Basement Cache

May 7th, 2009

The Harvard Film Archive has over 15,000 films in our collection. Sometimes we acquire films one by one, sometimes we are given small collections, and sometimes we acquire large collections all at once. We open the HFA blog with the announcement of a large collection we are in the opening stages of acquiring, the Howard E. Burr Collection.

In the years before home video, cinefiles bought copies of films on film. The studios distributed films on non-theatrical film sizes for use in the home. These prints were made on safety stock, not the flammable nitrate used in cinemas. The highest quality (and most expensive) copies were on 16mm. Cheaper (usually condensed) versions of features were distributed on 8mm and, later, on Super, usually silent versions with intertitles like a traditional silent film.

Howard E. “Doc” Burr collected film his entire life. In his professional life, he was a dentist, but when he got home, his passion was clearly cinematic. He watched at least one film a day. He put on shows for his family and their friends. In the summer, shows would be put on outside, projected on a sheet for his family and the kids of the neighborhood.

When Doc died this year at age 89, he left behind a basement devoted to his passion. He had collected film for over 80 years, having begun as a child. He collected feature films, mostly Hollywood productions, as well as short films (comedies, dramas, documentaries, sports films, educational films), silent films, westerns. As many collectors of his generation did, he had a fondness for the like of Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy.

A reel of film from the Burr Collection

A reel of film from the Burr Collection

He built a little movie theatre in the basement of his ranch-style home in Western Massachusetts, with movie posters decorating the wood paneled walls. There was a projection booth with 35mm and 16mm projection, and an 8mm projector in front of the booth. At the other end of the room a movie screen took up the entire wall. A green curtain in front of the screen was motorized, controlled from the booth. The projectionist (Doc) would open the curtains before the show, like in an old-fashioned theatre. Most programs included a variety of films in the old theatrical style: cartoons and shorts would precede the feature.

The rest of the basement was devoted to the storage of projectors and movies. The film storage room was packed with all sizes of film, totaling well over 2,000 features and shorts. Doc had a complex but very accurate method of keeping track of the location of each film. He had extensive inventories and notes about his films and equipment, all of which is coming to the archive with the collection. He had a card catalog as well as many notebooks devoted to his collection. Sometimes he kept a guest book, and audience members signed in, making comments about the films they were treated to.

Although film collecting was once quite common, Dr. Burr’s collection is unusually large. His breed is dying out, as younger cinefiles prefer the smaller, less expensive, more user-friendly format of DVD. The Harvard Film Archive is very pleased to be able to keep this remarkable collection together. It represents not only a great collection of film, but also a fascinating look into the habits of a film collector. We are accepting into our collection not only the films, but also many of the projectors and the paper ephemera Dr. Burr collected to complement his film cache. He amassed lobby cards and film posters, movie magazines and books, collector newsletters, and, most fascinating to the HFA’s conservation staff, all the correspondence and paperwork that was necessary to build his collection. Being a film collector meant trading through the mail, and he saved letters, receipts, lists, canceled checks and all kinds of notes regarding not only the selling and trading of films, but also everything related to his equipment. This collection provides a fascinating resource for anyone studying film collectors.

We will continue to explore this collection through this blog, as we discover new themes and interesting little gems.

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