On Film, or What’s Left of It

Managing a film preservation project many years back, I came across a reel that was in very poor shape. It was 16mm black and white footage on decayed, flaking celluloid (vinegar syndrome, ftw!!!) in a brown, beaten, and slightly powdery mailing container. The film showed a man, a news anchor sitting at a desk with a cigarette in hand, the swirling smoke in shades of gray still clear after decades in a rusty can. The accompanying audio reel (it was common for sight and sound to be separate) was lost, who knows when. After a few silent minutes, the scene shifted to a crowd of men suited, booted, and hatted in 1950s finery, facing a figure with an obscured face at the front of the room. The film’s identifiers came from a faded Union Carbide Medical Office label on the container dated 1954 with “Open Hearing” and “John Daly” scribbled off to the side.

Thanks to the archives department’s meticulous arrangement of surviving office correspondence, we were able to piece together how the film came into our possession. Finding out about Open Hearing (an investigative report-type program on ABC) and John Daly (a radio and television journalist) was easy. As far as the content of the piece, well…

Here’s a “too long; didn’t read” version of American television broadcast history in the mid-20th century: It was recorded, it aired, it was wiped and reused (if on magnetic tape) or chucked straight into the trash (if on kinescope). In New York, where the top networks were based, the ultimate destination was a barge that dumped trash into New York Harbor. The National Film Preservation Board acknowledged this as common practice and in 1996 published a  transcript of a public hearing at which Edie Adams, widow of comedian Ernie Kovacs, said that her late husband’s broadcast archive was dumped in Upper New York Bay in three truckloads (there might be a copy of “Television/Video Preservation Study: Los Angeles Public Hearing” in your local research library; I haven’t been able to find a PDF of it online in years).

I contacted ABC, WABC-TV (the NY flagship station), and a few other affiliates about viewing their copy of our particular episode of Open Hearing, but was uniformly told that ABC destroyed much of their earlier holdings before the terms “archive” and “preservation” rung a bell in the minds of television executives and hoi polloi alike. Everything ended up where lots of trash in the 1950s ended up: the waters outside New York City. The black and white emulsion onto which of thousands of hours of life and lore were printed, and the millions of feet of film that were recorded and disseminated, were decimated by disinterest and the inky depths of polluted water.

The silent recording of Open Hearing at my old job is, to my knowledge, the only surviving recording; it’s master, along with much of early American television recordings, lies in a watery grave.

If I could zoom through space and time I’d don my best Joan Holloway-approved outfit and head to the 1950s, midtown Manhattan. I’d finagle my way into the studios of ABC, CBS, and NBC to swipe as many tapes and recordings as I could before they were dumped or wiped. It would be “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego: Television Edition.” Like Carmen, I’d go back in time to steal broadcast history from the clutches of near-sightedness, ignorance, and waste. In lieu of a red trench, I’d rock a red wiggle skirt and steal away in the shadows, with only the click-click-click-click of well-made heels in the distance as I’d run back to the future with my haul.


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