Mar 21

Reports from MIRC: What Do Film Archivists Do All Day? What Are These Strange Terms They Use?

This post was written by UofSC graduate student Chris Fite. It is the second in a series of reports about his Spring 2016 internship at MIRC, originally posted on the author’s website. It has been reproduced here with his permission. You can read more about Chris’ experiences in the archive, including his inaugural post, here

So, what does one do all day in moving image archives? Well, the short answer is, a lot of things. Like other special collections professionals, the staff at MIRC have myriad responsibilities, ranging from archival and curatorial to administrative and technical. Maybe a better questions is, “What is a typical day for the intern writing this blog post?”

My primary task at MIRC is film processing. In archival parlance, “processing” encompasses a variety of tasks that incorporate materials into a repository’s collections. Archivists talk about establishing “intellectual control” over materials. Basically, we want to know what we have, know how these items and collections are related to one another, and have that information available in a catalog or database of some sort. If we have physical control, that means the stuff is in our possession. If we also have intellectual control, that stuff in our possession can be of use to people. In my case, I’m dealing with WIS-TV News outtakes from the 1970s. These film reels contain footage that camera operators shot on location and brought back to the station for editing. For the most part, we don’t know which segments were used in broadcasts, but that’s not a problem. All of that footage is still a boon for researchers.


Film processing workstation. The two black gadgets with yellow handles make up the vertical film winder. Unprocessed film on the left is winding onto reel on the right.

When I sit down at my work station, I select an unprocessed reel and put it on a vertical film winder. This device allows me to go through the film manually. I inspect the film for physical condition, technical information, and content. My notes will become part of the internal database record and the public catalog record. Yes, it is indeed ironic that I spend all that time in a film repository without “watching” any films. However, we have to inspect film this way before putting it on a scanner or other machine that works at high-speed. There are two main reasons for this policy. First, the film must be in good condition for playback. Manual inspection allows us to repair weak splices, torn sprockets, and other defects. Second, time is short, and we can get the information needed for cataloging without watching the film. There’s already a massive amount of film to inspect, and screening each item would unnecessarily lengthen our processing time.


The finished product. Inspected film is wound onto a polypropylene core. Pertinent information is written on white polyester leader. The gray disc underneath is the storage can.

At the beginning and end of each reel, I add several feet of white polyester “leader.” I write whether it is the head or tail of the film, add the WIS story number, and put some technical information (color or B&W, type of film stock, and type of soundtrack). I wind the film around an inert polypropylene core that will not hasten film deterioration and put it in a film can for storage. It sounds straightforward, and it is (for the most part). As with other types of archival processing, it just takes a lot of time and attention to detail. The procedure might sound mind-numbing, and it can be after too much time at the work station. However, procedure is also comforting. It provides a way of dealing with both the shared properties of these films and the unique features of the individual items. I find all of the films to be interesting in one way or another, but celebrity appearances are always a nice surprise.


A little hard to see, but that’s William Shatner as Captain Kirk in the 1968 Columbia Christmas Parade.

~Written by UofSC graduate student and MIRC intern Chris Fite

Jan 18

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day

For the PeopleThis episode of SCETV’s For the People program, part of the South Carolina Arts Commission collection, aired on January 23, 1976. It covers the January 15 demonstrations in Columbia, SC, pressing for the creation of a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. The episode includes interviews with several demonstrators and speeches given outside the South Carolina State House by Rev. Matthew McCollom, Redfern II, Willie Williams, and Isaac Williams.

It took over a decade for the people who advocated for a day of recognition to achieve their goal. In 1983, President Reagan signed a bill making Dr. King’s birthday into a federal holiday, with the first observation of the new holiday in 1986.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Charleston, 1967.

