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“This film to be used only in homes and residences”

by larrydachslager on August 24th, 2013

I had a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Johnson who will always stick in my memory for two reasons.  First, she kept two pet birds in the classroom.  They had a cage with food and water in it, but the cage door was always open, so the birds had free reign of the classroom, flying and perching wherever they pleased.

Second, and more pertinent, Mrs. Johnson once posed a question to me that triggered a major turning point in my existence as a bonafide film geek.   I had written an essay on Charlie Chaplin.  When she returned the paper, next to the grade, Mrs. Johnson had written, “Did you know that you can borrow silent movies from the downtown central library?”

My family typically never went to the downtown library because we had a branch just a few blocks from our house.  Also, downtown traffic and parking were rather a pain.  But the Saturday after Mrs. Johnson shared her information, my father and I made a special trip downtown.  Sure enough, there were stacks of 8mm films just waiting to be checked out.  Mack Sennett shorts, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and more.   The library had special rules regarding checking out the movies.  They could only be checked out two at a time.  They could not be returned to a branch, but had to be returned to the downtown library.  Also, the fine for late returns was considerably more expensive than it was for books.   My father warned me that day not to expect these library movie trips to become a habit.   With this knowledge, choosing the two precious films was agonizing.  I finally settled on two films that I’d seen stills from in my movie books.  They were Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker and Big Business with Laurel and Hardy.

Laurel Hardy Blackhawk

When I got home, I asked my father if I could “borrow” our projector and screen and set them up in my room “for the time being” so I could watch the films without disturbing anyone.   Neither of us knew it that day, but the projector and screen would remain in my room from that day forward.   My room at the time was long and narrow, so the distance between projector and screen was far enough to throw an image of pretty respectable size.   I loved having the family projector in my room.  Maybe it’s because movie projectors vaguely resemble Mickey Mouse.  Whatever the reason, looking at it made me happy.

8mm projector

For the next two weeks, I watched those two films repeatedly.  The boxes they came in advertised a free movie just for sending away for their free catalogue.   Needless to say, I sent for the catalogue and film.  It seemed to take forever, but when the package finally arrived, I was not disappointed.  The Blackhawk Films catalogue offered an extensive selection of movies for sale, and the sampler “Prevue 8” reel was great.  It was about twelve minutes long and provided clips from a variety of silent film comedy, drama, and documentary.   More importantly, the film was mine.   I was the owner of a movie.  The collection had begun.

Blackhawk Prevue 8

The films in the Blackhawk catalogue were expensive.  The first one I bought was The Barber Shop with W. C. Fields.  It cost $13 plus shipping.  It amazes me now to think that, at the time, I thought $13 was an enormous amount of money.  Then again, at that time a child’s movie ticket was $1.25.  The catalogue came once a month and I was always allowed to order one film.  Now that I look back on it, Blackhawk Films, located in Davenport, Iowa, was a great company and showed enormous respect for their product and patrons.   They offered “silent” versions of sound films by inserting title cards.  Of course, for dialogue-heavy films such as The Barber Shop, the large number of title cards had a negative impact on the film’s comic pace and timing, but since I always read the titles aloud and did a fairly decent W. C. Fields imitation, it wasn’t really an issue.  Every Blackhawk film began with extensive explanatory text relevant to the film about to be seen.  Since there was no way to “fast forward” through the information, and my audiences rarely were interested in the historical significance of the film, so I would always cut that part out.   Only now do I appreciate how great it was for Blackhawk to have included that information.

Around this same time, I discovered that 8mm professional films for home viewing could be also be purchased in the camera department at stores like K-Mart.  Most prominent among companies that distributed these films was Castle Films.

Castle Films

Here are three of my favorite of the Castle Films I had.   Even though the title character in The Spider did not have a human skull as pictured on the box, it was still pretty cool.

Boy Meets Dog Castle Films

Ride em Cowboy Castle Films

 

The Spider Castle Films

Where Blackhawk was for hardcore film enthusiasts, Castle provided for more casual home movie fans.  At that time, many people who owned home movie projectors also bought these films because… well… it was just cool to own a professionally made film in any form.  Castle Films’ vast selection included comedy, horror, cartoons, and historical events.   Various film studios released three to ten-minute home versions of their feature films and they cost anywhere from $2-5.  Much of my allowance went toward these movies.

north by northwest

Poseidon

Disney also put out 8mm home versions of scenes from many of their classic films and rides.   In fact, a silent film of the It’s A Small World ride could be a good thing, depending on your personal feelings toward that song.

Donald

It's a small World

Between Blackhawk, Castle, and Disney 8mm movies, I eventually built up an impressive collection and really began to manage my room like a silent movie showplace. Every chair in the house that wasn’t regularly used ended up in my room, awaiting any willing audience member.  I designed and drew posters.  I created musical scores using records – typically Scott Joplin as it sounded most like the music accompanying the silent films I saw on TV.

