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 mirc@mailbox.sc.edu. We would be only to pleased to put names to some of these faces.

Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

Sep 05

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

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

MIRC post production specialist inspects film at 2013 event.

MIRC post production specialist inspects film at 2013 event.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Aug 08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

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