Of the many lines in The Da Vinci Code that folks have been quoting as punchlines, the favorite seems to be, "We need to get to the library—fast!" Folks get a kick out of it because history is rarely such an urgent study. But Bradley Reeves is a desperately busy young man.
It's hard to keep him on any one subject for very long. The friendly, energetic film archivist, a youthful 36, seems excited by everything he sees. As he's showing you a home movie of a World War II soldier's return, he's talking about a film of the opening of the downtown YMCA in 1929. And as you're scribbling notes about that, he's already off on his collection of tapes of the country-music TV duo of Bonnie Lou and Buster, which may fascinate him in a way impossible to those old enough to have seen them on TV regularly.
There's too much to talk about, when a reporter shows up at the door, and even more to do. Fortunately for the purposes of continuity, he has an associate who keeps him grounded. Louisa Trott is the levelheaded president of Reeves' project, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and is his wife.
"Film is an element of history that's often overlooked," she says in a close approximation of an English accent. She's Welsh, actually, but studied film archiving at the University of East Anglia, specializing in regional film studies. East Anglia may be the English-speaking world's oldest film-archivist program, started in 1976 by film-preservation pioneer David Cleveland, with whom she studied.
Trott says the reason they're overlooked is most often just a lack of specialists on staff to handle fragile film and audio sources, and the complicated equipment required to access it. Community film archiving is new to America, less than 20 years old. The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville has a respected film archive, but Reeves and Trott aren't aware of another community film archive in the state.
Some traditional archives do keep films when they're donated, and sometimes find uses for them. Through its museum, East Tennessee Historical Society has shown films of the last trolley ride, for example, or the 1982 World's Fair. But, at the moment, it's hard to access most of them, and before Reeves and Trott's project, there hasn't been a rigorous attempt to collect films in private hands and make them available to the public.
Without archiving programs, Trott says, most old films that are donated to public collections are stacked in deep storage, in the same way that old letters and ledgers are.
"They end up in special collections in universities."
"And are never seen again," Reeves punctuates.
Reeves, who grew up in Bearden, studied at one of America's best-known film-archiving schools, George Eastman House's Selznick School. He has worked for the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Archives of Appalachia. His chief interest was Hollywood's silent era, but over the years, working in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, he kept picking up clues about the cinematic past of his hometown and, occasionally, a film. Eventually family circumstances brought him back to Knoxville. "But the opportunity really wasn't here to do what I do," he says. "I saw a need for it, and the more I got into it, the more enthused I was. It really just snowballed."
Along the way, he met Trott at a biennial archivist film symposium in Columbia, S.C. The two had much in common, became engaged, and when he decided to start a film archive in Knoxville, he unanimously elected his Welsh bride president. ("She's more adept at paperwork," he explains. "I'm more skilled at the tech end.")
Instantly she became a student of Knoxville history. "I've always been interested in my immediate surroundings," she says. "I've lived in a lot of different places. I'd never have imagined I'd be in Tennessee."
At the moment, the Tennessee Archives of Moving Image and Sound is headquartered in an apartment on the 8th floor of the Carlton, the 1960s apartment tower on the Sutherland Avenue side of Bearden. It's safe to say their address has the highest density of film archivists in East Tennessee.
There they have most of the equipment they need. Film projectors, some of them still-working Kodak antiques from the 1920s, to show any size of film, a TRV-16 Telecine Transfer that puts them on DVD. Today they're watching the results of their work on a ca. 1980 flip-top projection TV. "It's like a Mr. Gatti's model," Reeves quips.
The place is probably too cluttered for Martha Stewart, but if all goes well, Reeves and Trott may someday have an apartment that's primarily for living in. They've been working closely with the East Tennessee Historical Society and the McClung Collection of the Knox County Public Library, hoping to get permanent space in the East Tennessee History Center on Gay Street.
