Memoirs of a Film Collector

Posted on: September 16, 2017



I still love running celluloid through my fingers, and was fortunate enough to find a way to turn my modest Laurel and Hardy collection into a thriving 45+ year career.





The oddest film collectors and dealers make for fascinating psychological profiles.  You’ll learn why, and a lot more, by reading Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph’s book, “A Thousand Cuts” (University Press of Mississippi/2016), with the subheading, “…the bizarre underground world of collectors and dealers who saved the movies.”


I lived through the film collecting heyday, and knew collectors and dealers, at least by correspondence, and most of the ones in Dennis and Jeff’s book by reputation.  Believe me, you couldn’t make them up!


This blog started out as a book review, but ended up as a memoir.  It brought back so many memories that I decided to share some with you.  A complete description of the book follows my trip down a bizarre memory lane.


I attended a few movie buff conventions in the 1970s, “Cinecon,” was the best for silent and early talkies, and The National Film Society,” usually specialized in the 1940s and 50s.


They were there – the collectors — sometimes lived with Mom, had some semblance of a theatre in the basement, and hoarded celluloid as if it were air itself.


In the early 1970s, the convention attendees ran the gamut of age.  It was fun to see people passionate about old movies and their film collections.  I “spoke film,” as did they, and loved to join in the conversations.


However, by the early 80s, when I took my wife to a couple of these events, the more eccentric of the bunch were starting to look a little odd.  Mismatched clothes, pale skin, paunchy, and only seemed to talk about their treasured prints.   “IB Tech,” “adapted scope,” “dupe,” “reduction print,” and “Kodak original,” seemed to be in every other sentence.


She couldn’t understand people endlessly discussing the merits of Cinecolor, and moreover, just who was Raymond Rohauer, and why did everyone want him dead?


By the 2010’s when Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph started writing their book, some of the collectors still lived in the same houses they grew up in.   Mom was long gone, curtains closed, and their cherished film stacked like an obstacle course throughout the house.  I know one collector who used every bit of floor space and resorted to using his kitchen counters and half of his double-sink.   Like I said, you couldn’t make this stuff up.


As the years progressed, sitting endlessly in the dark, presumably eating movie theatre food, took a toll on their health to the point that picking up heavy reels and operating a projector became difficult, or impossible.


Let’s back up.  Long before DVDs and Blu-rays, before VHS, if you wanted to collect movies and show them in your home, it had to be on 16mm film.  A few collectors even had 35mm (even 70mm) setups in their homes, which gave them major bragging rights.  16mm was used everywhere video/digital is now; non-theatrically (schools, libraries, universities, airlines, summer camps, you name it) and television.  Prints weren’t cheap to manufacture, and the studios didn’t make copies for collectors…so a black market was created, the more desirable the film, the higher the price.


Entrepreneurs with a bit (or a lot) of larceny found ways to steal or make copies of varying degrees of quality to sell to eager buyers.   “The Big Reel,” was a tabloid full of ads enticing collectors to buy, sell or trade thousands of prints in each issue; I loved reading it.  According to the book, at one time there were 4800 subscribers, so we know there were at least that many collectors.   A lot of the film dealers (don’t get me going on Thunderbird Films) were shady at best and worthy of a blog themselves.  No need for that, just read Dennis and Jeff’s book.


Apart from the very few who actually deprived studios or television and non-theatrical distributors* by using bootleg prints commercially, or out-and-out stole them from television stations or film exchanges, collecting film had a benign effect on studio profits.   You could buy 16mm movies legitimately from companies like Blackhawk Films, but they were predominantly silent movies and talkie shorts.  As a kid, I saved my money to buy 8mm, later 16mm, Laurel and Hardy shorts from Blackhawk.  Jeff Joseph did the same thing, which makes us kindred spirits.


But, politics and hysteria got involved.  The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) conjured up out of whole cloth an absurdly high amount of money the collectors were stealing from the studios.  The inevitable witch hunt commenced, the FBI called in, and some film collectors (actor Roddy McDowall was the most high profile) were arrested, and their collections seized.   This whole legal travesty, a dark side of the Justice Department, was eventually overturned in court.  A friend and mentor, Al Drebin of Budget Films, had a lot of films taken, only to receive a call years later from the FBI, “What do you want us to do with all of this film of yours?”   He got his films back, but I guess they forgot to reimburse him for all the legal fees he racked up defending himself.


It was routine for studios to throw out footage they felt was worthless.  Of course, no celluloid is worthless to a film collector, and their midnight dumpster diving has turned up one of a kind riches we now enjoy on DVD.  Things like deleted scenes, stereo sound tracks, missing footage, or even whole movies.   Thank you, film collectors.


“A Thousand Cuts,” is so deftly written that those without a whit of film knowledge will enjoy the book for its character studies, alone.   Had it not been for Dennis and Jeff, this entire subject would probably have been lost to history.


Below is a description of the book as copied from the dust jacket:

A Thousand Cuts is a candid exploration of one of America’s strangest and most quickly vanishing subcultures. It is about the death of physical film in the digital era and about a paranoid, secretive, eccentric, and sometimes obsessive group of film-mad collectors who made movies and their projection a private religion in the time before DVDs and Blu-rays.

The book includes the stories of film historian/critic Leonard Maltin, TCM host Robert Osborne discussing Rock Hudson’s secret 1970s film vault, RoboCop producer Jon Davison dropping acid and screening King Kong with Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East, and Academy Award–winning film historian Kevin Brownlow recounting his decades-long quest to restore the 1927 Napoleon. Other lesser-known but equally fascinating subjects include one-legged former Broadway dancer Tony Turano, who lives in a Norma Desmond–like world of decaying movie memories, and notorious film pirate Al Beardsley, one of the men responsible for putting O. J. Simpson behind bars.

Authors Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph examine one of the least-known episodes in modern legal history: the FBI’s and Justice Department’s campaign to harass, intimidate, and arrest film dealers and collectors in the early 1970s. Many of those persecuted were gay men. Victims included Planet of the Apes star Roddy McDowall, who was arrested in 1974 for film collecting and forced to name names of fellow collectors, including Rock Hudson and Mel Tormé.

A Thousand Cuts explores the obsessions of the colorful individuals who created their own screening rooms, spent vast sums, negotiated underground networks, and even risked legal jeopardy to pursue their passion for real, physical film.


Order it from Amazon:


*In the old Kit Parker Films non-theatrical days, a collector under the guise of a bogus “museum,” rented just about everything we had concerning Nazis.  Things like “Triumph of the Will,” and the mini-series, “Holocaust.”  After a while we noticed none of them were returning.  Each time we’d call there was an excuse.  Even Marci Krause, a member of the KPF team known for getting prints back, couldn’t succeed.  I suggested Marci call this “museum curator” and tell him Mr. Parker found a big box of one of a kind Nazi concentration camp home movies, and would they be of value to the “museum.”  Of course, the proviso was first he had to return all of our films.  They arrived the next day by FedEx, along with a call, “Did you send the concentration camp movies?”  Marci’s response was “Gotcha.”


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1 Response to "Memoirs of a Film Collector"

Jeff and Dennis wrote a fascinating book that made me laugh and cry. I had some rarities in my collection–we lived for those finds. I remember sharing some with Kit. The book only contains half the stories they collected. They let me publish the interview with David Shepard that could be in a hoped for sequel. Here it is

You might also enjoy this compilation we did for Reel Film Day.



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