappas then described the finding and identification of the films themselves, and the research and technical details of restoring the films. She was accompanied by a graduate student intern from the USC Library and Information Sciences Program, Travis Wagner, who spoke about the gender aspects of filmmakers of this time period and the rarity of women behind the camera.

Young Kate was a “pretty girl of average height and very straight posture with bright blue eyes.” By all accounts, she was widely read, a wonderful conversationalist, and a witty raconteur—completely at ease in the company of men and women alike. Although she aged gracefully, remaining vivacious well into her sixties, Gleason never married. She did, however, amass a small fortune—$1.4 million by the time of her death (1933)—during a life that included three illustrious careers: manufacturing, banking, and construction.

~Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC assistant director and curator

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2014 MIRC Award for Creative Editing Winners Announced

John Phillips

John Phillips

Every year, Moving Image Research Collections gives out Awards for Creative Editing (MIRC ACE) to MART 371 students who complete a class project using content from our collections. We are pleased to announce the 2014 winners: John Phillips (spring semester) and Megan Brooks (fall semester).

Rebecca Boyd, who taught both winners, describes the challenge. “Each semester, we give the MART 371 students a selection of videos from the MIRC archive and ask them each to create a cohesive one minute film. The assignment asks students to make cuts based on graphic, spatial, temporal, content, or rhythmic connections between shots.”

Megan Brooks

Megan Brooks

“In addition to demonstrating the technical skills necessary to chop up the footage and reassemble it,” Boyd continues, “they should demonstrate that they are developing the artistic judgment to take the disparate bits of footage and put them together to say something.” The possibilities for a project of this kind are endless. As Boyd explains, “Some students choose to use the footage to tell a story; others make impressionistic films that evoke an emotion; others adopt a montage style, using juxtaposition of images to create meaning; others make music videos or mockumentaries. It’s always interesting to see how students use identical footage in wildly different ways.”

We at MIRC are perennially surprised by what the students do with the films, and appreciate the chance to recognize the most creative products with the ACE award. “The MIRC editing project is a great way to introduce fledgling filmmakers to the wealth of archival footage we have here on campus. It’s always fascinating to see what the students come up with. This year’s winning pieces, for example, strike very different tones,” says MIRC Director Heather Heckman. The variety of content the students create using the same pool of raw material is incredible, as evidenced by the striking differences in Phillips’ and Brooks’ pieces. John Phillips selected footage that led to a fun final product with unexpected juxtapositions. Megan Brooks went in another direction, creating a hauntingly eerie edit.


Still image from “MIRC-y Waters.”

According to Rebecca Boyd, Phillips’ project, MIRC-y Waters, “makes me think about disproportionate consequences to seemingly mundane actions, and I think he uses the element of surprise very effectively. In nine sections of MART 371, I’ve never had anyone else interpret the footage the way he did. I won’t say more than that because I want your readers to watch and enjoy the film for themselves!”

John Phillips explains how he came up with his final product:My process for that video involved many hours of sifting through the archives. I started by finding clips that had a little bit of a narrative built in. From there I could think of something that might be fun to build on to that. I really just wanted to see what fun stuff I could do with the archival footage. I love putting stuff together in ways that it was never intended to.”

Still image from "MIRC-y Waters."

Still image from “MIRC-y Waters.”

For Phillips, the possibility for manipulation of original intention is one of the benefits of working with archival material. “That’s one of my favorite things about working with footage that isn’t mine. Especially the archival footage in MIRC. A lot of it had really unusual shots that I thought were really neat. Adding the sound effects to that piece was a cool experience. The sounds allowed me to put my own twist on the videos that was never meant to be there.”

Still image from "Ghost Stories."

Still image from “Ghost Stories.”

Megan Brooks took a different approach for her project, Ghost Stories. “When I started, I knew that I didn’t want to attempt to shape the footage around my own vision. Instead, I wanted to find clips in the footage that caught my attention and create something out of them. I instantly fell in love with the clip of the woman advancing on the camera with the upper half of her face cut off by the frame. The look of old footage, the blue tint of the clip, and the absence of her eyes from the frame felt very eerie and almost ghostly. I knew the moment I saw it I wanted to create a video that portrayed that very mood of ghostliness to the audience.”

Still image from "Ghost Stories."

Still image from “Ghost Stories.”

For Rebecca Boyd, “Megan’s film evokes lost memories—things that slip away when you’re trying to recall them but then come back in unbidden snippets, perhaps at inopportune moments. The haunting music that Megan uses works with the images to produce a sense of melancholy, but the kind of nostalgic melancholy that you want to hang onto.”

