Archivists Strive to Protect Gay Home Movies
The scenes in the cache of home movies at first glance are rather mundane, from a spirited 1957 New Year’s Eve party and a poolside get-together to a summer vacation in the Cape Cod resort town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, circa the 1970s.
It is the people, mostly unknown men in their late 30s and 40s, captured on film who make the footage historic and worthy of preservation. Shown are intimate moments in the lives of a group of gay friends during a time when being out of the closet was career suicide for many people.
"I’ve been in the film business 46 years and I have never seen footage like this because people didn’t allow these kinds of movies to be shot," said Ron Merk, a San Francisco-based film producer and director with the Metro Theatre Center Foundation. "There just wasn’t a lot of gay home movies made."
The foundation has been saving and restoring old home movies of particular importance through its initiative the Preservation Project Partnerships with a support grant from Premiere Pictures International Inc. It has discovered a rare home movie of actor Spencer Tracy from 1931 and a color home movie of actor Stan Laurel.
It collaborated with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Monaco Film Laboratory, and Nordisk ShorCut digital restoration in Copenhagen to restore the Laurel film, which recently was screened at the Castro Theatre as part of the Kings Of Silent Comedy program.
"For the last year and a half we have been acquiring culturally and historically important home movies for a film preservation initiative we are working on," said Merk. "These are important documents in they capture the zeitgeist of a particular experience in a way most commercially produced movies do not. They are capsules of information on how we lived, what we ate, what we did."
Last year Merk, who is gay, saw a posting on eBay for a batch of old film reels that had belonged to David Eugene Bell, a famous home designer at Bloomingdale’s whose clients included Carol Channing, Lucille Ball, and Joel Grey. In the 1970s he took up needlepoint and became a celebrated artist. He lived in Connecticut with his partner, Donald Cotter, and died in 2006 in his mid-80s.
According to Judith Gura’s book New York Interior Design 1935-1985 Inventors of Tradition, Bell was born Eugene Weir Bell in Pennsylvania in 1921 and served in the U.S. Navy during World Word II.
Among the private moments Bell captured on film of himself and his friends dressing in drag, dancing with each other, and frolicking naked on the beach, there was also footage of Robert F. Kennedy marching in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the mid-1960s.
Warned that many of Bell’s movies were being eaten away by mold, Merk nonetheless paid more than $1,000 for the 50 reels of 8mm and 16mm film. While some were in rather poor shape, with mold lifting the emulsion off the film, others were in better condition.
Estimating that the cost to properly preserve the collection would be $15,000 to $20,000, Merk turned to the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to try to raise the funds. It was the first time the foundation had asked the public to financially contribute to the preservation project.
It failed to attract donors, however, and Merk is now trying to find a single contributor who can fund the entire restoration work. He recently shared about 10 minutes of footage from Bell’s home movies with the Bay Area Reporter in an attempt to draw attention to the project and raise awareness about the value in home movies, especially those depicting gay life decades ago.
"If we lose our history, we lose our future," said Merk. "This stuff is not going to last a hell of a lot longer in its present condition."
It is a message fellow gay filmmaker Stu Maddux is also trying to bring to the public’s attention. He has been working on a documentary about gay home movies, titled Reel In The Closet, he hopes to premiere in early 2014.
"With this film I hope there is a realization for anyone who sees it - and it motivates not just LGBT people to look at their history but everybody - to look at what is in their closet," he said. "We hope to start a community discussion about saving home movies."
Reading about John Raines, a volunteer who has been digitizing old home movies in the archives of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society so they are more accessible to researchers, documentarians, and members of the public, inspired Maddux to make his film.
Maddux, who lives in Novato, feels a personal affinity for the trove of celluloid material being safeguarded by various LGBT preservation groups around the country. He hopes viewers of his documentary will also become invested in saving and preserving the archived films for future generations.
"This is to recognize it is historic. Their day-to-day lives, their picnics, their camping trips, their family reunions, their gatherings is all historic material," said Maddux, who plans to launch his own crowdfunding campaign next month to raise the $35,000 he needs to complete his film. "It is not the events, it is the day-to-day life depicted on screen; that is what is so valuable. People don’t think they are part of history, but really, they are."
The oldest films in the local GLBT Historical Society’s archives date back to the late 1930s. Taken by filmmaker Harold O’Neal, the movies depict life in southern California and continue through the 1980s.
The footage, according to the collection description, includes female impersonators performing at the Beige Room in San Francisco, gay men socializing in the 1940s including drag and other camp images, and gay freedom day parades from 1978 to 1980. Directors Jason Plourde and Sean David West turned some of the film into their 2004 documentary Harold’s Home Movies.
Other archived footage comes from photographer Henri Leleu, who documented the leather community, motorcycle runs, tricycle races, drag events, demonstrations, and parades throughout the 1960s and 1970s, noted Marjorie Bryer, Ph.D., the society’s managing archivist.