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.

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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.

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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.

Jun 29

APEX trip to Buenos Aires, June 2015

Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator, was honored to have been selected to participate in the now annual APEX trip, run by New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP). Lydia happily agreed to take part in a two-week visit to the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina from the 1st to the 12th of June, 2015. APEX is an opportunity for members of the international audiovisual archival community to exchange knowledge and skills in audiovisual archives around the world. Below, Lydia shares a bit about APEX and her experiences.

View of the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosado.

View of the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosado.

The Audiovisual Preservation EXchange originated from the MIAP program at NYU, which originally began in 2008 when the initiative was aimed to promote Ghanaian audiovisual archives through collaboration and knowledge exchange between Ghanaian archivists, MIAP students and faculty. A similar endeavor occurred in 2009, when a team of film experts and archivists under the direction of New York University’s Dan Streible, associate director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP), traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina to help the Museo del Cine preserve its orphan films.

The Museo del Cine Archive vaults, with amazed students.

The Museo del Cine Archive vaults, with amazed students.

Since then, students from the MIAP program at NYU, in collaboration with the AMIA Student Chapter @ NYU, have developed this project to foster international collaboration and academic dialogue on film and media preservation in order to safeguard the world‘s audiovisual heritage. APEX has now conducted projects to Ghana, Columbia (Bogata) and Uruguay (Montevideo), as well as this latest trip to Argentina (Buenos Aires).

The focus of the APEX trip to Buenos Aires was to work with three distinct film collections of the Museum of Cinema, along with one group that worked directly with the magnetic tape collections of CANAL 7 (TV Pública) under the supervision of Jim Lindner. The three film collections at the Museum Archives were the Nitrate Collection (collection of fiction containing newsreels and many unidentified rolls of silent and sound film), the Peña Rodríguez Collection (collection of silent and sound films from a film collector, producer and critic, in which the most complete version of Metropolis was found) and the Argentinian Navy Collection (documenting different activities of the Argentinean Armed Forces from the 1940s and 1950s)

The Museo del Cine exhibition space.

The Museo del Cine exhibition space.

The Museum of Cinema Pablo Ducrós Hicken was created in 1971 to investigate, preserve and disseminate Argentine film heritage. The foundation of the museum was mainly made up from the private collection of Ducrós Hicken, an essayist, researcher and academic Argentine who devoted much of his life to collecting objects and testimonies related to the film world. The museum owns the country’s largest archive of films, photographs and costumes. After many changes over four decades, and many moves to various locations around the city, the Museum finally reopened in its permanent location, Caffarena 51, in a historic building in the neighborhood of La Boca, on the first of August 2011, and it was to this building that the adventure began for the visiting archivists on Monday June 1st, 2015.

Archive film vaults – Nitrate films.

Archive film vaults – Nitrate films.

The Museum has the largest collection of films in the country in many different formats, amounting to over forty five thousand cans of film material. The collections consist of Argentine and foreign newsreels, scientific and educational films, films of military strategy produced by the Armed Forces, filming in Antarctica, fragments of lost films, orphan films, scattered remnants of personal collections, home movies, and many unprocessed and unidentified films. Not unlike many other archives in the world, the archive is under-resourced, under-funded, under-staffed and run by a passionate crew of film enthusiasts who do whatever they can, by whatever means necessary, to care for and preserve the films and film ephemera in their care.

Nitrate film being inspected and cleaned.

Nitrate film being inspected and cleaned.

I worked in the museum archive (a separate building to the museum itself) for two weeks, with archive and museum staff, and with students from the MIAP program, the Selznick school, and UCLA, on the Nitrate Film collection. The nitrate collection consists of several collections and many of the other collections also have nitrate elements in them such as the Navy and Peña Rodríguez collections. This is enough to warrant a separate vault purely for nitrate film, where the temperatures and humidity levels are kept low. The Nitrate team was essentially working with the oldest films of the Museum, ranging from 1900-1950, and made up of 35mm negative and positive prints of fiction films, newsreels, documentary films, educational films, advertisements, etc. mostly from Argentina.

MIAP student cleaning nitrate film.

MIAP student cleaning nitrate film.

These films came from a variety of sources. The producers of the Argentinean newsreel Sucesos Argentinos donated the nearly complete newsreel collection, but other nitrate collections were acquired through either personal or professional contracts of former directors of the museum. These days, since the museum has a flourishing reputation as a collector of nitrate film, many more donations have been received and the archive and museum staff are very proactive in pursuing more donations to complement and grow the archive collections.

The primary goal was to identify the varying stages of nitrate decomposition within the collection of Sucesos Argentinos and Fiction Films, which was achieved by winding through, cleaning and inspecting as many films in the 477 cans of Sucesos Argentina and Ficciones collections as possible. The team managed to get through 54 reels of film in the 10 working days that were spent at the Archive.

35mm Nitrate film close up.

35mm Nitrate film close up.