As far as creating the soundtrack, Brooks “began collecting sound clips that conveyed that feeling to me. I finally decided upon old record scratches, radio static, and an eerie music box song. From that point, I began to play with the footage until I felt it both matched the music I chose and produced the mood I wanted to achieve.”

Like John Phillips, Megan Brooks found working with archival material to be a rewarding experience. “I loved creating something new out of the preexisting footage. It was an opportunity to be creative, have a lot of fun, and shape something that other people could enjoy. I’m very interested in editing again in the future—perhaps in a future career.”

Congratulations to award winners John Phillips and Megan Brooks!

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Caught in the Gaze: Sapelo Islanders and the Presidential Visit of 1928

 This post was written by Dr. Melissa Cooper, Assistant Professor in the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies. Dr. Cooper specializes in African American cultural and intellectual history, and the history of the African Diaspora. Cooper’s current book project examines the emergence of “the Gullah” in scholarly and popular works during the 1920s and the 1930s. Using Sapelo Island, Georgia as a case study, Cooper’s manuscript explores the forces that inspired interest in black southerners during the period, and also looks at the late twentieth, and twenty-first century legacies of the works that first made Sapelo Islanders famous. 


Still image from Fox Movietone News Story 1-644, “President hunts from ox cart in Dixie wilds–outtakes”

As soon as I saw the grainy black and white images of Sapelo Islanders singing spirituals, I knew that I had found something that had greater significance than what was expressed in the film’s index description. Right away, I recognized the newsreel outtakes from President Calvin Coolidge’s holiday vacation on Sapelo Island, Georgia in 1928 as one of the earliest attempts to “capture” the islanders’ now famous folk culture. I wasn’t looking for the footage when I casually browsed MIRC’s digital collection during a campus visit last January—the discovery was a surprise. Having researched the historical origins of the nation’s fascination with this Gullah community for nearly a decade, I was ecstatic to locate images of this pivotal moment in Sapelo Islanders’ history.  When automobile tycoon Howard Coffin first opened the door for outsiders to explore his “private” oasis during the President’s visit, curiosities about the blacks who lived there grew.  The timeworn footage tells an interesting story about how the islanders were imagined during the period—and simultaneously obscures the tensions that permeated life in this unique Jim Crow setting.

sapelo2Although Fox Movietone producers left the footage of Sapelo Islanders singing on the cutting room floor and chose other images to represent Coolidge’s southern sojourn, their attempts to recreate scenes of the islanders “in action” speaks volumes. Believing that the islanders embodied the island’s exotic, “timeless” atmosphere, the filmmakers in Coolidge’s entourage made every effort to bring this fantasy to life. They organized a chorus comprised of the island’s best singers, and arranged for the oxcart and its driver’s participation. They made sure that cameras rolled, and several “takes” were acted out while there was enough sunlight to capture the singers moving down the twisted dirt road nestled between towering oaks covered with Spanish moss.  Singing spiritual standards “Old Time Religion” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” and the popular Stephen Foster tune  “My Old Kentucky Home” (with its nostalgic versus about happy “darkies” on a plantation) completed their portrayal as relics of the South’s antebellum past.

President Coolidge and Howard E. Coffin, 1928.

President Coolidge and Howard E. Coffin, 1928.

The film’s producers were not alone in their imaginings of islanders. Newspaper reports chronicling Coolidge’s trip also borrowed from popular fantasies about black southerners and painted them as artifacts of the past and as supporting characters in Coffin’s occupation of his very own tropical oasis.  Articles published in the nation’s leading newspapers described the “250 negroes who” lived on Coffin’s private “game preserve” and who showed “their allegiance to” the millionaire.[1]  During the visit, Coffin used islanders to entertain Coolidge. Reports recounted hunting excursions during which “negro beaters worked their way through the surrounding brush, flushing the birds and turning them in the direction of the field” so that the millionaire and the President could shoot their prey.[2]  Articles described the “sea island rodeo” where “excited negroes rode” the island’s wild steer “bareback.”[3] Coffin loved slave songs, so it is not surprising that he had islanders sing them for the President and his wife.[4]  Papers detailed scenes where “negro girls lined up on the beach and vied with each other in singing the spirituals of their race” and announced that the “island negroes” were slated to “sing their old spirituals for the President’s entertainment” while a “motion picture film is made.”[5]

But Sapelo Islanders were anything but Coffin’s entertaining, jovial and loyal subjects. Most of the islanders who participated in the rodeo and the hunting expeditions, and those who sang songs for Coffin’s guests, were descendants of the newly freed men and women who re-settled the island that they worked as slaves after the Civil War, and who protested the return of their former slave master’s heirs brandishing guns and declaring that the land was theirs. When their protest failed, they organized and purchased and re-sold land to islanders to secure their home. In 1912 when Coffin bought a large portion of the island to establish a hunting preserve, and built his mansion on the very spot where the antebellum “big house” once stood, it was clear to islanders that the tide had once again turned against them. In the face of Coffin’s domination, many islanders took the jobs that he offered at the “big house,” in his cannery, accepted positions tending to his livestock and gardens, or maintained roads in exchange for regular wages.