MIRC’s Local Television News collections contain two clips of Dr. King himself speaking in South Carolina. In 1966, Dr. King gave a speech in Kingstree on the importance of voting, telling his audience to “march on ballot boxes.” NPR’s History Department blog examines these outtakes in greater detail. The Reverend visited Charleston in 1967, where he emphasized his commitment to non-violence. “I decided to stick with love,” Dr. King proclaims. Future Congressman James Clyburn is visible onstage behind the podium.

Dec 15

Bull Street, Segregated

This blog entry was written by Public History M.A. student Clara Bertagnolli as part of a project for the University of South Carolina Fall 2015 course, FILM 710: Media and Archives. Each student was tasked with the job of designing a project using archived media. Students were encouraged to take advantage of the resources available at MIRC as they developed their projects.

If you’ve been in Columbia for a few years or more, you’ve probably heard the name “Bull Street” used not to refer to the road in downtown, but the campus of the old state-run mental facility, the South Carolina State Hospital. You may have heard of the recent plans to develop the property, and the resulting attempts to preserve the State Hospital’s historic buildings and use them for research while they still stood. I participated in one attempt to preserve the campus’ history. When presented with another opportunity to study local history through media, using MIRC’s extensive collection, my first thought was to see what I could find on Bull Street.

While most locals have heard of the Bull Street property and know what it was once used for, few have heard of the Crafts-Farrow Hospital or the Palmetto State Hospital. These are two names for another state-run mental hospital in Columbia, the annex off of Farrow Road that was designed and built for the sole purpose of segregation. It was constructed in the 1910s and was used to house African-American patients only until the 1960s, when outside pressures finally pushed the South Carolina Department of Mental Health to integrate its two Columbia campuses.

MIRC’s Local Television News Collection contains a wealth of historic footage from WIS-TV featuring both campuses. One film in particular caught my eye as I browsed the footage: a 1965 film of a tour of both campuses. The desegregation process was not yet publicly underway, making this a glimpse into the late life of these segregated facilities.

The contrast, though not overwhelming, is clear. The most obvious difference is between the two signs: one, large and welcoming; the other, small and exclusionary, mounted to a gate in a chain link fence. It’s clear which is supposed to be the better place to be, even before setting foot on the campus. Passers-by are meant to know about the Bull Street campus; the Crafts-Farrow campus doesn’t achieve such importance.

Top: sign for the State Hospital at Bull Street. Bottom: sign for Crafts-Farrow Hospital.

Top: sign for the State Hospital at Bull Street. Bottom: sign for Crafts-Farrow Hospital.

The differences don’t stop there. While both campuses appear to be spacious, with buildings in good repair on the outside, a peek into the patients’ quarters says otherwise. Both have dormitory-style living, which back then was a common living situation for hospital patients of all kinds, giving each of them a cot-like bed in a large shared room. The white patients at the Bull Street campus, however, seem to have better treatment than the African-American ones living at Crafts-Farrow. While the aisles between beds were narrow in both, the Bull Street patients had space at both ends, while the Crafts-Farrow patients slept with their heads mere inches from their neighbors’ feet. A few more inches of personal space probably go a long way for someone living in a room like that.

Top: dormitory room at the State Hospital at Bull Street. Bottom: dormitory room at Crafts-Farrow Hospital.

Top: dormitory room at the State Hospital at Bull Street. Bottom: dormitory room at Crafts-Farrow Hospital.

A third notable difference between the two is the state of the hallways. Both look clean and in good repair (as far as I could tell from the black and white footage), but a careful look at the background of the footage reveals an interesting detail. When the tour group being followed in this film walks through the halls of one of the Bull Street campus buildings, there is no one else in sight. However, when the group walks through a hallway on the Crafts-Farrow campus, there are many people in the background, differentiated from the tour group by two key factors: 1) their clothing is more casual than that of the tour group, and 2) they are sitting on the ground, a rather unusual position for people on a walking tour. It’s unclear whether these people are staff or patients, but judging by their seating arrangements, it’s more likely that they’re patients who couldn’t find seating in their lounge areas. This is not an ideal situation for a mental facility.


