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Monday, December 16, 2019

Little Spools Go Round and Round

Have Yourself a Merry Little Blackhawk Christmas

Met a collector friend of forty years duration for lunch at Carolina Barbecue in Statesville where he opened his trunk to reveal an estate stash of Blackhawk 8mm recently got from a widow whose husband college-taught (history) and kept comedies for home relaxation, this before You Tube and other outlets giving ease of access we now enjoy. Mike had dumped his own projectors an eon back and so re-gifted the lot to me, a favor returned by my picking up the tab for Carolina’s chopped platter with slaw and hush puppies. 8mm is so far past that it seems a ten-year-old other than myself collected it, but still there is impulse to visit the family residence and fire up machines I keep in repair. Vinyl is back, turntables manufactured new, but projectors, 8, 16, 35mm? I figure they’re gone for keeps, as will be those who began collector lives with them. I’m sentimental for folks who came, went, and left behind reels they treasured, plus others who shared home view in dark-as-manageable space with jerry-rig music (if that) at war with jittery mechanism that drove the Pageant, Eumig, Bell and Howell, whatever money once bought so an enthusiast could entertain himself, and whoever submitted to the time-trip back.

Many households of adequate means kept equipment to show home movies, an only moving record of family life to be had in those days. Parents might bring home a Woody Woodpecker or Abbott-Costello from one or other camera department to further amuse kiddies, not realizing pernicious habit to come of one child out of thousands dove deep in a filmic well, never to resurface. Are disc buys nowadays as compulsive? I admit for me they are, but being so common, there’s less distinction for owning them, whereas being an only person within a hundred miles with an 8mm print of Laurel and Hardy in Habeas Corpus was heady stuff, even as too few knew or cared from L&H or Habeas Corpus. I took more-less casual receipt of this collection that clearly meant much to its owner, each reel housed in a metal can, hand-labeled, just as mine were once upon a dedicated time. I would have been over the moon had someone given me such a trove say, fifty years ago, so it’s important to view these films not only as I would have seen them then, but through eyes of a now-passed collector with whom I obviously had much in common. Movies so gotten are never just movies … they are windows back to our own lives and those who accumulated them before us. It’s well and good to already have an 8mm print of The Pawnshop --- now I have this collector’s print of The Pawnshop, and who knows but what some of love and positive energy he lent it might bless me and whoever these reels move on to once I’m gone.

Blackhawk Sold Stills Like This As Well As Chaplin-Mutual Shorts on 8mm

These Are Disappearing Fast, Folks
His taste was good, four Chaplin Mutuals, six Sennetts, three Keatons (including an abridged The General), plus nine Laurel-Hardys. And yes, he had Habeas Corpus. It was for me to thread samples up and absorb the vibes. Why bother with such cloudy relics when I can have much of same content on stunningly realized Blu-Ray? Because, as stated, 8mm is magic, each a talisman where released from genie cans. It’s renewing vow to a way of watching that will not be back, for good reason perhaps, as learned in a last reunion with machines, cords, lamps, all elderly and not disposed to be awoke in our century. 2019 is late to replace a burnt bulb they haven’t manufactured since our nation’s bicentennial, but what else to do when Chaplin’s The Adventurer goes dark part-way in and leaves me to wonder if my Elmo Super 8 sound projector would illuminate screens again? Will anyone on Ebay have that particular bulb? Thank heaven a few did, so utter obsolescence is at least delayed, even as reason whispers that some day an end will come, and be final. There, of course, is a same boat any 8mm collector occupies as dwindling stock and our own advancing age propels us toward a wall that reads “No More Replacement Parts.”

One-Time Bargain For a Dollar, Thanks to Portal Publications
Most every collector got ‘round to Chaplin Mutuals. There were twelve, and none were duds. Could any other hundred-year-old comedy group claim that? Blackhawk kept upgrading its Mutual line, first from better pre-print, then music tracks. I watched The Adventurer up to bulb-blow, tried estimating how many times I had seen it till then. Enough to memorize every movement for sure. The breakdown harked to days when mishap was commonplace. Home exhibition was a tough climb then. Some little something seemed always to go wrong, and yet the struggle was worth it. A less patient voice whispers “Why bother?” as I search closets, then auctions, for a fresh (fresh?!?) bulb. That’s on top of dissembling the lamp house sans instruction, hard task for someone not tech-proficient. I will finish The Adventurer, still threaded up and holding its position, if/when the Elmo re-lights. For meantime, stills shown here must suffice, courtesy Blackhawk in 1970, a set of six got for $2.29, some of images blown-up from film frames, but they would do. Portal Publications also did a repro one-sheet, yours for a dollar, “virtually worthless today,” says one poster expert, but how can anything be worthless that rouses such sentiment?