The films themselves were in very good condition and not suffering from much decomposition. The main damage that was encountered was from old tape splices that had gone bad and bled through layers of film. Out of 54 cans that were inspected very few were not in a good condition, and none were unsalvageable. Almost all of the films were negatives. A few were composite prints that included soundtracks but most were image only. One of the most exciting finds were two newsreel negatives in Ferraniacolor, a subtractive 3 monopack color process that we had never encountered before, and a tricky tinted nitrate print of “La Mosca y sus Peligros.”

Museum trips for the students to the Theatre Colon and to PROA art gallery.

Museum trips for the students to the Theatre Colon and to PROA art gallery.

Over the course of these inspections there was a selection of problems encountered including mold, rolls of film made up of dozens of individual segments with no discernable continuity (Newsfilm stories), loose reels of film not stored on cores, cans with as many as eight rolls of film in them, as well as some serious shrinking and warping. It was important to document the content of each film, and inspection sheets were filled out in detail for every one. This information was transferred to an excel spreadsheet for the archive staff and all cans were numbered and labeled for easy identification. Most of the reels were made up of multiple film stocks. It was always exciting to open a new can and see what we would encounter, both in terms of the films’ physical condition but also in terms of its content. We all learnt many new things about life in Argentina in the 1940s and what Argentinians were being shown on screen. There were a few special editions on a festival in the wine growing region of Mendoza, where the famous Malbec is produced, that were fascinating for me to watch.

Presentation by Bolivian archivists at the NYU Buenos Aires colloquium.

Presentation by Bolivian archivists at the NYU Buenos Aires colloquium.

The fortnight’s work culminated in a colloquium on the final day which was made up of speakers from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia as well as all the APEX teams final reports for an audience of film scholars and archivists, held at the NYU Buenos Aires school. It was a lovely way to wrap up the week’s working holiday and a chance for everyone to review the previous 2 weeks activities and hear more details on the other team’s work as well as the chance to talk to fellow archivists in the region and hear about their ongoing work and projects.

The Museum and Archive staff were very accommodating for the entire time that we descended on them and we had many shared lunches together, as well as lunch time walks around the amazing and very eclectic neighborhood of La Boca, home to the historical Italian immigrants population, a whole host of dog populations and the famous football team of Boca Juniors. Many events were arranged for the evenings, as well as nights off to generally explore the wonderful sounds and sights that Buenos Aires has to offer and the APEX teams got to experience a concert at the famous Theatre Colon opera house, a private screening with the director (Luis Puenza) of an Oscar winning Argentinian film (La Historia Oficial) being restored at Cinecolor, an Orphan films screening with films from Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, at MALBA a modern art museum in the Palermo neighbourhood of the City, and a Home Movies screening and a tour of an Art Gallery, PROA, in La Boca. There were many other informal dinners, drinks and many café breaks for us all with the wonderful staff of the museum as they took us into their hearts and homes to show us how welcome we were.

A big thanks goes out to them all for their wonderful hospitality and for letting us come and invade their workspaces and lives for a short time.

~Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

May 01

Charleston Hospital Workers Strike, 1969

In March of 1969, African-American hospital workers at the South Carolina Medical College Hospital in Charleston (now MUSC) went on strike when twelve of their co-workers were fired after protesting their treatment and working conditions. The strikers hoped to win back the positions for the twelve who lost their jobs, as well as earn recognition for the Retail and Drug Hospital Employees union, Local 1199B. Employees from the Charleston County Hospital joined the protests shortly after the strike began. The strike was a major event for the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina, and Coretta Scott King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including President Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, came to Charleston to aid the cause.


Ralph Abernathy

This ten-minute clip of local WIS-tv news outtakes illustrates many of the activities and demonstrations related to the protests. Probably filmed between April 25 and April 30, 1969, the footage shows Abernathy marching with a woman, most likely Mary Moultrie. Moultrie, a leader of the strike, recently passed away on April 27, at age 73. The outtakes also show a speech given by Coretta Scott King, as well as the arrival of National Guard troops with tanks, gas masks, and rifles with bayonets fixed. An officer explains to press that the Guard presence was to provide “sufficient” manpower to control potential trouble. When a reporter asks if he thinks the troops would increase tension, the officer simply replies, “no, sir.”

Andrew Young

Andrew Young

In these outtakes filmed on April 28, SCLC member Andrew Young speaks about the strike, the need for young black people in South Carolina to make a living wage, and the willingness of protesters, including SCLC president Ralph Abernathy, to face jail time.

The strike lasted over 100 days, finally ending with a settlement in June. In a 2008 interview on The Colbert Report, Andrew Young explains how he worked to settle the conflict with Stephen Colbert’s father, James William Colbert, Jr., the university’s first Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Learn more about the Charleston Hospital Workers Strike here.

Mar 18

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.

Feb 23

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

Feb 13

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!

Nov 07

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.

Oct 17

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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