Modjeska Simkins on the grounds of the State Hospital at Bull Street.

This film makes the differences between the two campuses clear, whether or not the crew from WIS-TV intended it to. They may not have been so obvious to those on the tour. One person on the tour who certainly took note of the differences was Modjeska Simkins, a local civil rights activist. In fact, she voices her displeasure with the fact that the institutions are still segregated in a WIS-TV interview three months later. No doubt, the tour made an impression on her.


~Written by USC Public History M.A. student Clara Bertagnolli

Nov 17

Supercomputers, Nitrate, and Death-as-an-Interface

This guest post was written by Evan Meaney, Assistant Professor of Media Arts in the University of South Carolina’s School of Visual Art and Design. Professor Meaney’s work centers around the belief that the aspirations and possibilities of art are bound to the technologies that support them. Those technologies, as embodied in specific media, are only useful in so far as they can be taken apart and studied. His recently completed project, Big_Sleep™ draws heavily from the digitized materials at MIRC and includes interviews with MIRC staff. The project screened publicly for the first time in November at the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual conference in Portland, OR. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on his experience working with MIRC below.

Big_SleepTM_6Archivists, like hospice workers or chaplains, have a tough job. Tough, because they try to preserve meaning and value of materials in decline. They face the very things humans work hard to avoid facing. Those people who tell you to live like there’s no tomorrow do not have your best interest at heart. There will, most likely, be several tomorrows. In many ways, that is the problem. Human beings create things in the present for the future. We mediate our intentions and produce bridges, cakes, and artwork. We’re proud of these efforts, ignoring the notion that bridges will fall, cakes will sour, art will fade, and on and on until there’s not much left. We must do this. If we focused on distant, sparse endpoints, it would be difficult to get out of bed in the morning, let alone make our beds once we’ve left them. We focus on creation in the present and hope the future will just work out. That’s a very human thing to do.

The archivist’s persistence-in-the-face-of-non-existence is a kind of bravery and dedication that affects much today and will affect even more in the days to come. This is where Big_Sleep™  was born.


In 2013, I began a project with my colleague Dr. Amy Szczepanski using grant-time we had left at the supercomputing facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We wanted to look at the protocological nature of decay and archivism and, if we were lucky, make a piece of artwork that connected the aesthetic, social, and computational sides of that issue. But first, we needed an archive—one with a collection that dated back to the early days of the moving image, one with a lot of material in all states of image integrity, and one with smart and dedicated curators and staff who could speak to the process of preservation. It turns out that all of those threads led us to the same place: Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) at the University of South Carolina.

Big_SleepTM_2Working with the team at MIRC and utilizing their metadata systems, we were able to explore the archive in much the same way that Bill Morrison had done a decade ago when he used MIRC footage to create his masterpiece, Decasia. We were able to secure footage from the early days of nitrate film, materials concerning the first experiments with digital transfer processes, and subsequently express the lineage of content as it became increasingly virtual. Combining this material, interviews with many of the MIRC team members, and computational augmentation from the ORNL lab, we produced Big_Sleep™, a web and cinema project that looks towards the end of archivism.

Big_SleepTM_4Part software demo, part documentary—Big_Sleep™ concerns itself with archival impulses, molecular instability, and numbers counting down to zero. It explores problems in our archival urges. Via a single-channel desktop screencast, informatic elements ebb and flow—creating and relating interface absences. These gaps suggest that no amount of hard drive space can defy mortality. The only way to fully prepare our media for the future is to prepare ourselves for a future apart. The piece presents material from the late William Birch, one of the most important Fox Movietone cinematographers. Examining his slowly-decaying body of work, we find an argument for access in the present. Digital migrations of these early films are often met with limited, temporary success. Looking into the future, one might see a canon of obsolesce. Looking further, one might not see anything at all.