sapelo1Surely many of the islanders who performed for Coolidge and the filmmakers were pleased to have the President in the audience of onlookers observing their craft, but their willingness to perform should not be interpreted as merry contentment. In fact, evidence of their discontent can be found in the same musical tradition that was exploited in the film. “Pay Me Money Down” was a popular work song among coastal Georgia blacks by the 1920s.[6]  The song’s refrain, “Pay me, Oh pay me, Pay me or go to jail,” echoed the anxieties that blacks who “owed” debts to wealthy whites suffered.  Sapelo Islanders’ contributed a very telling verse to the work song that traveled throughout the region: “Wish’t I was Mr. Coffin’s son…Stay in the house an’ drink good rum.”   Similarly, blacks on nearby St. Simon’s Island added a verse that featured their “big boss” “Wish’t I Mr. Foster’s son…I’d sit on the bank an’ see the work done.”[7]  These lyrics clearly expressed islanders’ critique of the social structure that limited their life chances.  When islanders sang that they wished they were Coffin’s or Foster’s son, they were acknowledging freedoms, wealth, luxuries and power that Jim Crow denied them—they were articulating their frustration with the hierarchy that forced them into grueling work routines and debt that threatened their freedom.

photo (1)

Dr. Cooper presenting this material for a program in the Hollings Library on November 6, 2014.

When the cameras stopped rolling, and after Coolidge departed the island, interest in Sapelo Islanders’ cultural lives did not wane—it grew.  In the years after the President’s visit, Sapelo Islanders would contribute songs to a “slave song” collection; they were captured in photographs printed in National Geographic Magazine; their dialect was recorded and featured in a groundbreaking linguistics study; and their memories were included in the Federal Writers’ Project folklore volume. Inspired by a mixture of popular fantasies about the South’s black “primitives” and competing theories about blacks’ racial inheritance that dominated American intellectual and cultural life during the 1930s, these works established Sapelo Islanders as one of the most unique populations of southern blacks.  Even though their culture would attract the interest of people around the globe, the material realities of their lives, and their yearnings for equality would continue to be ignored for decades after they were first introduced to the nation in 1928.

Written by Dr. Melissa Cooper, Assistant Professor, Institute for Southern Studies

[1] Charles Groves, “Coolidges to Visit Island Off Georgia,” Daily Boston Globe, December 19, 1928, pg.10.
“Coolidges At Ease on Sapelo,” New York Times, December 27, 1928, pg. 1.
[2] “Five Birds Bagged By President’s Gun” The Washington Post, December 28, 1928, pg. 2.
[3] “Quail Fall Victims to President’s Aim,” The Washington Post, December 29, 1928, pg. 2.
“Sapelo Folk Stage Rodeo for Coolidge,” Daily Boston Globe, December 30, 1928,  pg A8.
[4] Lydia Parrish, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992).
[5] “Quail Fall Victims to President’s Aim,” The Washington Post, December 29, 1928, pg. 2.
“Sapelo Folk Stage Rodeo for Coolidge,” Daily Boston Globe, December 30, 1928,  pg A8.
[6] Lydia Parrish, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992) 208.
[7] Ibid.
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Home Movie Mysteries at MIRC

UntitledFilms come into MIRC from all kinds of sources and sometimes we don’t know anything about them. Perhaps someone purchased them in a yard sale or found them in a thrift store before donating them. Sometimes other institutions come across them in their own collections and not knowing what to do with them, they send them to MIRC. These films, very often home movies, become collections of “Unidentified Home Movies.” If we are lucky we can often attach a family name to them, but not always. We do as much research as we can, and with the helpful power of the internet, we can track down extended family. We try to reach out to family members, if we can trace any, but often don’t hear anything back. At the moment there are several collections for which we have not managed to identify family members or even names for the families to try and track down living relatives. We keep trying. If you, the general public, can help us or even recognize any of the people in these images taken from the films then please get in touch. We would love to be able to identify the people in these films and I’m sure their relatives would enjoy seeing them on film.

Here are some of the films that we have at MIRC that need help in finding the people in them:

  1. Unidentified family home movies, 1920s to 1950s
  2. Martin Martin home movies

Then we have others that we think we have identified the family but we cannot track down a living member who can confirm the identification.