The Eumig 8mm Model I Once Struggled Mightily With, and From Time To Time Still Do

I parked the Elmo and dragged out my Eiki Dual 8 sound projector. This was the model of my youth, a chatter-box surprisingly heavy to host such a small gauge, and not at first receptive to my attempt at threading Two Tars. Seems I forgot procedure for switch to Super 8 from Standard, being change of sprocket wheels and film gate assembly. Again came realization that my fingers are not nimble or steady as once they were, a humbling whenever 8mm is revisited. Despite quitting the format in 1972, tricks of the Eumig pushed ways back into memory, so Two Tars ran from start to finish, gears and lamp operative. Are reliable 8mm projectors an impossible dream? Maybe not. There are dealers who make a business of keeping the format afloat. “All functions in excellent working order,” says one, “New belt has been installed and has been fully serviced and lubricated.” Surely such dedication will preserve 8mm. Think about this: There are those who restore wax cylinders and the means to play them. Where preservationists are so committed, surely finesse of a 60/70’s projector would be comparative child’s work.

"Spoil Your Suit"? Just What Did They Mean By That?

Daylight is the natural enemy of 8mm. Did collecting encourage vampirism? I tried Two Tars during early afternoon, a bleach-out despite shades drawn. Add this to focus wavering and frame line drifting. Still … I’ve not enjoyed Two Tars so much since the last time it flashed before me on 8mm. Blackhawk intro titles said it was the best of all Laurel-Hardy silent shorts. Maybe so, if car carnage is your thing. But face it: Not being there in 1928 when this was new, fresh, maybe revolutionary (was there ever before such tit-for-tat destruction?) means we won’t know, can’t know, what impact Two Tars had when new. You could say that about them all, but where is comedy so concentrated in its assault upon funny bones, especially auditoria filled with them? I don’t laugh at it, of course, being alone in rooms won’t inspire that, but each gesture, movement, burst of mayhem, is stuff of joy. What we seek in watching again and again are these things. Bittersweet coda to the former owner whose collection I fell heir to: The widow said he used to run these reels and laugh himself silly, tried sharing them with their young son, to no reaction whatever. The boy could not care less. We’ve all been down such slippery sharing road. Is this truly a passion one must find for his/herself?


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I used to look at those 8mm catalogues and dream of having most of the films.

When I could no longer reliably get my 16mm projectors serviced (a real horror story there) I was about to toss in the towel.

Then I discovered dvds.

No nostalgia here for 8mm but I loved every second of seeing films on 8mm I could not see in theatres or elsewhere and cherish the memory.

I often bought whole estate collections always giving the widow or daughter what they asked for. Now, at 73, I'm watching my archive as it is about to become an estate collection. We come. We go. That we can't control. What we do between those two points we can control. I'm looking for a new home for my archive that will preserve it as a future resource.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Oh Lord, the memories you have stirred! Thank you for this terrific post!

I really couldn't afford Blackhawk's wares for purchase, but a local public library carried quite a few in 8mm, and even though I lived two towns away, my library card was deemed valid. I peddled over there, checked out TWO TARS, invited a couple of friends over for the screening, and we laughed ourselves sore. Thanks to their "Prevue 8" $2.00 offer, I was getting the Blackhawk Bulletin during the year they announced an upgraded TWO TARS with original opening titles (sans Leo the Lion). That was my big Christmas present that year.

Of course, I had that ADVENTURER poster; it hung in my room for over a decade. Between my Confirmation and 13th birthday, I had amassed enough gift cash to spring for a Bell & Howell Dual 8. My dad drove me into NYC, and we bought it at Willoughby-Peerless. Now I needed something on Super 8. Glory be, the store had Blackhawk Films in its inventory, and I had enough to spring for both THE ADVENTURER and THE CURE.

I note that the still you posted was prepared for 1941's CHARLIE CHAPLIN FESTIVAL.

For my 60th birthday, my son bought me a Wolverine Dual-8 MovieMaker Pro, which converts the old films to .mp4 files. Although it's mainly for self-produced home movies, I can't resist transferring my old store-bought reels as well.

Lastly, a question for your readers: I'm preparing a lighthearted presentation on the less-reputable silent comedy vendors, namely Atlas Films and its kin (Carnival, Coast, etc.) Does anyone have a copy of the Atlas "catalog" (really a two-sided tri-folded page) they could scan and send me? I used to have a bunch - they'd enclose one in every mail order - but no more. Surprisingly no one has ever put one on line.

