Preserving LGBT Footage for Posterity
Five days a week for nearly four years Oakland, California resident John Raines has watched more than a thousand hours of old home movies, television station news reports, and other audio-visual archival materials of LGBT historical significance.
Each weekday Raines sits down at a desk in a converted bedroom in his apartment, boots up his computer and AV equipment, and sets about preserving the LGBT footage and recordings by transferring them to a digital format.
The celluloid images run the gamut from gay Halloween parties to leather and drag contests to the inaugural voyages of gay cruise company RSVP to endless coverage of gay Pride parades and athletic events.
"It can be a little tiresome to watch the nth round of the Miss Continental contest. But it is also fun because little surprises will pop up," said Raines, referring to the annual female impersonation pageant that has been held in Chicago since 1980.
The preservation work is a labor of love for the gay retiree, who turns 53 on October 19, as he has been doing the work on a pro bono basis for the GLBT Historical Society based in San Francisco.
"I treated it like a job Monday through Friday," said Raines. "In seven hours I can transfer six one-hour reels."
When the historical society opened its first museum space in the gay Castro district back in 2009, Raines signed up as a volunteer. Part of the display featured video screens in the window showing archival LGBT footage.
Having a background in audio-video post-production, Raines offered to assist with fixing the visual presentation shown on the monitors.
"I enjoyed it. It was fun to learn about preservation and conserving analog media," said Raines, who worked for several San Diego radio stations in the 1980s and later at a cable TV advertising firm in Los Angeles. "I am self taught."
Impressed with his work, the archival group’s executive director asked if Raines would be interested in diving further into its audio-visual collection and help convert it into a form accessible to modern-day filmmakers, researchers, and academics.
Raines accepted the offer, only to discover that the preserved material was in various formats, largely uncataloged, and some reels in better condition than others. He decided to start with a relatively easy task, picking a collection of old radio programs donated by journalist Randy Alfred.
"Randy had donated them in 1996 and there they had mostly just sat in boxes. There were 250 reels, most one-hour long, so it was over 200 hours worth of material," recalled Raines. "I started with it because it was audio, a format I was familiar with. Also, they were in really good condition."
Not only had Alfred kept the documentation for his GLBT Radio show, which aired on KSAN-FM San Francisco from 1973 to 1984, he also had meticulously stored the collection.
"It was about as tidy as it gets," said Raines, who over the course of three months brought the equipment he needed to do the work into the archives, which are stored in a building in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood and can be publicly accessed by appointment. "I had no difficulty with that collection."
Eventually, the Alfred tapes and those of the Fruit Punch gay radio program that aired on KPFA Berkeley in the mid-1970s were made available online through the "Gayback Machine" portal on the historical society’s website. The material has since been downloaded 8,997 times from the site and an additional 3,376 times directly from the Internet Archive, where they are also held.
Having earned the trust of the archive staff, Raines began bringing the archival tapes and reels to his house in order to do the conversion work at home. He also started acquiring the machinery he needed to convert the older formats into digital copies by scouring hobbyist websites and eBay listings.
The video material held by the archives was shot in various formats, such as Betacam, U-matic, VHS, Video Hi8, DAT (for digital audio tape), and the obscure Sony CV Skip-field. Each requires its own player in order to be converted; it took him months to secure a machine that can play EIAJ-1 class=st> half-inch open reel videotape.
He even acquired a phonograph player, as the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus released in 45 rpm record format a cheer song for the 49ers football team.
"Maybe I’ve spent $5,000 altogether," Raines estimated.
By volunteering his time and services, Raines has saved the historical society tens of thousands of dollars in what it would cost to have the material commercially transferred. One collection of old films, from what was known as the Queer Blue Light video collective, would have cost $21,000 if the archives had to pay for it, said Raines.
"I did it for zero dollars after spending a few hundred to buy the machine," he said.
Once he has the necessary equipment, Raines will "babysit" the old footage through the conversion process. He watches every second of each film to ensure it is not damaged.
"I have only had one tape I handled and caused any damage on it, but it was unforeseeable," said Raines.
One trick he learned for certain film formats that can soak up water over time is to dry it out first by using a Nesco food dehydrator and jerky maker. Otherwise, when it is played back, it can leave a watery mess in the machine.
"It is round and perfect for putting flat reels of tape in it," he said. "It can take six to 24 hours to drive enough water out of the tape so you can play it."
For now his priority is transferring the videos "as is" to a digital format. He does not edit the tapes in any way.
"The goal right now is preservation," said Raines. "We want to get as good a digital copy as we can that is faithful to the original copy as possible. We are not trying to change anything on it."
Nor does Raines expect he will be able to digitally copy all of the archive’s audio and visual collection, since he still doesn’t know how big the AV collection is. Some of the remaining footage is not as well kept, with loose tape unspooled in boxes.
"There is a lot more to do," he said.
The work Raines has quietly undertaken since 2009 caught the attention of gay Bay Area filmmaker Stu Maddux, who decided to make a documentary about preserving old gay home movies and other LGBT archival footage. Titled Reel In The Closet, the movie features Raines and is scheduled for a 2014 release.
"Watching this stuff is a virtual time machine," said Maddux, who is launching a crowdfunding campaign this month to raise $39,000 to offset the cost of finishing his film. "Not only is it fascinating to view it’s going to get people fascinated in the history sitting in their closets too."
By publicizing the work he has been doing behind the scenes, Raines hopes others will volunteer their time and service to preserve the material before it becomes unsalvageable.
"Some of it is disintegrating and others are on obsolete formats. It is not something we can let go for another 20 years and let sit in the box," said Raines.
The next step would be to have individuals who were around during that timeframe view the material to see if they can identify people in the films, said Raines.
All of the converted media files are only available, for now, on a computer in the archives’ reading room. While the historical society has posted a few snippets of video on its YouTube channel over the years, most of the footage won’t be released for such public viewing.
"It is financially benefitting the archives to digitize this material," said Raines. "But we want to strike a balance between making it available and maintaining some control."
Matthew S. Bajko is an assistant editor with the Bay Area Reporter. For more information about the GLBT Historical Society’s archive, visit http://www.glbthistory.org/research/index.html. Its YouTube channel is at http://www.youtube.com/user/glbthistory
To learn more about the documentary Reel In The Closet and supporting the film, visit http://closetreel.com/