On the wall is a framed black-and-white photograph of a bald man clinging to the side of a skyscraper with a 1920s movie camera and an assistant. Probably the most successful filmmaker to be based in Knoxville before the cable-TV era, Sam Orleans, who died in an airliner crash in 1964, is one of the household saints in this specialized field. Through his work, Reeves has engendered some national interest in Orleans, and showed some of Orleans' industrial and educational films at a well-attended show at the history center last fall.
TAMIS is already registered as a non-profit with the state; they're still waiting on word from the IRS. Until then, the president and vice-president of the Tennessee Archives of Moving Image and Sound are working on spec.
"We mean to get tax-exempt status, then work on grants and fundraising," Trott says. "Eventually we'll have a database, and a website," she says. And, with a presence at the history center, citizens will be able to walk in and see any given film in the collection, on demand.
Until then, we'll just have occasional glimpses of their work, in organized public showings. Reeves expects to host maybe three shows of Knoxville films each year at the history center.
The first will be next Friday, June 9, at the history center. The special show—they haven't put it all together yet, but expect it will last 60-75 minutes—will be of the previously unknown Minnich collection. They're home movies, taken by an enthusiastic amateur, of almost half a century of Knoxville history.
In those films, the guy with the camera, who shows up in the films only occasionally, a friendly-looking guy with glasses and a mustache, is Charles Clyde Minnich. Son of a Southern Railroad foreman, he grew up in turn-of-the-century Knoxville, in the Mechanicsville area. He married when he was still a teenager, and worked as a salesman for the Roddy company, a candy manufacturer later better known as the regional distributor for Coca-Cola, and did well enough to move into a nice house at 1616 Coker Avenue, in booming North Knoxville. Minnich and his wife had four kids, two boys and two girls.
In the early '20s, the career businessman got a job as office manager with the Lay Packing Co. on East Jackson, in the days when beef cattle still arrived on the hoof. In middle age, he became an executive for House-Hasson Hardware, the large wholesale concern headquartered near the L&N station.
Minnich retired at 70, and when he and Sally celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 1972, it made the papers. They both lived into their 80s. His was a successful life in many ways, another fulfillment of the American Dream. But the History Center probably wouldn't devote an evening to him except for the fact that he was the first guy on the block to get a Kodak movie camera.
He did so around 1928, the year the Tennessee Theatre opened, when most Hollywood films were still silents, and he used it ably and liberally.
Among the [Minnich] films Reeves and Trott will be showing Friday night are of a cattle drive down East Jackson Avenue, ca. 1928, as well as shots of some of the jolly characters who worked for Lay's in those days.
There are people playing croquet and tennis in the neighborhood, and some images of a funeral at a log cabin in Kodak. There's a student-led assembly at Belle Morris Elementary on Washington Pike that looks like an outtake from "The Little Rascals," and footage of the Talahi section of Sequoyah Hills, when it still looked like a new development. The film's proof that the concrete fountain at Cherokee Boulevard really did once have brass frogs built into it.
"Here's the oldest film of a parade I've found," says Reeves. It's an Armistice Day parade on Gay Street, around 1930, with images of marching men who may have believed, or hoped, that they'd be the last veterans in American history.
There are fascinating ca. 1930 action shots of the roller coaster that used to be at Chilhowee Park, as well as another ride that spun biplane-cars around. And some real biplanes taking off and landing at McGhee Tyson Airport. Which was then located on Sutherland Avenue, 25 years before the construction of West High on the site.
And there's the graduation of Capitola Minnich from Knoxville High in 1931, narrated, silent-movie style, with titles written in chalk on the Coker Avenue sidewalk.
"You see CC's sense of humor and love of his family come through in every frame," says Reeves. When you see the elder Minnich with his wife, he's most often kissing her. They would be married until her death, almost 65 years after their wedding.
The movies were all taken for family use—the survivors of the Minnich family are enthusiastic participants in the project; some will be present at the presentation—but as rare moving images of Knoxville in the first half of the 20th century, they're invaluable.
