archivist’s massive trove of historic film preserves cinema, TV and music video
BY CHRISTIAN KIEFER
In the closing scene of Raiders
of the Lost Ark, we are given a brief fantasy into how we treat our history.
After a long, absurd battle to retain possession of the fabled Ark of the
Covenant, it ends up in the hands the American military who box it into a
wooden crate and load it into a warehouse filled with infinite other such
crates. Once a lost Ark and, in the end, a lost Ark redux.
My sympathy has never been with the protagonist, or with the
fabled Ark, but rather with all those other boxes. What’s in there? Robert
Johnson’s guitar? Instructions for tuning Nordic harps from the time of Beowulf? What else? I want to open those
crates, rummage around them, catalog them so they can be easily searched, find
more stuff to add to the collection (which, in this writer’s case, would be
less religious and more musical).
Joe Lauro likely had much the same impulse. For him, it was
78rpm records at first, an obsession that started when he was twelve years old
and extended on into his adult life, expanding and changing until he landed a
job helping run a small archive. From there, Lauro went solo, opening his own
popular culture film archive (with a focus on music and related media): The
Historic Films Library.
If you’ve seen virtually any well-made music and/or pop
culture documentary in recent years then you’ve been privy to Lauro’s own
collection of seemingly infinite crates (of film, not of Arks). The footage is
almost inconceivable in both quantity and breadth, including backstage film
from the set of The Wizard of Oz, the
entire run of The Ed Sullivan Show,
1968’s Live from the Bitter End variety
show, the Murry “The K” Archive, the D.A. Pennebaker Archive, and the
collection of the Center for Southern Folklore (just to name a few).
“I see it as a kind of mission,” Lauro says, via telephone
from his home in Sag Harbor, New York. “I’m a musicologist. I’m interested in
letting people know about some of this music. It’s the greatest contribution
that [America] has given the world and it’s just not taken that seriously by
people in this country.” Lauro has not only accumulated this material but he
has preserved it, digitizing it for safety and ease of transfer, and has
cataloged it so that filmmakers and researchers can put their fingers on the
right material quickly and easily.
Indeed, the archival cataloging that Historic Films has
accomplished is perhaps Lauro’s most important contribution to the art of
filmmaking. Ponder the idea that, when making a film about Muddy Waters (for
example), one does not only need footage of Muddy himself but of the environs
that the great bluesman inhabited. “We
have footage of the nightclubs in the 1950s and 1960s where Muddy Waters
performed,” Lauro notes. “The venues, the parties, the places where this music
was created. This material is all part of the story.”
All of that is indexed via the Internet so that researchers
(and you too, fair reader) can find what you’re looking for. John Lennon and
Frank Zappa performing “Scumbag” in 1969? Joe has it. How
about Honey Boy Edwards (see the image, above) and Johnny Shines performing in the same year? Yes, Joe
has that too. And, of course, much more.
“I’ve gone out of my way to accumulate as much of this
material so that it can be used by other people who are doing documentaries or
need this kind of thing,” Lauro says. Indeed, it is his mission and his life’s
work. This is a religious quest of a sort -not for Lauro (who might balk at the
description), but for us as a culture and, at that, not only America but the
world. How much of this material might be lost to history were it not for his
In my imagination, I want there to be a dusty, crate-filled
warehouse that this material lives in and so I’ll continue to think of it in
this way. For you though, take your hat and your whip to www.historicfilms.com and type a few
words into the search box. You’ll be surprised at what Joe Lauro has put his
hands on and for the right project (and a modest fee), he just might allow you
to put your hands on it too.