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Saturday, September 26, 2009

There Was Nitrate In Them Thar Hills

Movie buffs up north had it so made. I’d see them gathered in pages of The Classic Film Collector doing confabs where likely as not you’d have a silent star or two to spice proceedings. New York/Jersey turnpikes seemed paved with collectors and enthusiasts getting together for rare screenings. It seemed I’d never make a Cinecon for being far off and without a driving license (let alone wherewithal to fly). Getting away to college in 1972 was less opportunity for higher education than freedom at last to scour North Carolina backwoods for like-minded film folk. My base of operation was a four-year Lutheran school called Lenoir-Rhyne. I confess, and should be ashamed for doing so, that my primary reason for going there was access it provided to jim-dandy independent UHF channels out of Charlotte running non-stop pre-48 Warner, Fox, and Paramount packages. Hickory, NC was also home to collecting mentor Moon Mullins, confidante to shadowy figures with 35mm tucked away in tool sheds, chicken houses, and barns throughout North /South Carolina. He and I made epic drives to root these out, raising sky-fulls of dust along gravel and dirt roads better fit for herding goats. Moon proved most fearless on snow days atop mountain precipices, and expected me to be so. Boy, If you want this stuff, you’d better be willing to go deep in the woods to find it. He was the seasoned product of years digging after indian relics as well as film, having constructed a backyard museum that schoolkids frequently toured through; Indiana Jones minus a pistol and bullwhip, though I sometimes felt driven by both as we forged along routes I’d not dream of traversing again.

Bolder by Sophomore year, having been initiated by deals closed with (always) rural collectors, I began venturing on my own to acquire, for instance, George O’Brien and Monte Montana westerns found in a closed theatre next to its owner’s house, a handful of Buster Keaton nitrate Educational shorts back of a hayloft, and Warner’s Isle Of Lost Ships, sans Vitaphone discs, flanked by odd reels from Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. A few times I asked Moon about Tom Osteen, the latter known to have possessed various lost films (including the Fred Thomsons). Of course, Moon knew him, probably since shots were fired on Fort Sumter. A sidenote here: All these guys seemed primeval to me. Being nineteen, it was as though anyone with first-hand memory of Birth Of A Nation had to be pushing hundreds. For reasons I don’t recall, Moon chose not to go on the proposed Brevard trip with me. Maybe he and Tom had quarreled once over an uncut print of Greed. Anyway, I was determined to know Mr. Osteen and see that flooded basement for myself. Two years was passed since the Sylvan Films controversy. Sam Rubin’s Collector’s Court was either dismissed or in recess, for I’d not seen further mention of Osteen in then-recent issues of The Classic Film Collector. Moon recommended calling the Co-Ed Theatre in Brevard. That’s where Tom would likely be, day and night. Using a dorm pay phone one Friday around 9 PM, I reached the Co-Ed and was switched to the booth. Osteen was running their show, his voice just audible over a grinding Simplex. I identified myself as a film collector about eighty-five miles away wondering if maybe I could drop by. He said come ahead. By the time you get here, I’ll be finishing up. As was custom, I loaded up with trade goods after the fashion of Randy Scott in Comanche Station (B western lobby cards I’d gotten out of the Liberty several years before) and struck out for Brevard with friend (still is) John Setzer in his powder blue Ford Pinto (the kind they later warned might explode on rear impact).

John had lived in Brevard for awhile during the fifties, so the mountains leading there were at least familiar to him. So was the Co-Ed, but he remembered better the old Clemson Theatre next door, closed since 1959. He’d seen Darby O’Gill and The Little People there when he was five. We showed up in Tom’s booth at the Co-Ed a little after 11. The night’s show was over (precious few patrons). I noticed shelves piled high with memorabilia. Figuring it was current stuff, a first (of many) surprises came when these turned out to be complete lobby sets for all sorts of biggies dating back to the early forties, none of which was a big deal to Tom, as things like Singin’ In The Rain were for him contemporary titles (and you know what, as this was 1974, he was near right). The Co-Ed being dark for the night, we figured Tom would head home. Turns out the Co-Ed was his home. He couldn’t have been more thoroughly absorbed by that theatre if he’d walked into the screen. Here was a man through whose hands thousands of miles of film had passed (having projected for over fifty years). Much of that celluloid was evidently still there, for Tom salted prints in not only the Co-Ed, but a boarded-up Clemson as well. His catacombs were not unlike those of the Phantom, but above the opera house(s), rather than below. For that matter, Tom himself had a distinct Chaney unmasked quality as he led us through narrow corridors from a barely open theatre into one long closed. Along these passages were big cracker barrels, each filled with rolled-up one-sheets. I chanced unfurling a few. My Darling Clementine came first. My acquisitive nature, an obnoxious trait all the more so given my immaturity, went into overdrive. This place was King Solomon’s Mines and I was Stewart Granger! The Clemson boxoffice and front was still decorated for its last operating day in 1959. They had simply closed the place without taking down any of the posters. Setzer flipped when he saw what their final show had been --- Darby O’Gill and The Little People.