  1. Parkin family – not confirmed
  2. Post family – not confirmed
  3. Livingston family – not confirmed

Unidentified family home movies, 1920s to 1950s

UNID1The first collection that we need help with is from a well off family, possibly of Jewish descent and from the Chicago area. They went to Europe on the Mauretania at least once, possibly twice in the late 1920s, and visited kibbutz whilst in Palestine. Family members were in the Air Force as pilots in WWII. There might be a connection with the surname Jaffe. They also went on a Caribbean cruise in the UNID21950s and a driving vacation to Florida, stopping in North Carolina on the way south. They shot a lot of footage – probably about 12,000 feet of film. Here they can be seen on board the Mauretania and in Palestine.

UNID3Some members of the family were pilots and joined the US Air Force, as the film shows young men in uniform during WWII. We would UNID4love to be able to track down a family member who could identify these people and who may like to see them in these films.

Martin Martin home movies

martin1These are the home movies of a man presumably called Martin Martin possibly from the NJ area. Research into the family has so far proved fruitless. The only information regarding the films includes some information on the film boxes. The film boxes that were sent back from the processing lab were sent to a Mr. Martin Martin, of Somerville N.J.

martin2Preliminary research and enquiries to the local area in Somerville, NJ has not disclosed any relatives or traces of this person. Information on the film cans mention Monticello, NY and Highland Park, NJ. Some information has been gleaned from the films themselves. The collection contains a wide variety of footage, including scenes of a baby from 1952, the martin3wedding of a mystery couple, horseback riding, a trip to Atlantic City, and a film shot in Korea, most likely between 1951 and 1953. It is unsure whether this collection is from one family and its extensions, or two separate collections since the B&W films from the late 40s and the color films from the 1950s seem to be of two families. They may be related. As yet we cannot positively identify the same people in both films. Please get in touch if you can help us with these family collections.

ParkinThe Parkin family film consists of a single film, dated about the late 1920s. We have a copy of this film, which was duplicated in the 1950s. The family has been tracked down to the town of Maplewood, NJ, where they lived from the 1920s through to the 1950s. Sadly all the family members who appear in the film have died and we cannot trace any descendants of this family to confirm their likeness. Luckily this film had inter-titles naming the family members, giving us invaluable information with which we were able to identify them.

PostThe Post family films are a collection of films that were donated by the Aiken Historical Society many years ago and we have a general assumption that these are films of the Post family from Long Island, NY, who ran a training stable and wintered their horses in Aiken, SC. They were a prominent family in the horse racing and polo playing world and their films feature many shots of the horses that they bred and trained, as well as the many famous polo players who rode their horses and enjoyed the company of the family. While we haven’t had a confirmation from a family member that would positively identify them, we were able to find pictures of some of the family members with which to give this collection a family name.

LivingstonThe Livingston family films were donated from another family who had purchased the films in an estate sale. As yet we have been unable to find a family member or friend of the family who can positively identify them, but we do believe them to be the films of Roy Livingston, of Atlanta, GA, and feature Roy and his daughter Leslie on their travels. One of the films show their journey on MIRC_HMD_image_Livingston3the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship to Southampton, England in 1948, where they meet some Cuban athletes onboard training for the London Olympics. From bomb damaged London they travel around Europe and visit Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Rome, Pompeii, Capri, and Nice before returning to the Port of NY. They also vacation on a cruise of the Caribbean in the late 1950s and visit Cuba, Venezuela, and Jamaica, all captured in glorious Kodachrome color, as this picture shows.

If you have any information that can assist us with the identification of any of these films or the people who appear in them then please do get in touch with us at We would be only to pleased to put names to some of these faces.

Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

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Moving Image Research Collections and The Nickelodeon Host 2014 Home Movie Day

HMD_logolargeJoin USC Libraries’ Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) and the Nickelodeon Theatre for Columbia’s National Home Movie Day 2014 event. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on October 18th, members of the community are invited to attend the free, family-friendly screening at the Nick, located downtown at 1607 Main Street. Refreshments will be available and prizes will be awarded.

MIRC post production specialist inspects film at 2013 event.

MIRC post production specialist inspects film at 2013 event.

“It is always exciting to see the films that Columbians bring to Home Movie Day. Last year’s grand prize winner made a very significant contribution to our Regional Film Collections,” says MIRC director Heather Heckman. Home Movie Day is popular across the globe because it offers people the opportunity to view and share the footage they have been holding onto, often unseen, for years. At last year’s event the audience filled the theater with laughter and commentary throughout the screenings, creating the relaxed feeling of watching these films at home with family and friends.

Home Movie Day is a worldwide celebration of amateur films and filmmaking, held annually in October. The event provides an opportunity for attendees to bring in their own movies for inspection, learn how to care for films and videotapes, discuss how home movies capture history, and actually see films and videos from their local community. So pull out those VHS tapes or film reels of babies and puppies, birthdays, vacations, and holidays past, and see them up on the big screen.