I was like a mad scientist with a splicing machine, I put the three-minute films all together, creating a “mix tape” of cartoons on one big reel.  I even eviscerated the Fisher-Price and Easy Show cartridges to remove the cartoons and spliced them together on a reel as well.  8mm film would easily break. Sometimes, the projector would jam and the hot bulb would melt and burn the film.  While I hated when the film would burn, I must admit, on the screen, it looked kind of cool the way it turned brown and looked like it was “bubbling.”  Eventually, I became an expert splicer.  Actual splicing tape with matching sprockets was expensive and hard to come by.  So I learned how to splice with scotch tape.  I even remember using Band-Aids on occasion.  8mm projector bulbs were good for about twenty-five hours.   They were intended only to be used for the occasional home movie viewing.   My showings were frequent and lengthy, so I went through bulbs fairly quickly.   While showing films, the projector sat on my immediate left.  I can still vividly recall the warmth and sweat on the left side of my face and left arm during a movie-watching session.

Remember the heart-wrenching scene in Gone With The Wind when the miserable horse, frothing at the mouth from the long journey to Tara, finally, and mercifully drops dead?  Well, that’s what happened to my movie projector.   One day, it heaved an exhausted sigh and stopped working.  Thankfully, this happened around the time of my Bar Mitzvah and I had some spending money with which I bought a new projector.  I didn’t buy just any projector.  With $300 of my own money, I bought a new, state-of-the-art, Kodak Moviedeck.  This was no “Mickey Mouse” operation.  It looked nothing like any projector anybody had ever seen.   The film reel was placed on top like a record, and the take up reel was hidden underneath.   Unlike my earlier projector, it was light and portable and required no threading.  It could be paused without burning the film, and it could run in reverse.   It also had a speed rewind feature.

Kodak Moviedeck

Every time I acquired a new film, my father, mother, and sister were obligated to attend a screening.  My father had a passing interest in what I was doing.  My mother dutifully attended as part of her parental responsibility.  My younger sister had to be bribed, but she always attended.   Out-of-town guests were usually treated to at least one visit to my theater.

Aside from these family showings, I usually watched the films alone.  Even though I was definitely a lonesome kid, I don’t remember ever feeling particularly lonely.  At the time, I had two friends who were interested in old movies.   Unfortunately, one of them, Travis, moved to a far suburb and another school by the time I started my collection.  The other was Tim whose parents would never allow him to come to my house.  Other than Travis and Tim, I was too shy and anti-social to ask people to come over and watch movies.

The closest I got to public showings happened when word of my collection started to get around.  I was a popular babysitter, always showing up with projector and movies in tow.  There were several times during elementary, middle, and high school when I was invited to bring my projector and selected items from my collection to school.   I remember thinking long and hard about what films to show.   I would always bring a cartoon or two and a short that I knew had a lot of fast-paced action.  Those were the films that got the best responses from my classmates.   A Sunday School fundraiser was built around a showing of my cartoons.  And my mother even sent some of my movies to me to show at summer camp.   These occasions gave me shots of self-esteem and taught me that, under certain circumstances, being “weird” could be “cool.”

Eventually, the VCR arrived and my projector and movie collection ended up in a closet for many years.   More recently, all of the cartoons and movies I owned on film became easily accessible on Youtube.   To save room, I ended up donating the films to the Central library, which is appropriate, since that’s where the whole adventure began.

I end this entry with a legendary family anecdote:  As I mentioned, through the 60s and 70s, it was not unusual for people who owned home movie projectors to also own home versions of “real” movies.  Whenever I would go to someone’s house for the first time, I would often ask, “Do you have any movies?”  Since these were the days before VCRs, the question could only mean one thing – 8mm cartoons or short films.  One time, when I was around ten, my sister and I were visiting the home of some kids who were around the same age as we.  We were looking in a closet for a game and I spied a stack of 8mm reels of film without containers sitting on the top shelf.   We got them down and, while they were not labeled, I could tell that they were in black and white.  Driven by curiosity, my young host set up his family’s projector and, aiming it at a white wall, started one of the films.   There were no titles, no story, no familiar characters, and no action to speak of.  There was, however, a naked woman and… well… that was the day I learned that not all 8mm black and white films are suitable for children.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments
  1. Paul Abramson permalink

    I think you just wrote the story of my life. I remember saving my allowance and walking a mile to Camera Craft every other week to make my latest acquisition. I still have many of my Castle Films, Ken Films, Columbia and Disney… mostly Disney. Three of my Disney film boxes are autographed by Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, and Clarence “Ducky” Nash. I still have my Eumig Super 8 sound projector, although it hasn’t worked in years. We have a lot in common and a lot to talk about.

  2. larrydachslager permalink

    Though Facebook and elsewhere, I’ve recently discovered that my childhood passion for old movies is not as unique as I thought at the time. That’s wonderful about the autographed boxes. What treasures! I’m a huge Disney fan from way back, as well.

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