By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions
Thirty heavy cans of film, each 24 inches in diameter, over 1200 feet of film in each can. Blues musicians captured in their homes, in the basement of a barbecue place in Memphis, Tennessee, and a juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi. For 40 years, my partner had been carting them from apartment to apartment, house to studio, knowing they contained precious slices of musical history, but unable to find a way to bring them to light.
In December, we finally opened them, determined to find a way to rescue the footage. An unmistakable vinegary smell escaped the can on opening, a sure sign that the films were deteriorating. We consulted with our expert media preservation specialist, Paul Adams of Mass Productions (CLICK HERE to listen to our interview with him on our December episode of the podcast), who warned us that we didn’t have long before the films would be beyond repair.
We knew we had to do something about it immediately.
The machine we needed to screen, edit, and organize the footage was a Steenbeck flatbed editor. Though still in use in some archival settings, they are very difficult to locate, as virtually all editing since the late 90’s has been done on digital systems, and, even if one could be found, renting it would be prohibitive for a self-funded project.
Through a lucky connection, we were able to locate a Steenbeck at an archival house in the Greater Boston area. The curator told us that the machine hadn’t been used in 30 years, but if we were able to get it up and running, we would be welcome to use it to screen and edit the footage.
Would it work?
We went to the location on a gloomy afternoon, took the elevator up to the 5th floor, and were taken to the back corner of the archives, where the Steenbeck sat under a white sheet.
Watching Rob as he looked at it was like watching two old friends connect after a long absence. He sat down and turned it on.
Could he remember how to operate it?
After a couple of fumbles, his muscle memory returned, he threaded the two separate tracks—one for sound and one for picture—synced them up, and…there we were, looking at Delta blues singer Houston Stackhouse, playing a song that was recorded in the Mississippi Delta in 1978.
Here is that moment:
Stay tuned as we organize, screen and archive more of this blues footage over the next few months.
Do you have old cans of film or VHS tapes or slides lying around? Please find a way to rescue them and share your stories with us.