For Miles Kreuger, the discovery was like "Bruce Catton being transported to the Civil War." It was the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum, a melody from a symphony by Strauss. More than just one musical comedy maniac discovering another, it was dancing cheek to cheek, it was heaven, it was almost like being in love. It was Ray Knight's home movies. For 42 years, from his 16th birthday to shortly before his death in 1973, Ray Knight, a well-to-do "gentleman reporter" at the Jacksonville (Fla.) Journal, sneaked his movie camera into the best musicals on Broadway and, quite against the rules of almost every theater, filmed from his audience seat some of the greatest song and dance numbers in the history of the American stage. This being before the age of videotape, Knight's bootleg films are now probably the only record of much that made American musical comedy great. He filmed Fred and Adele Astaire in "The Band Wagon." Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, Victor Moore and Bettina Hall in "Anything Goes." Ray Bolger in "By Jupiter" (with a young Nanette Fabray in a small role). Julie Andrews in "The Boy Friend," and later in "Camelot." Silent snippets of 175 shows, shot from an orchestra seat, aiming up at the dancing and singing onstage. "I was woozy," said Kreuger of his first glimpse of footage, from "Anything Goes." Kreuger,55, is president and sole employee of the Institute of the American Musical Inc., a nonprofit organization based in a 17-room house in Los Angeles. It was formed in 1972, in part to receive Knight's films after his death, and also as a vehicle for raising money to house, display and preserve the extensive collection Kreuger has acquired. "I was always being offered collections that I personally couldn't afford," said Kreuger, who is not only a theater historian but a Grammy-nominated author of liner notes for "Show Boat" and "Ethel Waters on Stage and Screen." "I had friends who were collectors, and they'd die, and insensitive relatives would disseminate their life's work to the four winds." The institute now owns 200,000 photographs from movie musicals dating back to 1914, every Broadway cast album, sheet music and recordings dating back to the 19th century, wax cylinders of popular as well as show music, published and unpublished scripts, playbills, scores, sheet music and posters. Some of the stuff is sitting in boxes, waiting for the time when Kreuger can afford to hire an assistant to help catalogue and display it all. (The collection is open now to scholars and researchers, by appointment only.) Kreuger -- a Manhattan-raised fellow who saw his first Broadway musical, "Knights of Song," at the age of 4 -- first heard of Ray Knight in 1958 from a film researcher Kreuger worked with on a television series. But it wasn't until 1964 that he actually found him. A friend, James Watters, was clearing out dead files at the Museum of Modern Art's film collection when he came across a letter from Knight offering MOMA his collection -- which the museum turned down, Kreuger said, because "they said they weren't interested in home movies." Watters, who remembered Kreuger's interest in the mysterious Southerner with the movie camera, called and gave him Knight's name and number at the Jacksonville Journal, where he worked as a columnist, writing about sports, entertainment and social news. "I thought I was going to hyperventilate," said Kreuger, nearly breathless at the memory even 25 years later. "I called him at the Journal and the first thing he said was, 'You're callin' from New York?' " Knight came to New York the following weekend, delighted that someone thought his films had historical value. After all, he had taken the movies primarily for his own enjoyment and that of his friends in Florida. "He was a great person," said Dr. James P. McNeil, a friend of Knight's in Jacksonville. "He mostly took movies of production numbers because the camera was so noisy and that way he would be less intrusive. Sometimes he'd get kicked out, or his camera would be confiscated, but he'd just go back the next day and try again." (In the clip of "By Jupiter," Ray Bolger can be seen during the curtain call, spying Knight and pursing his lips in playful disapproval.) McNeil said Knight, the only child of well-to-do parents and a lifelong bachelor, was a well-loved figure in Jacksonville and renowned for his parties, which usually featured one of his two passions -- Broadway musicals and baseball. "Sometimes we'd arrive and he would serve drinks, and then a bus would pull up and he'd take us all to the ballgame and serve hot dogs for dinner," said McNeil. Other evenings were spent watching the musical movies, with original cast recordings providing the sound. The early films are in black and white, Kreuger said, but he switched to color in 1935. "The years 1935 to 1937 are mostly magenta, however." As the technology improved, so did the quality of Knight's color. Kreuger's dream, funds permitting, is to transfer the 16-mm film -- which is brittle and breaks easily but does not dissolve as older film does -- to laser discs, once that technology is perfected. He would like to match the silent film with existing recordings, and annotate the discs with program and historical information. What he'd really like to do is find three people from each show who are still alive and interview them. He may have to work fast. Unfortunately, a few shows are missing from the collection. Knight lent his film of the Astaires in "The Band Wagon" to an Army buddy in Alaska during World War II. He never got it back. Five other reels, containing such gems as Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb in "As Thousands Cheer," and William Gaxton, Vera Zorina, Victor Moore and Irene Bordoni in "Louisiana Purchase," disappeared after Knight's death. Knight also took home movies of a number of baseball greats, and Kreuger wonders whether those films were given away -- along with the musical footage accidentally mixed in. McNeil has volunteered to help track down possible heirs in the Jacksonville area. Knight, who never married, left his estate jointly to the Episcopal High School and the children's museum in Jacksonville. He died a premature death at 58, from an embolism following routine surgery for varicose veins, Kreuger said. But his movies, taken first with the camera his mother gave him on his 16th birthday and later on a simple Kodak home movie camera, live on.