9:13 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff checks in with greetings for the season:

Dear John:

Nothing to report here -- except to say that the recent string of Greenbriar posts have been pretty extraordinary. [The DESIGN FOR LIVING ballyhoo material and commentary should have been included as an extra on the Criterion disc!] Near the end of the year, I tend to dwell and muse on things that make life worthwhile. Your site is on my list.

Season's Greetings.

-- Griff

10:46 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Plenty of happy Blackhawk memories for me, but DVD and, if necessary, YouTube are the way to go now.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"The widow said he used to run these reels and laugh himself silly, tried sharing them with their young son, to no reaction whatever. The boy could not care less. We’ve all been down such slippery sharing road. Is this truly a passion one must find for his/herself?"

When I first bought 8mm prints I showed them to friends who found them boring and thought me crazy for wasting my time and money on them.

Then in Toronto thanks to the late Captain George Hendersen I ran those same 8mm prints first at his VIKING BOOKS shop on Queen Street West in Toronto and then at his more famed long lasting MEMORY LANE BOOKSHOP I discovered the joy of sharing things I knew are great with people who appreciated what I was offering.

That and that alone is why I maintain my presentations.

3:21 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Here I go again. You've been warned.

The Blackhawk Bulletin! I threw out my accumulated copies when I moved 19 years ago and now wish I'd saved some. Memories of saving up maybe $15 for a two reeler; taking a chance on a used film (like buying used LPs); and wondering over 16mm oddments including very obscure TV shows (actual distribution prints?). I also mooned over the colorful little brochures for Castle Films and Columbia, the short-lived Sears movie catalog, and a now-forgotten outfit that offered sound features in 8mm. I also lusted after LPs of real silent movie music (before I had the ability to tape off the library copies), little projector tables with built-in sockets and switches (no more "Somebody get the lights"), and genuine theater popcorn boxes (now easy to find, but as a kid back then I could only try to bring home the actual butter-stained article).

Most of the Blackhawks opened with educational text about the film. One Blackhawk Bulletin included Kevin Brownlow's parody of these micro-lectures, ending with an offstage gunshot. Freshly made intertitles carried the discreet Indian head logo, presumably to inconvenience pirates. The end title card generally didn't have the logo, and you can often see it on public domain discs. A favorite in my collection was the one-reeler of Fairbanks's "The Black Pirate". It was evidently based on one of the Paul Killiam television shows, with intertitles that commented on the movie ("Top-heavy galleons like these cost Spain its supremacy on the seas"). The sure-fire hit with friends and cousins was Laurel and Hardy in "Double Whoopee".

The Morgan Hill public library had a nice selection, including "Lilac Time" on twelve 200-foot reels. My parents actually watched that one through, despite the utterly random LPs I stacked on the record changer. The library also had a one-reel version of a western movie with soundtrack on a record. I spent a good hour or so trying to sync film and record, all in vain. My projector simply didn't have that specific speed.

Our first projector was genuinely ancient, a heavy black Kodak model with metal coil belts that only accommodated 200' reels. It fit into a luggage-like carrying case. Eventually I was gifted with a Kodak 8/Super8 model that almost self-threaded (I generally had to affix the film to the take-up reel by hand). I never got into sound and rarely picked up Super8s, imagining that my next leap would be directly to 16mm and getting real movies like the ones from the Films Incorporated and Universal 16 catalogs at school.

I probably recounted a lot of this before, but I'm on a roll. My primary audience was relatives and visitors my age and younger; when we had company I'd be charged with entertaining the kids in another room. In junior high a friend would do light shows for the school dances. He'd do all kinds of things with slide projectors, homemade color wheels, and AV equipment borrowed from the school. I would assist, projecting Bugs Bunny and such on the wall of the cafetorium.

A book on film collecting discussed the author's own backyard setup for outdoor movies. While I never got around to trying that as a kid -- it probably would have worked, during those parties when adults wanted to monopolize the living room -- I now read about digital projectors and look out at my patio. An outdoor TV is an abomination, but projected old movies on a screen ... perhaps with fake projector noise for ambiance ...

