Taking in the Trash with New Hampshire’s Chris Nichols & The Trash Pile

By John Campopiano

Back in 2010, Chris Nichols, originally from Massachusetts but now residing with his wife in New Hampshire, was searching for a new way to satiate his appetite for creative output after his days performing in local Boston area bands had come to an end. As an enthusiast for not just music but also film, specifically cult, horror, and genre films, Nichols launched The Trash Pile–a blog dedicated to finding, reviewing, and in some cases re-releasing obscure and forgotten films. But Chris isn’t all that keen or interested in releasing hard-to-find weirdo gems on digital platforms like YouTube (though he isn’t against other people doing it). Instead, Chris’ allegiances lie with a format that holds much sentimental value to hoards of likeminded collectors (including the founder of this blog): the VHS tape.

NEMMC spoke with Nichols earlier this autumn and asked him to rewind for us the story of The Trash Pile–the idea idea turned web show turned blog/podcast–and to share with us what motivates him to act as one of many faithful believers in the VHS format.

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NEMMC: While getting to know you over this past year it’s evident that the VHS format holds a great deal of meaning for you. Can you talk about how being an advocate and podcast figure within the niche community of VHS collectors has impacted you?

Chris Nichols: For years the VHS format was something my father and I shared and spent time enjoying together (although going to the theater was just as important to us). I started collecting VHS around 1991 and for years in my neighborhood the kids and families would ask if they could “rent” the movies I owned. Back in the early days of Excel, I would print out spreadsheets with details about what was my VHS inventory. I suppose that’s what led to me searching out more and more movies that I hadn’t seen before–this is also where the podcast came into play a couple of years ago. The podcast (and our old web show) were all about starting a dialogue around movies that had somehow skated under the radar of fandom or had never received a proper release here in the states.

NEMMC: This web show sounds intriguing. What was that all about?

CN: The show was done online and it followed the format of the podcast with the addition of covering new releases on DVD and Blu-ray (as well as comic books).
We didn’t really have any guests to speak of–just likeminded friends. Mark Anastasio from Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre called in once to hype their annual Halloween Horror Marathon.

NEMMC: The Trash Pile has had some stops and starts over the years. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping it going?

CN: The biggest challenge I’ve faced in the last six years of doing The Trash Pile is maintaining my own drive–having the will to do it. I’ve experienced instances of bad luck, I guess, in my personal life that has left me feeling depleted creatively.  The co-host of the podcast, Jason, moved from Massachusetts to Georgia late last year, so having the ability to sync up and to record has been tricky. Really, it’s all bullshit excuses because I should just write to write, or podcast to podcast–for the enjoyment of it.

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Chris Nichols, left; Jason Potter (right)

NEMMC: Can you talk about some of The Trash Pile’s limited edition VHS releases? Have you encountered any rights hurdles with talent or production/distribution houses? If so, how have you navigated those hurdles?

CN: Most of what I do is on the grey market [unofficial buying/selling/trading areas that exist outside the perimeters of authorized manufacturing channels] and my re-edits and re-releases are always of films that are not available for purchase in the States. If something has been released here [the United States] and is currently in print, I don’t touch it. In terms of the titles I’ve done small batches of, it really just comes down to if it’s a title I, personally, enjoy. The whole idea of the grey market was something that fueled my love of international and genre films. When I was in high school my friend, Jason, and I would attend comic conventions in Boston every few months in order to search for and pick up new movies. Without those conventions we wouldn’t have been able to see a lot of these films that never made it to the States by that point (e.g., VERSUS, BATTLE ROYALE, etc.) or special edits of films that were very hard to come by (e.g., the x-rated version of ROBOCOP). Of course the distribution arena has changed dramatically over the years and a lot of these once hard-to-find titles are now popping up on sites, like YouTube, for free.

NEMMC: Has the increased availability of rare and offbeat titles on places like YouTube and via other grey market retailers that are flooding the bootleg scene making your work harder and/or is it changing the focus and scope of The Trash Pile?

CN: For me, it’s all about increasing the exposure of these films. So, if there’s a rival way for people to view it (YouTube, other grey market outlets, etc.) that’s all the better. The Trash Pile was never a money or business orientated venture, but instead a way to share fun movies with people interested in seeing them.