With Big_Sleep™ complete and awarded distribution through the prestigious Video Data Bank, we are able to look back and appreciate the immense wealth of knowledge we found at Moving Image Research Collections. Not only their material archive itself but the knowledge freely offered by their team was invaluable to this project. They are a resource to anyone interested in the moving image and, while it may be difficult to face a world of uncertain tomorrows and inevitable ends, MIRC makes a bold, brave statement about the value of past materials for a future that will never know how to properly thank them.

~Written by Evan Meaney, USC Assistant Professor

Nov 09

HMD 2015 Recap: Kodachrome, Film Reels, and Cesar Romero

Another successful Home Movie Day! We are grateful to partners Historic Columbia and The Nickelodeon, to the families who submitted home movies for screening, and to all of you who came out to celebrate.

IMG_2908More than 50 Columbians dropped by during the Soda City Farmers Market to chat with our staff about the challenges of preserving and providing access to home movie collections. Many more paused to grab the free 8 and 16mm film reels we were handing out. Although aesthetically pleasing, metal reels can deform the film and trigger decomposition. Giving them away to community members is, to our minds, a nice bit of recycling. By the end of the morning, more than 50 metal reels had found a new home (the teal color moved especially quickly).

IMG_2899Inside the theater, a program featuring images of the city of Columbia and trips around the state from our archive’s collections ran on a loop for free, drop-in viewing. One visitor described the images as “seductive and fascinating.” Another noted how surprising and moving it can be to see children in early 20th Century fashions behaving just like children today.

At noon, we screened the three submissions for this year’s awards competition, all submitted by families that also elected to donate their collections to MIRC. I had the honor of serving on the jury panel, alongside Kristin Morris, Marketing Manager for The Nickelodeon, and John Sherrer, Director of Cultural Resources for Historic Columbia and author of the beautiful book Remembering Columbia. The three of us were charged with awarding two prizes: a Historic Prize, for the submission we judged most historically significant, and a Jury Prize, for the submission we judged to be “best in show.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.37.33 PMThe Historic Prize went to the De La Cova Family Home Movies, which featured images of a newly-constructed, Mid-Century era suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. We on the panel felt that it was a fascinating document of the environment of the post-war building boom targeted at middle class families. These home movies give us an appreciation of what those spaces really looked like at the time they were built—a concrete idea of the facades, of the chain link fences, of the lack of privacy typical of new development. A brief appearance by comedian Cesar Romero (a cousin of the De La Cova family) didn’t hurt. Antonio De La Cova and Carlina De La Cova won a copy of John Sherrer’s book. We will work with our partners to get their film screened at a Historic Columbia event later this year.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.43.54 PMAlthough we ultimately ruled in favor of the De La Cova submission, this was a tough decision. We also felt the Bergmans Family Home Movies, beautifully exposed footage of a tennis match in 1920s New York State.

The Jury Prize and the Audience Award (decided by audience ballot) went to the Grossglass Family Home Movies, which consisted of stunning Kodachrome images of a 1950s family reunion picnic in Eastern Pennsylvania. The brilliant colors and family atmosphere were moving to the entire audience, but especially to donor Dianne Calder, Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.41.24 PMpresent in the audience, who cried seeing her family films on the big screen—the first time she had seen them in decades. For both awards, Ms. Calder won a one-year membership to the Nickelodeon Theatre as well as a prize pack, also generously supplied by the Nick.

Many thanks to our partners for donating space, time, and prizes to help make Home Movie Day 2015 a memorable event. We hope to see you next year!

~Written by Heather Heckman, MIRC Director

Nov 03

45 Years of “Awareness”

216_JPJoin us on November 12th in celebrating 45 years of WIS-TV’s Awareness. Founded in 1970, Awareness was an innovative news magazine program made entirely by African Americans for a Black audience. The show remains on the air to this day.