Still image from one of the home movies donated to MIRC at the 2013 event.

MIRC staff will be on hand throughout the day to inspect films and discuss home movie preservation. Film cameras, projectors and equipment will also be on display. Last year, one attendee brought in a small collection of her father’s 8mm movies for inspection, which she had never seen but believed contained images of her as a child, and donated the films to MIRC on the spot. The donor received a digital transfer of the films, giving her the opportunity to finally view the footage she had saved but could not watch.


This ScanStation, acquired with an Aspire III grant from the University of South Carolina, allows us to make HD transfers of small gauge film, including 8mm and Super 8.

Visitors are encouraged to bring in items for inspection on the 18th, but anyone wishing to have their movie presented in the program must submit it to MIRC for transfer no later than Friday, October 3rd. Media formats include 16mm film and VHS tapes. We are also pleased to announce that starting this year, MIRC will be able to accept 8mm and Super 8 films for transfer as well.

Home movies from the MIRC collections will play from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., and attendees are welcome to walk in and join the festivities at any point. An official program of films submitted by community members will begin at 12:15 p.m. Door prizes for attendees will be drawn during a brief intermission after the program, and audience awards will be announced at 1:45 p.m. The prize-winning movie will be preserved at MIRC and screened in its entirety at next year’s event.

MIRC will accept the first five film or VHS submissions to screen on October 18th, and participants will receive one free DVD transfer of their film or video. For longer submissions, MIRC staff may select brief clips for public screening. MIRC will also welcome up to ten digital submissions until the October 3rd deadline. Maximum run time for digital videos is three minutes. Email MIRC at for more information about electronic submissions.

For more information about Home Movie Day in Columbia, contact Amy Ciesielski, MIRC curator, at or 803-777-2271.

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Onboard USS Knox: a Home Movie from the Pacific Theater of Operations During World War II

UntitledIn 1943, John Herchak, an experienced naval officer of nearly a decade, was assigned to USS Knox to set sail for the Pacific Theatre of Operations. Prior to WWII, Herchak had served aboard the battleships New York and Texas. During the early years of American involvement in WWII, he had been assigned to the transport ship USS Chateau Thierry, which participated in the invasions of Africa and Sicily.

Untitled2Knox was a newly converted attack transport ship, named in honor of Knox counties in 9 different states. In April of 1943, the ship set out from the East coast of the US and travelled, via Panama, to the Pacific, arriving in Pearl Harbor at the end of April, and continuing on to Honolulu in May. This attack ship and her crew of 51 officers and 524 enlisted men were involved in the assaults on Saipan and Iwo Jima, as well as operations at Tinian, Leyte and Luzon. There were also stops on this tour at the Marshall Islands, Eniwetok, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, the Philippines, Hollandia (now Jayapura), the Admiralty Islands, New Guinea, the Caroline Islands, and Japan (Wakanoura, Wakayama and Nagoya).

The ship, which was awarded 5 battle stars and multiple combat and campaign medals during WWII, was assigned to occupation service after the war ended. Decommissioned in 1946, she was renamed as the SS Steel Recorder, and in 1969 became the SS Constitution State. She was scrapped in Taiwan in 1971.

Untitled3Luckily, John Herchak captured for posterity a small portion of this ship’s outstanding journey on Kodachrome color film. In 1945, at the very tail end of WWII, Herchak filmed bits of life on and off the ship, including a boxing match between the men, with many involved and even more crowded round to watch.

Untitled4The film also details an elaborate shellback ceremony, with the men dressing up to conduct the traditional rights of passage initiation when the ship crosses the equator, involving the court of King Neptune. Between these scenes of onboard life there are several stops at islands to load and unload cargo, landing crafts on beaches, trips to shore for the men, and scenes of the streets of Japanese towns where the men were given leave.

Untitled5A few of the stops show Japanese streets and towns. With some research we think we may have identified the stops as being the towns and villages around Wakanoura, Wakayama, and Nagoya. The scenes include people walking on a rural road, people on a train, a sign on the street of a Japanese town map, a Japanese house and garden, and people watching from a bridge as the ship sails by. Herchak shot general street scenes with people walking about, including men in Japanese army uniforms, as well as American Army and Navy personnel. There are shots of the coastline from the ship, and domestic scenes of markets, children playing in the streets, people boarding trams, shopping, drying fish in the sun, fishing, farming, and tending their gardens.

Untitled7Herchak filmed images of the beachside with landing craft, and of the dockside with an Army jeep. There are many boxes piled up onboard ship, followed by shots of cargo, and a military truck being winched out of the hold for transfer to a waiting landing craft. He captured naval boats gathered in harbors, and landing craft transporting men to and from the beaches and docks.