NEMMC: I’m fascinated by your work involved with the release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN (1993). Can you talk about the experience of both discovering and, ultimately, releasing it on VHS?

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VHS release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN courtesy of The Trash Pile

CN: Like a lot of video collectors, I try and visit weird thrift stores and yard sales, year round. You’re never guaranteed a hit every time, but it’s all about the thrill of the hunt. As far as finding THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN, I was visiting a church book sale in southern New Hampshire when I saw the film while poking through any banana boxes stuffed with analog. I had never heard of it before, though that wasn’t a new thing as there’s always going to be something you’ve never seen before–but MACKLIN was different.

I’m a sucker for ghost stories, so, the film seemed like one that was worth the .75 cents. After taking the film home I looked for whatever information was available about it online, but couldn’t find a damned thing. I then looked up information on the director, Bob DuBois, and learned he was still around and living in the same Colorado town where he shot the film. I sent him an email and began a back and forth with him about how much I enjoyed his subtle little ghost story. I’ve always believed that no film should be lost and forgotten, so I asked Bob if I could do a small batch release of the film, and he agreed.

NEMMC: What do you think the value is in chasing down and re-releasing films considered by some to be lowbrow or trashy? What excites you about this flavor of cinema?

CN: It all comes down to one thing for me: entertainment. As I said before, I don’t think any media should be lost or forgotten, so a lot of what I’m doing (reviewing, watching, re-releasing) is an effort to not let a movie be forgotten. Believe me, there are a plethora of titles that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on, but I know that there is an audience for each and every one of those films regardless of whether or not I like them all.

NEMMC: Jumping off my last question, what is the value for you of collecting and distributing films on the VHS format?

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Composite print VHS release of ALLIGATOR courtesy of The Trash Pile

CN: There will always be a new movie waiting if you continue to dig into past releases that may have missed the digital boat. There are a lot of solid digital distributors putting out titles for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray. However, there are still thousands of films that haven’t seen the light of a commerce shelf in decades and unless there is a push from fans a lot of these movies could cease to be. That’s really what collecting/distributing is all about to me; making sure that the right entertainment finds the right person. Life’s too short not to be entertained.

NEMMC: Do you think the VHS format will ever experience a resurgence the way vinyl has been experiencing over the last decade?

CN: That’s a tough question as a big part of the modern renaissance in vinyl can be attributed to, in my opinion, the fact that production of turntables never really stopped altogether. Manufacturers like Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha and Sony never ceased production on their turntables. It wasn’t long after VHS stopped being produced that the production of VCRs slowed. For a few years the DVD/VCR combo sold moderately well, but finding that option in stores is not an easy task nowadays. A VHS resurgence would require a company to start manufacturing new players, similar to what Crosley is doing with turntables. If we get to that point I believe you’ll see VHS again.

NEMMC: What does the future hold for The Trash Pile? What are some of your goals going forward?

CN: Honestly, I’m not sure. 2016 has been a ridiculous year for me due to a number of life-changing events, so, doing anything creative like podcasting and generating more VHS output seems like a real challenge for me emotionally. I have been focusing on doing some manufacturing of VHS for directors and distributors who want their titles on an analog format. For example, I just did a batch of VHS for an awesome indie film currently hitting the festival circuit called, MUTE, by A Color Green–a production company out of New York. And I’ve also had directors ask me to give their films a VHS release, like Jason Stephenson, who ask me to release his film STRIP CLUB SLASHER earlier this year. His film is now part of The Trash Pile catalog. That was a really fun project because I had the chance to reuse ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ pink clamshell cases for the release.

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VHS limited release of THE LAMP courtesy of The Trash Pile

Chris Nichols and The Trash Pile project are a fun and creative insight into one of the many different ways in which collectors and VHS enthusiasts are keeping the format alive while simultaneously introducing or re-introducing the public to a variety of largely forgotten films of yesterday. Those of us who share their passion hope that Nichols can keep the creative juices flowing and continue to expose us to more analog craziness in 2017 and beyond!