Original host J.P. Neal Jr., and former host Jackie Johnson will discuss the creation and early stages of this groundbreaking show, as well as its challenges, its contributions to the local community, and the reason it remains a significant cultural staple for all South Carolinians.

Moderated by WIS-TV News 10 reporter and current show host Meaghan Norman, the program will highlight clips from Moving Image Research Collections’ WIS-TV: Awareness collection. A Q&A session will follow the panel.

Awareness was and remains an exceptional show. The long-­form television journalism of the magazine show format allows Awareness to examine significant issues in detail, including local concerns, the state’s response to national events, political movements, and cultural trends.

The event will take place on November 12th at 5:30pm in the Hollings Library Program Room. It is free and open to the public. RSVP acceptances only to

Sep 24

The Significance of “Felicia” and Preserving Nontheatrical Film

The School of Visual Art and Design, along with University Libraries, invited North Carolina State University Professor Dr. Marsha Gordon to USC on September 17 and 18. Below, Dr. Gordon describes her visit, and discusses the film Felicia and the importance of preserving nontheatrical films.


Still image of Columbia Police Lieutenant Robert Wilbur, from WIS-TV News outtakes.

I was invited to come down to University of South Carolina to give two talks. The first was to Professor Laura Kissel’s FILM 110 Media Culture class, an introductory course for Media Arts students. In that class I discussed the ways that the subject of race was virtually ignored in educational filmmaking prior to the 1960s, as well as the ways that the mainstream media dealt with the representation of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the wake of the rebellions that took place there in the summer of 1965. This discussion included a local Columbia, SC angle with a screening of a short clip of police Lieutenant Robert Wilbur discussing the subject of rioting; the clip was culled from the WIS-TV News collection at MIRC.


Still image from the film “Felicia.”

The main event was showing the film Felicia (Dirs. Alan Gorg, Bob Dickson, & Trevor Greenwood), a film that was just named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. I discovered this film in Skip Elsheimer’s A/V Geeks Educational Film Archive (@AVGeeks). Skip has saved over 25,000 16mm educational films and works diligently to share them with the world. He also digitized a copy of Felicia and has posted it at the Internet Archive, so you can watch the film we looked at here.

The film, which was shot prior to the events of August 1965, is about an extremely articulate young woman of color growing up in Watts. Felicia talks about her family life, school, and future in this short, student-made documentary. In Professor Kissel’s class we discussed how this film gave a different picture of Watts than that of the dominant media, and how Felicia’s own voice is used to structure the film, offering important insights into the circumstances that shaped her life and future.


Dr. Gordon presenting “The Other Side of the Tracks: Nontheatrical Film, Race, and the Case of Felicia (1965).”

The day after my classroom visit I gave a more in depth lecture on the film in the Hollings Library. One of the main points of my talk was that scholars and archivists can collaborate to make a real contribution to the understanding of film history. This is really the story of how three student filmmakers cared enough about a social issue (class and race-based inequity) to make a documentary about it; how an archivist cared enough about a forgotten fifty year old film to save it and provide access to it; how film scholars were fortunate enough to find it and have the opportunity to conduct research about it; how this short but insightful film has relevance now, especially in the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, or Charleston, SC.

Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of University of Chicago Film Studies and I have, in addition to successfully nominating the film to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, conducted extensive research resulting in an article on the film that will be published in Cinema Journal in the early spring of 2016. And we were so inspired by the richness of Felicia that we are now collaborating on a collection of original essays themed to the subject of race and nontheatrical film.

Dr. Marsha Gordon
Associate Professor, Film Studies
North Carolina State University
Twitter: @MarshaGGordon

Aug 27

MIRC, Historic Columbia, and The Nickelodeon Team Up for Home Movie Day 2015

HMD-ProjectorJoin USC Libraries’ Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) and Historic Columbia at The Nickelodeon Theatre for Columbia’s annual Home Movie Day event. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on October 17th, members of the community are invited to attend the free, family-friendly screening. Refreshments will be available and prizes will be awarded. MIRC staff will be on hand throughout the day to inspect films and discuss home movie preservation.