Untitled8This film is a wonderful snapshot of a man’s life from the end of an historic period. We don’t know much more about John Herchak either before or after this occasion. We do know that he was a naval officer for a number of years, prior to and following WWII. He eventually left the Navy in 1953, after 20 years of service, at the rank of Chief Commissary Steward. During his time in the Navy received number of decorations, commendations for outstanding performance of duty, as well as National Defense, American Defense, European Theatre, Asian-Pacific Theatre, Liberation of the Philippines, and Occupation of Japan medals.

Herchak retired to Charleston, SC, where he was assigned at the time. He became a car salesman for the W.T. Smith Company, then operating in Charleston. He was married to Mary Herchak and had two children, Mary Agnes and John Alexander Herchak. He died in 2007, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but not before donating this home movie to MIRC in 1999.


A shot from what might be the only footage of him can be seen here, as we believe him to be dressed up as a chaplain for the line-crossing ceremony. Thank you, Mr. Herchak, for this wonderful film of life aboard ship at the end of a momentous historical occasion, and for the record of these young men serving their country, while having some fun at the same time.

Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

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Finding Augusta in MIRC’s Regional Film Collections

Guest blogger Heidi Rae Cooley is an Associate Professor of Media Arts at the University of South Carolina. Her monograph Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era considers routine practices that define the mobile present. It argues that because digital technologies set places, persons, things, and information in constant motion, habits of locatability and navigation assume decisive social and political importance. As such, Cooley argues that we should attend to the everyday habits of finding places, persons, and information that mobile media encourage and discourage. Augusta App is the book’s digital supplement and is available for download from Apple’s App Store. Finding Augusta and its companion app were inspired by a film at Moving Image Research Collections, The Augustas, made Scott Nixon, a traveling independent insurance agent. Below, Cooley discusses her experiences with and interpretations of the original material. 

For most South Carolinians, Augusta names a city located just across the Georgia state line. This Augusta is known far and wide for hosting the Masters Golf Tournament each April. For those of us who have ties to USC’s Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC), it also suggests the prolific amateur filmmaker and photographer Scott Nixon. An independent insurance agent who travelled extensively, this charismatic Augusta native was a prominent figure in the city and its ardent advocate.


Still image from Scott Nixon’s “The Augustas.”

As Scott Nixon’s son Cobbs explains, “My father’s passion was Augusta.” So much so, as it turns out, that Nixon proposed naming his daughter Augusta Georgia Nixon. This did not happen. Nixon did, however, succeed in expressing his devotion to his home town through the images—still and moving—that he recorded during his travels from the 1930s through the 1950s.* This body of work records not only Augusta, GA, but any number of other cities, towns, streets, schools, and even flowers, bearing the name “Augusta.” Nixon’s enthusiastic Augusta-gathering produced a remarkable short film, called The Augustas, which was named to the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress in December 2012. The Augustas boasts no fewer than thirty-six instances of Augusta, each identified by means of signage, intertitle, labeled still image, train schedule, or road map.

MIRC recently discovered that Nixon documented several more Augustas. For example, footage from a European tour includes several sequences featuring Augusta, Sicily. More interesting to me, however, is a second unfinished reel of Augustas that came to our attention in summer 2012. This second reel includes footage of Lake Eau Claire in Wisconsin and an airfield in Augusta, Georgia—the latter, a site originally owned by the Nixon family.


Still image from Scott Nixon’s “The Augustas.”

Because this second Augustas reel is edited in a fashion similar to its confrere, it encourages us to consider more fully Nixon’s post-production process. For most first-time viewers, Nixon’s practice of documenting places called Augusta, or some variation thereof, might suggest home movies or touristic “snapshots,” which tend to document a moment or event in order to ensure later recollection and recounting. But I think Nixon’s Augusta films pursue a different, more abstract and experimental logic. Insofar as they proceed neither chronologically nor geographically, the films offer little in the way of narrative. They don’t tell the story of a particular trip, for example. What confronts us, instead, is a procedure of classification and recombination—a kind of structural logic that belongs more to information management than to tourism and informs what scholars in other contexts have called a database aesthetic. In other words, the Augusta reels demonstrate Nixon to be a collector of Augustas; they themselves are catalogs of all things Augusta. But also, they offer evidence of Nixon’s efforts not only to organize but also to combine and recombine his film elements. In doing so, they imply the possibility of further—indeed, nearly innumerable—combinations.


Cover image for Heidi Rae Cooley’s book, “Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era.”