Taking Cues From The Cue Dot: A Providence-based Effort to Preserve Film Projection History

By John Campopiano

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The equipment is a connection to the past. A projectionist from the 1920s could come in here and run this. Nothing has changed.– Rick Shamel on the film projection booth, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT

As someone who grew up in film projection booths, Taylor Umphenour knew he wasn’t going to merely be a passive observer to what has been the slow, yet steady, conversion to digital projection. So in 2011 the Providence-based projectionist launched The Cue Dot, a multifaceted effort to capture the look, feel, sound, smell, and history of the film projection booth and all that dwells within them. The Cue Dot is a portal to another time when physical film ruled and the idea of living in a wireless world was still a thing of science fiction. NEMMC recently caught up with Umphenour to learn more about The Cue Dot project and to better understand how he’s taken his love of film and film projection to new, artistic heights.

NEMMC: Can you talk about the various phases you’ve established for The Cue Dot project and what influenced you to start all of this in the first place?

Taylor Umphenour: The Cue Dot started back in 2011. I’d been working professionally as a projectionist since I was seventeen: all through college, and after. I kind of grew up in the booth. I always had my own projects and side businesses going on, but working as a film projectionist was the one stable constant in my life over about nine years full of change and growth. I started seeing news stories about projection booths closing as they fell, one by one, to an industry-wide conversion from film to digital projection. I had a moment of recognition: the world of the booth, as with all things, wasn’t going to be around forever. So I put my other projects on hold and set myself to capture the energy and life of that special world before it changed forever.

Capturing the booth took four months of principal photography: with both film and video shooting, and sound recording. This was followed by many months of photo editing. The project is being released in phases mostly because it’s a personal project that cuts across multiple mediums.

The first phase was driven by gathering a group of likeminded people on social media: an audience for the project. I knew there must be other people out there like me who’d enjoy taking a trip into the world of the film projection booth, and I found them one-by-one on social media.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The next phase focused on creating physical pieces of art that tied into the main project. I wanted a way for people to bring the feeling of this magical cinematic world into their own lives. I released the first edition of photography from The Cue Dot and sold archival prints from the site to people all over the world. I can’t tell you how many people have written in expressing their gratitude for my making this project. It’s been inspiring to hear from so many along the way—and it’s what has kept the project going.

Beyond this, I wanted to take the physical film—the lifeblood of the projection booth—and find a way to repurpose it for a new generation. This became an entire apparel collection called Film Leader.

The next big phase of The Cue Dot will be to build a solid community from the audience of social media followers. This work will begin with the opening of FilmProjectionBooth.com as a new expanded home for the project. My focus there is on creating a place for anyone who loves the world of the booth to come and experience it whenever they so desire. While social media is full of lively conversation and interaction, it’s very easy for work to be easily buried in an avalanche of distraction. My hope with this third phase is to create a web-based experience that allows people to get as close as possible to the experience of what it was like to be a projectionist in the old carbon arc film projection booth.

If FilmProjectionBooth.com is a success, it may pave the way for some surprise phases I’ve already laid the groundwork for—but those will have to remain surprises for the moment since each phase depends on the completion of the prior one in order to move forward…

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Taylor Umphenour

NEMMC: Are there other ways of capturing the essence of the projection booth that The Cue Dot is not yet doing?

TU: Absolutely. There’s technology that’s around now that wasn’t around when I shot The Cue Dot. I still think someone could do an amazing VR project taking people back into the booth. And there are potentially thousands of untold stories. When I first started the project back in 2011-2012, this was a story that hardly anyone was telling. But after the widespread conversion of theaters from film to digital projection, the story has become part of the zeitgeist—with quite a few other projects and pieces out there that have been made about this particular transition point in cinema history. It’s great to see so many people trying to tell this story in different ways—whether in short videos, feature films, articles, and so on. One of my early insights when I started making this project was how sad it was for something so beautiful to slip quietly into the past when so few people had a chance to appreciate it and experience it. It was as if the film projection booth was a special exclusive world that very few people were even aware of—and then one day, it was gone.

NEMMC: What kinds of challenges have you faced and anticipate facing as the project evolves?