Showing these old family movies like the Minnichs' may be a bigger deal in Knoxville than a home movie of the same era would be in other cities. Historians making documentaries about bigger cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco have access to hours of footage of street scenes from the very early 20th century, and even the late 19th century. People are used to seeing them in documentaries. So far, Knoxville historians don't have access to anything comparable; films of early 20th-century Knoxville are rare. If a filmmaker were to make a documentary about James Agee's youth, and wanted some crowd shots, they might have to fudge Knoxville in 1915 with shots of, say, Cincinnati in 1915.
Few Knoxvillians, in fact, have even seen films of their hometown before World War II.
Before C.C. Minnich bought his movie camera in 1928, most Knoxville footage is associated with Jim Thompson, the lord of 20th century photography in Knoxville and the founder of the photo-supply store that still bears his name.
The oldest films Reeves has found are a few quick shots of Knoxville in 1915, from the Thompson collection: a fire engine leaving the old Commerce Street Station, with the turreted Palace Hotel building in the background; it's a part of downtown between Central and Gay along what's now Summit Hill that's mostly gone.
Thompson worked mostly in stills, but made professional home movies for those who could afford them. Some of the films in the Thompson collection are of mysterious provenance, and may simply be jobs a customer never picked up. In it are some unexpected rarities: a brief clip from a Vols football game in 1929, the opponent unclear; a neighborhood snowball fight, perhaps in Fort Sanders, around the same time. Reeves had already been working on a collection of audio recordings by Knoxville's most successful jazz band of the 1920s, Maynard Baird's Southland Serenaders, who were, for a short time around 1927, a radio sensation, known up and down the coast. They made some recordings for Brunswick/Vocalion at Knoxville's St. James Hotel in 1929 and '30, then faded from the public consciousness until showing back up on a national CD collection of early American jazz in the 1990s. Reeves was astonished to find that Thompson had a short silent film of Baird's band playing at their height.
When Reeves was interviewing Joe Parrott about the retiree's collection, Parrott happened to mention that his dad was drummer for the Baird orchestra. And there he is.
It turns out that banjoist and bandleader Baird was also an early movie buff, himself; through Baird's son, Robert, Reeves has obtained some of the bandleader's own films, most of them later than the jazz age. He'll show them when there's a special Thompson night at the History Center in September.
Reeves has found treasure in unlikely places. One cache of historic films was in a trailer in Maynardville, another out of the way in an old barn.
There may be much more. "There's tons of stuff out there getting thrown away, or just rotting away," Reeves says. "Not through ignorance. People just don't know what to do with it," especially when they no longer have equipment to play old films. "Many people throw away films after they make DVDs—never knowing the DVDs may not last 10 years." As short-lived as film is, Reeves and Trott say, DVDs may turn out to be even more ephemeral. "They're just two bits of plastic, sealed together with glue," says Trott.
Even video professionals have been known to throw out historic footage. More than one local TV stations has a tale of a cost-cutting business manager who threw out miles of tapes and films of Knoxville news events in the '50s and '60s.
There's some urgency to their mission. Reeves is currently working as a consultant with WBIR on its own historic-film project, and has been able to locate some old films of the Cas Walker Show. He's looking forward to a Clayton night, to show some highlights of that show of local music from the 1960s and '70s.
Reeves has collected some of WATE's popular old Bonnie Lou and Buster show, but of the old UHF station, WTVK, he has only one film, from 1972: a wrestling match. He has also found a few films of pre-TV broadcasts, like one of WNOX's live-radio shows, the Tennessee Barn Dance, ca. 1950.
They say even the goofiest TV shows and industrial films will be of value to historians of the future, and they're almost certainly right about that.
"History isn't just singular, it's plural," Trott says. "There are histories to be told. If we don't preserve home movies, industrial films, training films, there are histories that will disappear."