In a roundabout way, Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito turned Alan Lewis into a nerd.
The Axis leaders started World War II. When that war ended, a standard piece of equipment at U.S. military briefings was made surplus. Bell & Howell movie projectors started flooding America’s schools, such as the one Alan attended in Miami Beach.
“It was a model like that that first got me started as an AV kid in the ninth grade,” Alan, 80, told me recently as we stood near a Bell & Howell projector in the living room of his Northwest Washington home. “School systems would buy them up as they were able to get back into AV after the war.”
Said Alan: “I became a nerd, before nerds were even invented. The nerd kids were the ones who ran the projectors and set up the microphones in the school auditorium.”
Frankly, Alan became doubly nerdy. Not only did he push an AV cart around in high school, but he also grew up to become an archivist, working for various agencies and organizations to collate and oversee their moving image collections. Along the way, he decided to collect examples of the equipment that regular Americans used to make and show movies.
On a recent morning, I went to Alan's house to watch as nearly 200 cameras and about 50 projectors were packed up by Rachael Stoeltje and Andy Uhrich of the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive, the new home of the Alan Lewis Collection.
There were 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm Kodaks, Bolexes, Wittnauers, Canons, Yashicas . . .
“That’s the first camera I acquired, at a flea market in Columbia, Maryland,” Alan said, pointing out a Bell & Howell camera once owned by a TV newsman in Baltimore. It had a sleek, 1950s sci-fi design, with three lenses and viewfinders that rotated like turrets.
“There’s still film in it,” Alan said.
“Oh, there is?” said Rachael, director of the Indiana University archive. “Is it exposed?”
“I believe it is,” Alan said.
“Well, we should process it,” she said.
When most of us think of film collections, we think of the film. Indiana University has plenty of that, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica educational films we squirmed through in school ("We're digitizing 1,500 of them now, and we're going to put them online," Rachael said) and famed director John Ford's home movies ("They're gorgeous," Rachael said). But she thinks it's important to understand the machinery, too, the Bell & Howell hardware to the Kodachrome software.
“This technology documented our country for so long,” she said.
It’s the whirring box that Uncle Bob raised to his eye when Susie blew out her birthday candles. It’s the projector that later cast Susie upon a screen set up in the living room, the bright light picking out the dust motes that floated through the air.
Besides, home movies are hot these days — not just our own, but other families’. Why is that?
“You’re seeing everyday life that isn’t in your Hollywood movies,” Rachael said.
Alan’s father died when he was 10 — “so I have very limited memories of him,” he said. “But my uncle, who was the family film shooter, did capture some scenes with my father in them. Those are the only moving images that I have of him other than the stuff I remember about him.”
Ever the archivist, Alan convinced his cousins to donate those home movies to a university in Florida.
And what about you, Alan? You have kids, now grown. Did you record their first steps, first day of school, senior prom?
“I was more an administrator than I was a filmmaker,” he said sheepishly. “I have four rolls, two on regular 8mm and two on Super 8. They are double-bagged in Ziploc bags, and they’re in our freezer. VHS copies were made a generation ago.”
Rachael nodded approvingly.
“He’s properly archived them. Colder and drier is better, otherwise they start to deteriorate. I’m pleased to hear they’re double-bagged in your freezer, Alan, but we should digitize them for you.”
From another room came Andy’s voice: “We’re going to need more bubble wrap.” The dining room table was covered with old projectors he was carefully packing.
Andy is a film archivist and trained projectionist. He has an idea to set up dozens of projectors around the Bloomington campus and have them all running simultaneously.
“We would just show a variety of stuff: home movies, educational films, Hollywood films,” Andy said. “It would be like a snapshot of our collection all at once.”
“Where are you going to find all the nerds?” he asked.
Saturday is Home Movie Day, when film buffs will gather at museums around the world to screen their family memories and watch others'. Locally, it's happening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Registration is required.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.