TU: Funding is always the biggest challenge for personal projects that cut across multiple mediums. But the core challenges of this project are the same as with any project: keeping it compelling, telling a good story, being specific and clear, and creating an emotional connection with the audience. I tend to find that most projects have the defects of their virtues: that is, the very things that make them challenging are also the things that make them compelling to begin with. With The Cue Dot, I’ve chosen to focus on a place, a feeling, an era, and a process. It’s a challenge because there isn’t a main character to piggyback on. I’ve chosen to try to create something that stands at the crossroads of many different mediums, symbols, and historical shifts: mechanical vs. digital, human vs. machine, film vs. video, past vs. future. And yet to do this without focusing on a singular main character who can take us all through it has been quite a challenge.

NEMMC: We’re living in an era of remakes, reissues, and pop culture resurgences. Do you feel film projection will ever see a mass rebound the way vinyl records and other formats and mediums have?

TU: I’m a romantic about the subject matter of The Cue Dot, but a pragmatist when it comes to the economic reality facing many theaters, especially single screen operations. I don’t think film projection will ever see a mass rebound, but the key word there is “mass.” The economic model of theatrical exhibition has remained essentially unchanged for decades, and it’s now being forced to evolve, confronting real challenges with deeply rooted issues that go way beyond film vs. digital projection.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

That said, no technology ever invented by humans has ever gone away entirely. People are still making all sorts of things by hand that can be made with machines. And there are still a core group of theaters out there running films, some of them with reel-to-reel projectors. More important than a mass rebound, I think it’s important to keep the culture of it alive through storytelling, which I believe to be the foundation of community building. I do think there’s space in the market for a loosely affiliated network of film-based theaters, and that the novelty of such a thing will only grow, further adding to its appeal. My hope is that these theaters find a way to band together, pool resources, and create a strong film culture around what they’re doing. It’d be very gratifying if The Cue Dot can help inspire people who want to be part of keeping that culture alive.

NEMMC: Is the act of repurposing (or recycling) and possessing a willingness to adapt critical to keeping something–like the physical medium of film–alive? Have these approaches been part of your work with The Cue Dot?

TU: Repurposing and adapting is critical to keeping the medium alive, both in the big macro paradigm and at a smaller scale. The film medium and arguments about whether or not it’s “dead” are largely an issue of point of view, where in the chain you spend most of your time and focus, and how close you are to it. I’ve personally grown tired of these debates because they miss the point: from an aesthetic standpoint, film and digital are capable of being symbiotic… as symbiotic as painting and photography or television and radio. It’s also important not to confuse the medium for the economic model that has been built around the medium. This frequently gets lost in the debate about the way in which film technology needs to adapt for the future.

When it comes to The Cue Dot, I chose to shoot a lot of what I created for the project digitally. Ironically, it was done this way for the same reason the theater I was photographing was converting from film to digital: economics and flexibility. I knew that for the amount of material I wanted to shoot, I’d have to stop and spend six months raising money to buy the film stock I wanted. Only, we didn’t have six months to wait. A date had already been set for the theater’s conversion. If I’d waited until we had the funds to shoot on film, there would have been nothing left to photograph.

I’m interested to see how the economic model around theatrical film exhibition can be adapted, now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century.

NEMMC: Of course filmmaking has long been considered an art form, but the way you write about film projection may lead some to think you view the film projection process as another type of art form…

TU: Without getting deep in the weeds of semantics or touching off a huge comment thread about what constitutes an art form, I’d say: yes—I absolutely believe there’s the potential for film projection to become an art form. Whenever a technology or practice reaches the end of it’s “useful life” for its original purpose, you reach fertile territory for a new art form to emerge. When painting no longer had to shoulder the weight of capturing a likeness in vivid detail, it was able to evolve and grow in ways that created a new aesthetic vocabulary. When LPs were no longer the medium for listening to everyday music, DJs repurposed them and a new art form was born. Film projection—especially dual carbon arc reel-to-reel film projection—has that potential. As for the expressive potential of the medium outside the context of a cinematic theatrical presentation, who knows what the boundaries are. I’ve often thought it’d be fascinating to have a stage show where a team of a dozen projectionists used a dozen on-stage projectors to mix between different reels and create a kind of hybrid cinematic/dance piece.