In summer 2013, I had a chance to speak with Cobbs Nixon about his father’s filmmaking. Cobbs’s memory confirms my interpretation. Apparently, Scott Nixon’s post-production practice involved taxonomizing his film elements. As he went through his footage, he’d cut it according to the subject captured on film and deposited each individual film element in an appropriately labeled cup. Trains. Flowers. Cats. Augustas. Cobbs recalls that the cups accompanied a large map of the US, which hung prominently on a wall in his father’s “man cave.” Push pins dotted the map, indicating the various Augustas Nixon had visited. And the string stretched between a series of Augustas outlined the routes he traveled from one Augusta to another. Precisely how and under what circumstances the taxonomy of film elements corresponded to the map of threaded routes is less clear—except, of course, in instances in which signage appears in frame specifying that, indeed, Nixon was on site documenting a place called Augusta. Otherwise, the relation between label-bearing cups, film elements, and map is open for interpretation. Under certain conditions, “flower” and “augusta” might very well be equivalent, as is the case in Nixon’s The Augustas where the concluding Augusta is a Hardy Phlox Augusta.


Still image from Scott Nixon’s “The Augustas.”

Thus, in addition to celebrating myriad Augustas, Nixon’s film practices makes a general conceptual point worthy of the most serious film experimentalists, namely, that the associations that make meaning possible are never fixed. Among semioticians, it’s an article of faith that meaning-making depends upon conventions, that, for example, allow strings of letters to mean something for a group of people. These conventions are only ever potential frameworks for structuring correspondences. They change over time and any number of correspondences might emerge. The stability of the association, for example, between “augusta” and a notion of place, is a habit of thought, and habits of thought are subject to change. Filmmaker Scott Nixon teaches us to embrace this variability and to delight in its possibilities. In the process, his films urge us to recognize that with such flexibility—such potential for recombination—comes the need for strategies for managing relations across, for example, film elements, labels, and people.

*According to MIRC Regional Films curator Lydia Pappas, there are no fewer than 6,000 feet of Augustas footage in the Scott Nixon Home Movie collection, which includes nearly 75,000 feet of moving image material (16mm film, 8mm film, and 35mm nitrate).

– Heidi Rae Cooley, Associate Professor of Media Arts, University of South Carolina

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Bastille Day Celebrations After the Invasion of Normandy, 1944


Mass funeral at the new American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, filmed on July 14, 1944.

This month in France, men and women in their eighties and nineties are gathering again on the coast of Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. They are representatives of an increasingly small group of survivors of “the Longest Day,” June 6, 1944. Like many archives, MIRC holds copies of iconic films made at great personal risk that morning on the invasion beaches of Omaha, Juno, Utah, Gold and Sword.

D-Day, though, is more than the story of a single day. The loss of life on the invasion beaches was quickly multiplied in the days and weeks that followed as the Allies struggled inland one hedgerow, one meadow, one machine gun pit, at a time. Commemorating these lives began in earnest with the sounds of battle still in the air.

One such moment came on Bastille Day, July 14th. In the newly liberated port city of Cherbourg a massive public celebration was held. Films of that day show generals, politicians, and religious leaders all decked out in their finest to give speeches for the assembled citizens. But in the town of Carentan, just off the American invasion beaches, commemorations on a much smaller, but no less earnest scale, were taking place.


Wreath laying in Carentan, filmed on July 14, 1944.

Bob Blair, the newsreel representative in France for Fox Movietone News, landed at Omaha Beach on June 12th. For over a month he had filmed combat and most recently had filmed the assault on and liberation of Cherbourg at the end of June. On Bastille Day, though, Blair wasn’t covering the fanfare in Cherbourg. After filming the smoke of battle on the horizon, he visited small towns and villages near the Utah and Omaha beaches. In Carentan citizens solemnly placed flowers on a monument to the dead of the first world war, an act which they probably had not been allowed to perform during the four years of German occupation. A similar event played out before Blair’s camera at (an as yet) unidentified village.


The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer.

That same day, Blair also returned to the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. Another act of commemoration was taking place and a new iconic image was being born. At the first American cemetery of the war in France a large funeral mass was held with no fewer than sixteen catholic priests presiding. By this date, this cemetery held well over 1,500 dead, some of these bodies had been moved from potters graves on the beaches to a temporary cemetery on Dog White sector of Omaha Beach, and then by June 25th to this more formal resting place. The location of this first cemetery is now the reflecting pool of the single most prominent memorial to the events of D-Day, the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer.

Bob Blair’s films of the wreath laying at Carentan capture the intimate relationship between Allied soldiers, French citizens in small Norman towns and villages, and the soil of France itself. They record the very real gratitude of the newly liberated and the social importance of funerary rights even when the dead outnumber the living.

–Greg Wilsbacher, Curator, Newsfilm Collections

More about MIRC’s holdings of footage from D-Day can be found here.