I had to measure my curiosity over the fabled Fred Thomson prints with opportunity now to trade for a building full of amazing collectibles. It wouldn’t do to alienate Tom with a lot of questions about a controversy now passed. Still, was there a chance he’d still have that nitrate? Storage rooms we entered were well above ground and dry as bleached bones. Film was everywhere. A 35mm They Died With Their Boots On here, Fox Technicolor musical trailers there. Yet I had a sense that the really rare stuff was put deeper away, as these buildings were honeycombed with rooms we never entered (Nothing in there, Tom would say whenever I approached one of them). Finally I mentioned the Thomsons, casually so as to avoid the appearance of an undercover G-Man acting on behalf of The Classic Film Collector. Lost in a flood, Tom said, none of it left. Fair enough, I thought, but had he at least been able to watch them before the deluge? Oh yeah, and they were really great. I guessed they sure enough were … back in 1928. As to his having seen them since, I had increasing doubts, but again, I wasn’t going to rock a fragile boat, for here was Tom giving me access to posters and film to hasten the beat of my greedy collector’s heart. The Clemson’s auditorium, dark for so many years, was a landfill for 35mm trailers Osteen discarded. His idea of expendable was mine of a gold field. Those little rolls of film were lying about like Easter eggs, and we gathered baskets of them. El Dorado, The Left Hand Of God, For Whom The Bells Toll, Wilson (those last two on Technicolored nitrate), and yes, Darby O’Gill and The Little People, among hordes of others. We left that morning about 4:30 AM. Tom had cleaned me of what Tim McCoy and Hoppy paper I’d brought to trade, and my arms were loaded with bounty I’d treasure from there on. We were both happy, and Osteen invited me to come back anytime (and I did --- on several occasions). Like a lot of veteran collectors I dealt with in those days, Tom was probably amused, if not a little incredulous, that someone young as me was out chasing this ancient stuff. Maybe my childish enthusiasm reminded him of the boy he was when Fred Thomson rode tall on the Clemson’s screen. In any case, I found Tom Osteen to be an unfailingly nice guy wholly supportive of collecting passions we shared. Looking back on encounters with old-timers like him, Moon, and lots of others, I realize now they were passing the torch to a new generation that loved their kind of movies. Certainly they were generous toward me with both time and extraordinary archives they had accumulated. I’m only sorry Tom’s not still in Brevard so I could go visit again.

POSTSCRIPT: Tom Osteen died in 1983. He’d been an occasional attendee at cowboy fan gatherings in Charlotte, Siler City, and other such campgrounds for western enthusiasts. Raleigh, NC resident Ed Wyatt got a lot of help from Tom when he wrote a definitive history of Fred Thomson entitled More Than A Cowboy, published privately in 1988. The book was a marvelous labor of love by a generation of men (several dedicated Thomson fans assisted Wyatt) who’d started out spending penny allowance on vending machine cards of Fred and his horse, Silver King. My last contact to Brevard came after Tom Osteen passed and I made contact with his family upon hearing some of the collection would be sold. I wound up with, oddly enough, a 16mm print of Horror Of Dracula (now what was Tom doing with that?). The Fred Thomson nitrates of persisting legend were never accounted for. I’d like to think that somewhere in that still-standing Co-Ed Theatre (here it is … neighboring Clemson was leveled long ago), they are safely tucked into a hiding place of Tom Osteen’s invention, waiting for a future generation of archeologists to rescue Fred and Silver King and set them riding once again.


Blogger Christopher said...

oh I love hearing about collectors stories..thanks for that! love that banner pic of Swanson and Keaton.."Do you know what this is Buster?.They're WORDS!ha ha ha ha!"

3:35 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Fabulous article John. I hope that you've had those treasures (the trailers and anything else on original nitrate) transferred to digital or a more stable medium.....for that matter, was ALL of O'Steen's material simply "sold off"? Sounds like it should've gone to a University or some other institute where it could be archived and preserved.....


12:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

James, my nitrate trailers are long gone. A little too hazardous to keep around ...

About Tom Osteen's stuff, I have no idea what became of it. He did have a tremendous collection of memorabilia in addition to film. A lot of the Fred Thomson stills and lobby cards in Ed Wyatt's "More Than A Cowboy" came from Tom's collection.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Great story John. Reminds me of a time back in the mid-1970's when a friend and I travelled the backroads of Arkansas, Mississippi & Tennessee during our summer college break, hitting every small town theater we could find to try and dig up vintage movie poster troves. We tramped through a lot of old closed theaters and actually found some stuff. I hate to tell you that we also saw film cases stacked high in some theaters but since I was just a poster collector, I had no interest in acquiring any of them!

Bill Luton/Theater Poster Exchange

10:32 PM  
Blogger Toby Roan said...

I visited Mr. Osteen's place with my dad back in the mid-70s. He had a 35mm Hoppy going, if I remember right.

Wonderful, surreal experience.

10:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bill, I'd guess you proabaly came up with some nice stuff in those old theatres. Lots of them were filled to rafters with posters as late as the seventies, but most, I'd guess, were pretty well cleaned within ten or so years after as people became more aware of the value of movie paper.

Toby, "surreal" is the word for Tom's collecting fortress. No telling what all he had in those buildings.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I wish I'd been more hooked in with Old Theater Traipsing. Love the "Trouble Along the Way" banner!

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Michel said...

There were a few film collectors out there who were liars. The ones who would assure you that, yes, they owned a pristine nitrate print of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. It's filed next to their print of Laurel and Hardy's HATS OFF and the sound version--complete with soundtrack on mint condition Vitaphone discs, of course--of Chaney's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The vast majority, though, were and are quite honest. Often quite discreet, certainly, about who they revealed their treasures to, but honest. Osteen sounds like one of the good ones. A man who wasn't going to claim to own Fred Thomson westerns he had never possessed.

12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oddly enough... I remember the Pinto too! --Amanda Setzer Truett (John Setzer's Daughter)

12:05 PM  

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