As it originally existed, and as I captured it in The Cue Dot, I believe there was an art to being a good projectionist. A skill, but also a sensitivity. You were part of the performance. You were the last person whose hands were entrusted with those ribbons of celluloid. As time went on, the responsibility of that performance was gradually shifted from the human to the machine… until in the end, it was the machine’s responsibility entirely. At some point along the line, the sensitivity required of projectionist was shifted and the art was lost. At some point, it had more to do with the machine’s performance than with the projectionist’s. I’m not sure if that was when platters were added, or perhaps earlier with the end of carbon-arc… but at that point, a bit of the “art” of film projection died.

NEMMC: Has your geographical location of Providence, RI, played a role in the creation and evolution of The Cue Dot? If so, how?

TU: Providence is a great place to live for all sorts of reasons, but it’s most lasting contribution to The Cue Dot is that Providence is the home of the Avon Cinema. The theater opened in 1938 and has been run by the same family for three generations. Almost eighty years of continuous operation meant the projection booth at the Avon was unique. My friendship with the owners and their willingness to let me turn this project into such an elaborate endeavor played a determining role in The Cue Dot being as thorough and substantial as it was. I should also say that great credit is also to be given to the other projectionists, who happily allowed me to photograph and film them for months on end while they worked. The booth is a solitary place and that kind of invasion—with the lights and gear, and everything else—can be overwhelming. Those guys were troupers and their patience with the whole process is part of what makes this little time capsule so special.

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Avon Cinema in Providence, RI. Photo by Ken Zirkel

NEMMC: On your website it states, “The Cue Dot is far from over.” What does the future hold for The Cue Dot?

TU: The future is all about expanding the audience for this story and telling it in increasingly complex ways without losing the soul of what makes it so special. FilmProjectionBooth.com will be undergoing an expansion as the next phase of this project starts to click in to gear. I continue to receive messages from people with deep roots in this world, and that only reminds me that there are lots of people out there still waiting to hear this story and experience the world of the film projection booth and everything I was able to capture there.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

Interested in more stories about film and film projection? NEMMC has you covered! Check out these links below:

All For One (Continued) by Eric P. Gulliver

Inside the Booth by Stephanie Pixley

Providence Has a Film Society: The Arkham Film Society by John Campopiano and Josh Thomas Gravel

Crate Diggers Part 1: A Man & His Projector by John Campopiano and Andrew Bobola

 

Inside the Booth

By Steph Pixley

I recently had the opportunity to catch the theatrical premier of a new film by director Peter Flynn, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. No, this wasn’t the 2004 Nicholas Cage film of the same title, instead it was a thoughtful, beautifully shot, and timely documentary. It dug into the transition of movie houses across the country from film to digital projection, told through the eyes of the people who arguably know the subject most intimately, the projectionists themselves.

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Ivy Moylan, executive director of the Brattle Theater, watches the film from the projection room. (photo by Jesse Costa/WBUR)

To show the evolution of movie theaters and film projection over the past half century, the film gives viewers a personal tour of a few movie houses around the country with the projectionists who used to work there as our guides. We see the ruins of the Michigan Theater, a movie palace turned parking lot in Detroit, the struggling but still opulent Lansdowne Theater in Pennsylvania, and even the digital setup at the Coolidge. Seeing these old and abandoned movie houses is like looking through a time machine. You can easily imagine families dressed in their finest being ushered to their seats to see the weekly show. These movie houses were built to be a destination and not a casual venue as we think of them today. Projectionists were trained in the art of the perfect show: opening and closing the curtain with perfect timing so that the audience never saw the white screen and transitioning reels flawlessly so no one ever knew there was a man behind the curtain were both key to ensuring the film ran without a hitch. By these standards, in some ways the digital transition has provided the ultimate movie going experience: today when you arrive at a theater, the show is already playing in the form of trailers and advertisements that have been preprogrammed, even before the show really starts. The audience will never get a chance to see the blank white screen.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film was the unearthing of forgotten projectionist booths across the country. Most booths were and continue to be hidden from view, at the back of the house (or even hidden behind the screen as is the case at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA), and behind unassuming doors. Most moviegoers will never even notice them, aside from the flickering light over their heads while seated or the small windows along the back wall of the theater, so in some ways it’s unsurprising that when the filmmakers trekked their way up the flights of stairs at the ruins of the Victory Theater in Holyoke, MA, they found the projectionist booth largely untouched, aside from some animal carcasses and a thick layer of dust. It’s not all gloom and doom for the art of film projecting however. With last winter’s release of, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, on 70mm film, the local Boston Light & Sound suddenly had an order for hundreds of 70mm film projectors. To fill their order, co-founders Chapin Cutler and Larry Shaw resurrected and restored projectors that were headed for the landfill.