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The Fox Movietone News Digitization Project: Year One in Review

Outtakes from 1927 news story about a 50th wedding anniversary.

In 2013, Moving Image Research Collections received a grant from the NEH Division of Preservation and Access. The $229,997 Humanities Collections and Reference Resources award supports Phase One of the Fox Movietone Digitization Project.* The two-year project, which began in May of 2013, is dramatically improving online access to the Fox Movietone News Collection. With this grant, MIRC is in the process of making an estimated 14,000 of 23,000 total titles in the collection discoverable and viewable through our Digital Video Repository, including revised and expanded metadata. More than 60% of the films in the collection will be much easier to search, and the vast majority of these titles will be streaming online for the first time.

The digitization of the Fox collection is an immense but necessary undertaking. The collection includes fascinating images of 1920s culture, experiments in early sound technology, and iconic footage from the WWII era. Enabling free, streaming access to this collection is crucial. While this wealth of material is already a source for some of our culture’s most recognizable images, the majority of the collection remains unseen by researchers, filmmakers, and the public—a fact the team at MIRC is working to change. Director Heather Heckman says, “I am in awe of the efforts of both project and permanent staff here at MIRC. This project is a massive operation that has touched every single one of our workflows.”


Outtakes from a staged news story featuring musician Uncle John Scruggs.

The 14,000 titles that will eventually reside in the DVR have already been transferred from film to tape over the years. In the fall of 2013, more than 1,300 Betacam SP and Digital Betacam tapes were captured to create digital files. Because the capture process yields one file for all the stories on a single tape, MIRC post-production staff must cut each individual title to verify quality and generate the access copy. Due to the inescapably time-consuming nature of the process, and a later start because of the transfer period, the production workflow has progressed more slowly than cataloging. In a four-month period with a part-time staff member, over 2,200 individual stories on approximately 200 master tapes were cut and prepped for the online repository—an impressive rate of over 500 stories per month. We hope to increase the labor in the post-production workflow to further improve output.

Cataloging Manager Ashley Blewer has been working on the Fox digitization project for 10 months. In that time, she and her team have labored tirelessly to revise the metadata for thousands of records. The catalogers view each individual story in order to expand or correct the existing metadata before adding the records, in large batches, to the repository. The video footage is then linked to the record and published on the site. Currently, there are over 1,500 videos publicly available in the DVR. Over 5,100 records in total have been updated with improved metadata, and those not yet live only await their accompanying video before being released. These updated records represent more than 1/3 of the total number of stories requiring revision, putting the cataloging workflow on schedule for its ten-month working period.

Outtakes from a 1919 story about the increased cost of candy.

Many of the videos in the DVR are of obvious and unquestionable historical significance—for instance a rare newsreel about the attack on Pearl Harbor. But much of the Fox collection’s value comes from lesser-known news and human interest stories that, when viewed together, help to form a vision of life and culture in the first half of the 20th century. The ability to browse thousands of clips online makes it possible for researchers and visitors to engage with primary source footage they may not have even been aware existed.

Subsequent phases of digitization will create both digital preservation surrogates and access copies of all the titles in the Fox Movietone News Collection. MIRC chose to make immediate access the priority in Phase One, however, for multiple reasons. Researchers, educators, media makers, and cultural heritage organizations are placing a growing number of requests for materials in the Fox collection. The newsreels and outtakes receive more reference requests than any other collection at MIRC, even after adjustment for its relative size. This online repository facilitates research requests and helps to satisfy the increasing demand for this footage. Improved metadata and intellectual control not only makes the collection more discoverable, but will also lay the groundwork for future work.

We get a view of the streets of NYC in these 1930 outtakes of Mary Rizzo dancing from Columbus Circle to Times Square.

In the last year, a project decades in the making took shape with verifiable results. The challenges we faced early in the grant period will inform and improve the work that follows. Halfway through the endeavor, we at MIRC are optimistic about the anticipated outcome, and are pleased with the results so far. As Newsfilm curator Greg Wilsbacher states, “It’s really good to see so many Fox stories going online for the world to see.  This is the type of project that demonstrates the power of the Internet to open up collections that were difficult to access in the age of video tape.” MIRC is grateful for the funding that makes this important venture possible, and we continue to strive to make this wonderful material accessible to the broadest audience possible.

* Other awards from the same program include a grant to support the planning and development of the Academy Motion Picture Oral History Digital Archive—a repository of oral history interviews with members of the film industry from 1947 onward; a grant to the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 26 nonfiction films made in the US in the 1910s and 1920s from EYE Film Institute, Netherlands; and a grant to the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to digitize, rehouse, store, and create metadata for its still and motion picture film holdings. A list of recent Humanities Collections and References Resources grants can be found here.

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