This year, MIRC and Historic Columbia are putting special emphasis on South Carolina, and particularly encourage the public to submit films shot in the Palmetto State. The most historically significant film will earn recognition from Historic Columbia.

CzarnitskyParade[1] copy

Parade in downtown Columbia, 1926. From the William Esper Czarnitsky Collection.

John Sherrer, Director of Cultural Resources at Historic Columbia, elaborates on why these amateur films can be so valuable: “Home movies historically were prized for their importance in documenting events, people and places in ways that still photography could not. For historians, home movies also offer unique coverage that conveys the energy behind the eras in which they are recorded.” Dig out those films and see your own personal piece of regional history projected on the big screen!

Locally shot home movies from MIRC’s collections will play from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. All 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. A panel of judges from USC, Historic Columbia, and the Nickelodeon will select a Jury Prize winner, as well as a winner for the Most Historically Significant film. Audience members will also have a chance to vote for their favorite home movie.


Exterior of Columbia’s YMCA, 1952.

Juror and audience awards will be announced at 1:45 p.m. MIRC and the Nick will provide door prizes and the Jury Award. Historic Columbia is offering a prize pack for the best historical film, and will work with the winner to highlight or display their home movie at an appropriate Historic Columbia venue.

Visitors are encouraged to bring in items to the Nick for inspection, but anyone wishing to have their movie presented in the program on the 17th must submit it to MIRC no later than Friday, October 2nd the extended deadline of Friday, October 9th. Accepted media formats include 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8mm films, as well as digital files.

MIRC will accept the first five film submissions and the first ten digital submissions to screen on October 17th. Limit one submission (one reel of film, or one digital file less than three minutes in length) per household. Participants who submit film will receive one free DVD copy of the entire reel; however, MIRC staff will select shorter clips for public screening.

cola copy

Aerial shot of Columbia filmed on the opening day of Owens Field, April 1930. From the Heyward Gibbes Home Movies Collection.

Home Movie Day is a worldwide celebration of amateur films and filmmaking, held every October, that allows people to come together to view and share the footage they have been holding onto, often unseen, for years. 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 participate in their community’s collective past.

For more information about Home Movie Day in Columbia, contact Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator, at or 803-777-3791. The Nickelodeon Theatre is located downtown at 1607 Main Street.

Aug 19

Elinor Smith: The “Flying Flapper”

When conjuring images of pilots flying during the 1920s and 1930s, the names that most easily leap to mind are Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Earhart may be the most widely known aviatrix today, but in the early years of aviation, there were many women pushing the boundaries of aeronautics. Elinor Smith was one of these pioneers.


Elinor Smith before attempting the women’s looping record, 1930.

Elinor Smith was born on August 17, 1911, and lived a long and fascinating life. Over the course of her 98 years, she set multiple flying records and was voted Best Female Pilot in the country by her peers. One of the most famous aviators of her day, Smith was a test pilot, the first female Executive Pilot (at 18), the youngest pilot ever to earn a US Commerce Department transport license, an aviation commentator for NBC, a writer and editor, and the first woman pictured on a Wheaties cereal box (1934).

Elinor made her first solo flight at 15. According to Aviatrix, Smith’s autobiography, she was the youngest government-licensed pilot at age 16, and it was Orville Wright who signed her FAI pilot’s license.*

On October 21, 1928, in response to a challenge by another pilot, the 17-year-old “flying flapper” guided her plane beneath the four bridges spanning New York City’s East River. Charles Lindbergh gave her words of encouragement just before taking off.

Still at age 17, she broke records for women’s solo endurance flights twice in the same year. She set the first record in early 1929 at 13 hours, 11 minutes, beating Bobbi Trout’s newly established record of twelve hours. These Fox Movietone News outtakes capture the aftermath of the feat. The teenaged flier undertook the ordeal in an open plane in 0ºF weather. It is not surprising that she seems groggy and out of sorts in this clip. Not only had she been flying for more than 13 hours, she was also so cold and stiff she needed assistance to exit the plane.