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Victory Theater in Holyoke, MA (photo by Tony Mateus)

The projectionists themselves seemed to be split about the future of their profession with the dawn of the digital age. Some embraced the transition as just another advancement in film, much like sound and then color were in their dawn, while others viewed digital film as a threat to their livelihood and that of small-scale movie houses. Unsurprisingly, digital film doesn’t require any hands on work during projection, so movie houses can grow exponentially and play more and more films without the need to hire more projectionists. Meanwhile, nostalgic projectionists mourn the loss of the tactile experience of projecting a film and film geeks worry about the loss of quality in the transition from 70mm film to digital.

Regardless of their outlook, all projectionists seemed to mourn the loss of the presence of the hulking body of the projector itself in their booths. For the time being it seems that theaters are making a compromise of sorts, by investing in new technology and retaining film projectors for special screenings. So, the next time you decide to see a movie pay attention to how its being projected, and thank the projectionist on the way out!

Brattle Theater Archives Open House: A Recap

By Steph Pixley

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What used to be a Police Gymnasium, survived a fire, has housed both live performances and projected films, and came out on top after a fight with Massachusetts blue laws in 1955?

Program from the first show at the Brattle in May of 1890.
Program from the first show at the Brattle in May of 1890. Photo by Steph Pixley.

Surprisingly, the unassuming Brattle Theater in Cambridge and the Greater Boston area.

Originally established as a social union hall and live performance theater in 1890, the hall was transformed in 1953 with the installation of a rear screen projection system, permanently converting the Brattle into a destination for film lovers in Cambridge. Even in the early days of the theater, the goal of the Brattle was not to simply entertain the masses. Instead, the early founders were influenced by the European model of art house cinema, and dedicated the theater’s programming to educate and inspire, as well as entertain.

While this mission was probably unintentional in the beginning (the theater was originally founded by Harvard acting club rejects), these days the mission has taken on a more purposeful direction under the guise of the Brattle Film Foundation. Founded as a nonprofit 15 years ago, the Foundation has promised to provide something other than just another place to watch the latest blockbuster. Instead, the Foundation has created a community of active filmgoers by curating programming that teaches, engages, and enriches its audience.

Original posters from the Brattle Theater archives.
Original posters from the Brattle Theater archives.

As part of its 15-year celebration, the Foundation opened up its archives to give the neighborhood a glimpse into its varied history.

The various owners over the years have maintained an extensive collection of monthly screening calendars, newspaper clippings, and programs, dating back to the first play performed in the Brattle in May of 1890.

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Brattle Theater manager log book, July 1995 – May 1996.

Two versions of their original sign, original movie posters (my particular favorite was the brightly colored poster from Visconti’s 1967 film “The Stranger”), and even an exhibit of the different types of film that are (and used to be) delivered to the Brattle over the years were on display. Small groups were even given tours of the projection room, one of the only rear-screen projection booths still in operation in the United States.

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Brattle Theater projection room. Photo by Steph Pixley.

What was missing from the archives was just as interesting, however: After an unfortunate bankruptcy the Brattle passed hands to new owners who took little interest in preserving programs, posters, and the like. In fact, the late 1960s through the early 1980s are referred to as the “lost years” in the Brattle archives. Reassuringly, Ned Hinkle, the Creative Director of the Brattle, has expressed interest in an archival investigation into these missing years.

…A project for local archivists and film buffs, perhaps?!

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