Home movies, the archive of the people

The Baltimore Sun

Once upon a time, when I had a weekly show on WMAR-TV, the producers and I put a call out for home movies - not videos, but the 8 mm and Super8 film packed in shoe boxes and stored away in attics, closets and garages all over Baltimore.

Once upon a time, people made home movies - reel after reel of them - and especially at family gatherings during the holidays. In 1998, we wanted to see some and air segments on our show, to present a picture of a bygone Baltimore.

The response was quite strong. We ended up with more film than Universal. People all over the metropolitan area said they were eager to see their home movies again. Most had not viewed them in years; they had no projector that worked, and all but a few considered the prospect of transferring their home movies to video too expensive a project. They'd be most grateful if the TV station would do it.

Viewers dropped off hours and hours of film at the station. And it took hours and hours for Channel 2's video technicians to prepare samples of the home movies for telecast. I have always been glad we went to the trouble.

What we finally ended up with were not only moving portraits of Baltimore families at Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's, but amazing street scenes of the city back in the day - in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s: Howard Street storefronts, a Christmas parade, Ednor Gardens and Edmondson Village decked out in holiday lights. This was a Baltimore I had only heard about and never seen, except in black-and-white stills from this newspaper's amazing archive.

What was different, of course, was life - men and women and children moving and gesturing, smiling and speaking (though none of the home movies came with a soundtrack.)

All of the home movies were in color. People walked through scenes in the fashions of the day, each decade distinctive - men in suits with wide lapels and short but splashy ties, women with elaborate curls in their hair and dresses with padded shoulders and shoes with ankle straps. Everyone wore a hat, it seemed - men in smart fedoras, women in a wide array of millinery styles of all angles and shapes - until the late 1960s.

Home movies from the holidays were classic - girls with dolls, boys with air rifles, fake paper fireplaces in club basements, skinny uncles in really bad Santa masks.

Some of the movies contained scenes from other family events - vacations, in particular, and, in one case, the 1958 All-Star game at Memorial Stadium and, in another, a soldier arriving home from the Korean War.

I have often wondered what would happen to these records of America - important, but unappreciated records of post-World War II life in cities and towns, almost completely lost on the YouTube and Facebook generation.

There have been some efforts made at preservation and archive, but I'm sure my extended family is not the only one with stacks of home movies in attics, closets and garages, unseen for a decade or two or three now. We've given neither the time nor effort necessary to bring them out of the dark. And the expense of transfer to DVD, I suspect, seems daunting to most.

If it's been in the back of your mind to do something about this some day, you can get free, helpful advice this Saturday. It's Home Movie Day, in Baltimore and around the world. Organizers of the event claim 100 locations in 11 countries. Baltimore's three-hour event takes place at the Roland Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, starting at 1 p.m. It's open to the public.

There's a "film clinic" for assessing the condition of home movies, information about how to care for them and continuous screenings of family films. Julia Nicoll, a film preservation specialist for the Colorlab processing operation in Rockville, and Tim Wisniewski, film archivist at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins University, are the experts.

Organizers of the event want people to recognize the treasures they have stored away and to bring them out where a new generation might appreciate them. I think this is a worthy undertaking, one I've been meaning to get around to for years. (My father-in-law was an active home movie maker, and his work is, unfortunately, still stacked in a shoe box.)

Wisniewski says it's a mistake to assume your old home movies have deteriorated or that putting them on VHS or DVD means you should then discard them. "It's still very important to preserve and keep the original films," says Wisniewski. "Many people transferred their old home movies to VHS just a few years ago, and we are already seeing the obsolescence of that format. DVD is now on its way out as well. DVD doesn't capture all the quality of film. ... It should be viewed as an access medium only. Film is actually a very durable and lasting medium, if kept well.

"There are film scanners now that enable us to transfer films directly to digital files and capture the film at a very high quality. However, the cost of storage of uncompressed digital video is still pretty high, although that is steadily decreasing."

I've probably made too much of the expense of transferring home movies to new media. I mean, we're talking family treasures here.

"There's no such thing as a bad home movie," John Waters says in a blurb for Home Movie Day. "These mini-underground opuses are revealing, scary, joyous, always flawed, filled with accidental art, and shout out from attics and closets all over the world to be seen again. ... If you've got one, whip it out and show it now."

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