Elinor Smith sets her first endurance record, 1929.

Before this endeavor, no one was aware that Smith had never performed a night landing. Her initial plan was to stay up until morning and land in daylight, but the extreme cold forced her down. Once she shot her flare gun and the runway lights came on, she was terrified to attempt the descent, especially as the plane was still holding far more fuel than she had originally anticipated. Then a military aircraft came into view and landed ahead of her, giving Smith all the information she needed to get her plane safely on the ground. Later, her brother Joe told Elinor that the military pilot who had guided her down was Jimmy Doolittle, their idol since they were children. As Smith recalls in her autobiography, “…not only had I been rescued from a disastrous finish for the Bird and me, but I’d been saved from this ignominy by one of my heroes.”


Elinor Smith and Bobbi Trout, 1929.

Bobbi Trout regained the record in a 17-hour flight in February. In April, Elinor won it back with a flying time of 26 hours, 21 minutes. In October of 1929, Smith and Trout teamed up for an endurance flight. In this clip, shot before their journey, Trout is asked if there is any question that “the feminine sex” can outdo “the male sex.” “Not if we have anything to do with it,” Bobbi retorts. In May of the following year, Smith attempted to claim the loop-the-loop record from Laura Ingalls.

In 1930, at 19, Elinor Smith was voted by other licensed aviators as the Best Female Pilot in the country. Her counterpart, the winner for Best Male Pilot, was Jimmy Doolittle.


Elinor Smith explains failed record attempt, 1931.

Smith attempted the world altitude record in March of 1931. This flight resulted in a forced landing that left her completely unharmed. She explains what happened in these Movietone newsreel outtakes. On April 9, she made a second attempt, in which she reached approximately 32,000 feet. This flight set the record, but was ultimately declared unofficial as her barograph malfunctioned, only recording an altitude of 28,000 feet.


Elinor Smith on Amelia Earhart, 1932.

Smith, Amelia Earhart, Bobbi Trout, and other aviatrixes were constantly in the center of a debate about whether women could match men in piloting skills. Unsurprisingly, Elinor did not believe that gender influenced ability. In this 1932 interview about Earhart’s transatlantic flight, Smith claims the flight proves there is no difference. “A storm doesn’t care if you’re man or woman, if you can fly through it.”

In 1933 Elinor married Patrick Sullivan and retired from flying after she bore the first of their four children. More than 20 years later, following her husband’s death in 1956, Elinor came out of retirement. As a member of the Air Force Association, she began flying the T-33 jet trainer, and brought paratroopers up for maneuvers in Air Force C-119s.

She was the oldest person to successfully land NASA’s Space Shuttle simulator, which she did in 2000 with an all-female crew. She was 89 in 2001, when she made her last flight in an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE.

Smith’s candidness in these interviews is utterly charming. Her lightning-quick technical descriptions of her flight experiences illustrate her talent and the extent of her knowledge about the machines she controlled. Elinor Smith may no longer be a household name like Amelia Earhart or “Lucky Lindy,” but her skills, daring, and advocacy for female pilots have left an indelible mark on the history of aviation.

Elinor Smith Sullivan died on March 19, 2010, at the age of 98.

*Smith, Elinor. Aviatrix. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.

Jul 14

Filming the Wreck of the SS Eastland: Harry Birch and the Making of a Chicago News Family

Images of the Eastland Disaster from the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland Disaster from the Birch family scrapbook.

One hundred years ago this week, the Western Electric Co. in Chicago hosted its employees on the SS Eastland for a day of relaxation, a day away from work, a day together as a family. Over two thousand employees boarded the Great Lakes passenger ship while it was moored on the Chicago River. It was raining.

