Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vancouver's archivists keeping it reel

Bing Crosby drives a bulldozer.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 2, 2009

It is a sunny day in Stanley Park. At the head of the causeway, two magnificent concrete lions guard the entrance to the Lions Gate Bridge. A single automobile travels northbound on an otherwise empty bridge.

That’s right. A lone car on the bridge deck. At midday.

Boy, Vancouver has really changed.

The city archives has just posted online 150 films from their vault — actually, a walk-in freezer. The library of moving images capture a lost era — a 1928 polo match, a costume party at a mansion, a barnstorming daredevil showing off stunts in the skies overhead. A minute-long newsreel salvaged from a time capsule shows Bing Crosby atop a bulldozer, scraping away dirt on the eastside to make way for a community centre.

The clips from films, newsreels and home movies bring to life a city and a way of life otherwise relegated to fading memory.

The archives are better known for their holdings of documents and still photographs. A collection of donated moving images — fragile and always in danger of deteriorating — could only be viewed on site. Now, the public can view the films without leaving the comfort of their home, or office.

The staff suspects a media-savvy public will respond well to historical films.

“We expect to experience history the same way we experience today,” said city archivist Leslie Mobbs.

Mr. Mobbs knows many think of the archives as a dusty repository located in a semi-underground bunker in Vanier Park. Dust, of course, is the archivist’s enemy. As is oxygen. As is the grease we all carry on our fingertips. The wonder of the Internet permits a mass audience to enjoy once what was the purview of historians and other specialists.

Sue Bigelow is the archive’s digital conservator. She was hired in 1985 at a time when the archives boasted not a single computer. The donated films, many of which had been scavenged from attics and basements, slowly decayed. Acetate film emitted acedic acid. Film warped and shrank, until sprocket holes no longer fit.

A few years ago, the archives began a trailblazing project in preservation, storing the films in a freezer at minus-18 degrees C.

The films, sent to a company in Kentucky that specializes in digitization, are irresistible in their voyeuristic insight into a city where history matters only until the developer’s next brainstorm.

So, we can watch a fire at one of the sawmills that once lined the waterfront; a horse and cart delivering milk in Shaugnessy; a display of fire hoses in a barely recognizable False Creek; a Great War ace taking off from a float plane at the long-forgotten Jericho Beach air base; the demolition of old Granville Street Bridge.

A parade sponsored by Spencer’s Department store has a hallucinatory air to it, as the storybook and fairy-tale themed floats include marchers with oversized heads and outlandish garb. The procession ends with Santa Claus arriving aboard a ship-shaped float before climbing a ladder to greet the cheering throngs below from a balcony.

A 1964 film shot on Kodachrome captures the city’s neon brilliance at night along Granville Street’s Theatre Row. (“Mary Poppins” was playing at the Strand.) Now, even Kodachrome’s days are numbered.

Perhaps Ms. Bigelow’s favourite is a one-minute, 52-second silent film of the house and gardens at a private home at Trimble and West Second in Point Grey. Taken by an unknown amateur, likely a member of the household, the film records extensive flowered grounds and a massive greenhouse. (Not to mention boys tossing kittens atop an unhappy pet rabbit.)

This is Aberthau, a mansion designed in 1909 by the architect Samuel Maclure in his preferred Tudor Revival style. Originally built for James Rear, a life insurance executive, the home was purchased by Col. Victor Spencer, the son of the founder of a department store chain. The colonel provided its current Welsh name, which means “a place filled with light.”

The film was shot in 1932, after the family had acquired surrounding properties for a tennis court and other amenities. The grounds covered nearly six acres. It is a glimpse at a lost way of life. During the Second World War, the home was used as an air force officers’ mess. In 1974, the Vancouver park board converted it into a recreational centre. The Spencer name, once so prominent, is remembered now only by old-timers. Today, even the notion of a department store seems hopelessly old fashioned.

Some months back, the archives obtained a time capsule when the old Sunset Community Centre was razed.

The stainless steel capsule had been soldered at one end. Ms. Bigelow was reluctant to use too much heat to open the shell, lest the unknown contents inside were damaged.

Over several weeks, she slowly worked at the casing with a Dremel saw, leaving a one-inch seal for an official opening.

One of the prizes inside was a newsreel film. Alas, it had been shot on nitrate film, a volatile, flammable and dangerous product. Good thing she hadn’t used a soldering iron, or the interior could have been reduced to ashes. Special permits were needed to send the film across the border.

The 95-second newsreel produced in 1948 by Canadian Paramount News shows the singer Bing Crosby receiving a key to the city before piloting a bulldozer in a ceremonial sod-turning.

“Bing should feel as at home on this plodding machine as he would on one of his own horses,” announcer Winston Barron pronounces in a stentorian tone. “The crowd loves every minute of it!”

The archivists also found inside the time capsule a letter, dated 1949. It captures some of the anxiety of the age.

“Some people today refer to this as the start of the Atomic Age,” the letter states. “You who open this will know whether or not our scientists, after successfully splitting the atom developed Atomic Power for the benefit of all mankind or — Heaven forbid — permitted its use in the destruction of present-day civilization.”

Ms. Bigelow, the conservator, does not pay too much attention to the written word on what she handles.

“I don’t read it,” she said. “I just make it last.”

She thought of the fascinating material that passes through her hands. The condition is duly noted, but the contents, however fascinating, all too often go unobserved.

“If I sat around reading stuff, she said, a wistful tone to her voice, “I’d get nothing done.”

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