Thunderbird Films and Tom Dunnahoo “Me, I want to know less”

Posted on: May 19, 2019

Tom Dunnahoo of Thunderbird Films was one of the more picaresque characters I dealt with in the 1970s.  His company specialized in making 16mm copies of public domain films; the quality was good, at least at first, and I bought dozens for Kit Parker Films.   Tom also duped copyrighted movies and sold them under the table along with prints of classic and current movies he got from God knows where.  Money aside, selling pirated movies probably gave him more satisfaction because he enjoyed getting away with shady things.  Even before his last sordid years, Tom was the type you felt like washing your hands after shaking his.  Still, I enjoyed communicating with him, at least for a while.  He’s one of many outliers of this industry who deserves a footnote.   Author Mark Thomas McGee* actually worked for Thunderbird and he graciously agreed to write a guest blog. — Kit Parker


If you’re a baby boomer and a film collector, then you may have heard of Tom Dunnahoo, the owner of Thunderbird Films, one of the first companies to offer public domain films to the public. For about six months, I worked for Tom as his CEO but I don’t believe Steve Jobs would have fared any better managing Thunderbird than I did because nobody could manage Tom.

Most people who run a shady operation keep low profiles, but not Tom. I begged him not to return the cease and desist letter he got from Disney with his BULLSHIT stamp on it, just as I begged him not to do the interview with (I think it was) Bill Stout from the Channel 5 news team, but Tom was determined to commit suicide. In 1971, four years before I came on board, Tom was one of the first to be arrested by the FBI for selling dupe prints of copyrighted films. While I was in his employ, we sold a number of classic titles—Citizen Kane, Psycho, Kiss Me Deadly—to name just a few. The FBI finally shut him down for good around 1977, the year the Los Angeles Times ran “Confessions of a Hollywood Film Pirate,” in which Dunnahoo bragged that he was “a pusher, selling fixes to film junkies.” In the picture that accompanied the piece he wore a pirate patch.

To be fair to Tom, he wasn’t playing with a full deck. I don’t know this to be true, but I heard that he’d suffered brain damage as the result of an automobile accident, which would help explain his stutter and a lot of other things. I chose to believe that story because it was the only way I could make sense out of the fact that he’d been married to a classy woman whose name, I believe, was Teri. She simply couldn’t have married the Tom that I knew. He must have been a different guy. I knew Teri slightly because she still had her hand in the business. She liked me. She told Tom he’d better keep me. I put together to first Thunderbird catalog that was divided into categories, with the titles listed alphabetically. “T-This is r-really fantastic. Thanks,” Tom told me. “B-But I-I-I’m afraid I-I-I’m gonna have to l-let you go.” No warning. No severance play. No nuthin’. Except my memories, which I am happy to share with you.

It began with Steve Barkett, a fellow I met at a party. He was the general manager of Thunderbird at the time and offered me the shipping job. Once he was satisfied that I could handle it, he jumped ship and took off with my wife. Though I thought at the time that I had gotten the short end of that deal, I have since come to the conclusion that they both got what they deserved.

Let’s begin this trip down memory lane by focusing on the name of the company—Thunderbird Films—affectionately known as Blunderbird Films by those of us in the know. If I remember correctly, Tom’s logo was the mythological Native American bird, but a bottle of Thunderbird wine would have been more appropriate. We all dreaded those nights when Tom would take it upon himself to make the dupe negatives because he’d get drunk on Drambuie, screw it up, pass out on the floor, and we’d be stuck with the results. Once a negative was made, that was it, no matter how terrible it was.

“There’s a f-f-fucking f-f-film f-fan in e-every trashcan,” he loved to say. That’s where Tom got most of his prints, from film fans who would give him a 35mm print of something in exchange for one in 16mm or 8mm.

The office was a three bedroom home in Eagle Rock. The lab was a few blocks away in an industrial zone. There were four of us in the office and three or four guys at the lab. As Tom was always overextending himself, there was never enough in the account to make payroll, so we’d all race to the bank in the hope of getting there before the well went dry. Those of us working in the house had the advantage over the guys in the lab because the lady who cut the checks also worked out of the house.

The fellow in charge of the lab was an old guy named Morgan, who for some reason refused to print the titles that I asked for, the titles that people had ordered, and instead ran off copies of titles that were already stacked high on the shelves in the store room, titles we’d never be able to sell. The result of his stubbornness, besides the drain on the available income, was a stack of back orders. I did manage to deplete our supply of 8mm copies of Ecstasy, which had pretty much run its course. We sold one copy the entire time I was there, to a gentleman who returned it, saying that he wanted his money back. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but because he was offended by the nudity. I wrote him back a very nice letter explaining why I was returning the film to him but not his money. He got what he ordered, and it was hardly a secret that Hedy Lamarr had a nude swimming scene in the film. He returned it again with an angry letter. “Excuse me, Mr. McGee, but I don’t have your expertise when it comes to pornography.” I returned the film to him, and continued to send him a new copy every day for the next three weeks.

But there were plenty of customers with legitimate complaints. Heaven help you if you ordered something that Tom had anything to do with, but you pretty well took it in the shorts when you ordered one of our color titles. Morgan was color blind so naturally he was the one in charge of color balance. And I lost track of the number of returned prints that wouldn’t run through anyone’s film gate. Why? Because 8mm film is really 16mm sliced in half, and Morgan never checked the splitter to make sure it was adjusted properly. “It takes too much time,” he told me. That’s Thunderbird logic in a nutshell.

When I first took over as the manager, I was still the shipper. Tom let me hire a friend of mine, who did the work, but I had to fire him because Tom met some lady at the supermarket. She was on disability but if ever there was a goldbrick it was this ragamuffin. And she was worthless. In a week’s time she managed to wrap (but not ship) two packages.

All of a sudden another misfit showed up, roughly my age, and I never found out what he was supposed to do. Every so often he would sit in my office and sing a song that he’d composed. Because of the number of times I heard it, I remember it well. “I like those blue movies. They’re the only ones I see. I like those blue movies, because they make me horneee.”

I can’t say when it happened, but suddenly the place was crawling with low tide, all of them doing absolutely nothing but interfering with those of us who were trying to get something done.

“Y-You wanna know w-where to p-pick up foxy chicks? The supermarket. Around midnight,” Tom once told me with a wink, and maybe that’s where all of these people came from. It wasn’t Beverly Hills. I can tell you that. A lot of people like to say they work in a madhouse, but I can tell you, having visited someone in a madhouse once, Thunderbird could hold its own.

In 1980, Tom was arrested and later convicted of molesting two five year olds who were living with him at the time. If you want to know more, please feel free to look it up on the internet, People v. Dunnahoo. Me, I want to know less.


Footnotes from Kit:  Tom’s lab did pretty good work, and I sent him a copy of “Ben Hur” to duplicate, but the FBI seized it in a raid.  I should mention it was the one-reel 1907 silent one-reel version, obviously in the public domain.   Not every FBI agent is a movie buff.  (They eventually returned the film to me)

*Books by Mark Thomas McGee:

Other recommended reading:

Thunderbird Films commercials:

Hollywood studios v. Tom Dunnahoo:

The Sprocket Vault for DVD’s and Blu-rays:









1 Response to "Thunderbird Films and Tom Dunnahoo “Me, I want to know less”"

Thanks Kit. Never bought a Thunderbird title. What a story!!!




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