3:36 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

"Tommie. what do you want for Christmas?"
"A Blackhawk film Ma."
"Blackhawk, schmackhawk, can't you get something else for a change? How about a nice wood burning set?"
The folks would order for me two films (in this era it was still small gauge). One for Christmas and one for my birthday a month later. These were two films I didn't have to work my ass off to get, and I didn't have to wait for a sale. I would use my Christmas money to buy the Christmas sales items which were many at Christmas with Blackhawk. I still keep several small gauge films and fire them up from time to time.
Oh bulbs! They were as much as a two reel small gauge film and I could never acquire a spare for the temptation to buy another short for that bulb price. I had several presentations where the bulb blew, usually at start up, show's over. Folks would remark, "Why don't you buy a couple extra bulbs so this won't happen?" Ten years ago I needed a bulb for my B&H and found one for ten bucks on ebay. I bought and received a package with 12 bulbs in it. I contacted the man to be honest and he said keep them, he was having trouble selling them.
Splice tapes are now a problem to buy. The last three packages of splice tape I bought were no good because the adhesive had decomposed. When was the last year they were manufactured? I going to have to glue from now on and worry about splices coming apart when I run a 16mm.
Blackhawk Films are a good chunk of my Christmas memories. I had to wait until Christmas morning to get it so my younger siblings would know Santa brought it. It would be early morning and it was still dark enough to run and I would watch the film with my old man who loved old time comedy as much as I.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Tommie, splicing tape is alive and well in 8, Super 8, and 16. Larry Urbanski bought the Kodak franchise (entitling him access to the manufacturing equipment and the personnel who ran it). Google his name and you should find his site. I haven't had trouble getting bulbs, but maybe I should check out my usual sources!

I fell in love with Blackhawk in my early teens and I'm still picking up Blackhawks today. I also have a complete run of Blackhawk Bulletins from 1970 forward, and it bothered me when they stopped printing them as tabloid-sized newspapers in 1973. They used a smaller format from then on, which was okay -- but nowhere nearly as thrilling as diving into those extra-large pages, as shown in John's illustrations.

I was lucky in that I didn't have to inflict my own tastes on friends or family members. An antique-auto museum hired me to run movies in a small theater, as kind of a sideshow exhibit. The museum's library then consisted entirely of newsreel footage, showing very antique cars passing in review before a static camera (THE FIRST GLIDDEN TOUR, anyone?). I asked the museum director if I could add new titles to the library... and now I was running one- and two-reel comedies, each having something to do with transportation (TWO TARS with Laurel & Hardy, THE BLACKSMITH with Buster Keaton, THE FIREMAN with Charlie Chaplin, IT'S A GIFT with Snub Pollard, LIZZIES OF THE FIELD with Billy Bevan, YOUNG OLDFIELD with Charley Chase, and so on). Originally the projectors were in the back of the hall, like a classroom, but my little sideshow caught on so well that the museum staff built me a booth and a marquee! It was a wonderful gig that lasted five years. I went through six prints of TWO TARS!

3:12 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"I didn't have to inflict my taste on friends and family members."

When you know something is really good if not great (and many of these films are GREAT) it is not you who is at fault.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

The $13.00 price of a two-reel small gauge film of the 1970 Blackhawk catalog is worth $85.00 today.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

My first Blackhawk was Laurel and Hardy's BIG BUSINESS. Certainly got my money's worth out of that print. Ran the daylights out of it and it got pretty battered. I still have it. I need to dig it out and see if it'll make it through the projector. That old-timer may yet have some life left in him.

I remember waiting impatiently for that print to arrive. Seemed like it took forever. There's another experience that young folks today can't relate to. Waiting four to six weeks for something to arrive. They always told you to allow four to six weeks. These days, my kids think they've been hugely inconvenienced if they have to wait more than a couple of days for something they ordered to show up at the door.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I would come home from school and see that brown mailer with the fluorescent square on it (shipping receipt)on the table and my heart would race. My first Blackhawk 8mm film was BRATS. The last I bought from Blackhawk in '79 was a 16mm of THE LIVE GHOST. I joined the Navy later in 1979 and they would not ship to my APO address.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Randy's comment about "waiting impatiently" reminded me of something I'd almost forgotten. When I opened that TWO TARS on Christmas Day, the print was regular 8mm. My dad said, "We need to return it." I said, "I don't mind - the projector's a Dual-8." He said, "No, Super 8 has a bigger picture. We'll return it." I resigned myself to waiting the requisite 4-6 weeks for a replacement.

It came THE NEXT DAY. To this day, I don't know how he pulled that off.


10:01 AM  
Blogger scott said...

Oh my god, most of these comments could have been written by me. Christmas in the early 70's always meant getting an 8mm Laurel and Hardy movie, all of which I still own. The movies seemed ancient to me, and now that I realize that more time has passed since I received the movies vs the 40-odd years old they were when I was viewing them, I feel ancient now. Star Wars is older now than the L&H movies I viewed in my youth.

12:58 AM  

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