Harry Birch, a young cameraman in Chicago, probably began his day as usual. He got up to go into the office.

With its decks filled with passengers, the Eastland pushed off from the dock at the Clark St. Bridge on its way to Michigan City, IN. It listed hard to port, took water, and settled onto the bottom of the river. In a few moments, 844 people were dead. On this 100th anniversary of the disaster, others more knowledgeable about the ship’s sinking can write about the events of that day in general. Here, though, I want to touch on how this event impacted just one family, the Birches of Chicago, and how the Eastland may well be responsible for the professional careers of two of Chicago’s most important news cameramen, Harry Birch and his son Bill.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Harry Birch was a young cameraman on July 24, 1915, having only moved that year from Los Angeles to Chicago. In July he was splitting his time between the Rothacker Film Co. and the Chicago Tribune Animated Newsreel. The films he would make this day for the Tribune would reach across the county, and the globe.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Harry Birch arrived at Clark Bridge dock within minutes of the Eastland’s sinking. Two audio testimonies exist in the Harry and William Birch Collection documenting Birch’s work that morning. The first is a very short audio clip in Harry’s own word’s that begins to describe the event (after a minute of audio the tape is recorded over with music). The second is an audio tape made by Harry’s son, Bill Birch, reviewing the facts of Harry’s testimony after listening to the audio tape made by Harry. Bill summarizes the content of the original tape made by Harry, providing some information about the content. Although Bill is instructing Harry on how to frame a new recording so that it can be used as part of a planned Alex Dreier, ABC News feature story, through his instruction to Harry we learn what Harry did that morning.

According to this combined testimony, Harry was at Erie and Clark Streets when firetrucks roared down Clark St. He grabbed a cab and went with his camera to the dock, arriving just before 8:00 am. He then began filming the rescue effort.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

When I first began talking with Bill Birch in 2005, he asked me if I could help find his father’s film of the Eastland disaster. Although Moving Image Research Collections has over 200 negatives from Harry Birch’s camera in our collection, we did not have his film of the Eastland. A family scrapbook with heart-wrenching images from that day and subsequent days (including frames printed from Harry’s camera) was all that remained. But Harry had passed this story to his son, who carried it with him his entire life—it was certainly the type of news story that drove the young Bill Birch to devote his life to newsreels and television news.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

To the astonishment of many, two fragments of film showing the Eastland on the day of the sinking recently surfaced in European film archives. In the piece found at the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands, the Eastland footage begins 1:10 into the video. This longer (and more graphic) clip, almost definitely sold by Selig-Tribune to British Pathé, provides strong evidence in support of Harry Birch being the cameraman. Many of the still images at MIRC mirror the activities captured in this film. The composition and camera angles are also close matches. In all probability, both these sequences were shot by Harry Birch, as he remains the only individual associated with films made on the day of the disaster.

Images of the aftermath of the disaster, including rows of the deceased.

Images of the aftermath of the disaster, including rows of the deceased. From the Birch family scrapbook.

The sinking of the Eastland was the story that established Harry Birch’s credentials as a newsreel cameraman (he would later work for Gaumont-Mutual News and Fox News). Harry had a life-long career in Chicago area films, helping to found Local 666, making industrial films, and finally working in television. His son Bill Birch grew up wanting to do nothing more than shoot the news. He worked for Fox Movietone News prior to and after WWII. During the war he filmed with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps outfit, he established the NBC Network News division in Chicago in the early 1950s, and stayed active in television news through the 1970s, during which time he expanded his portfolio to include feature films and significant documentaries. His son, Randy Birch, also became a television news cameraman for NBC.

A special note of thanks to Marjorie Fritz-Birch, Bill’s wife and partner of over 30 years, for making possible the Harry and William Birch Collection at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections.

~Written by Dr. Greg Wilsbacher, MIRC Curator.

*Note: This entry has been edited since its original posting to include additional historical and contextual information.

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