Gilmore’s trove of circus films.

by Hugh Gilmore

Have you ever suddenly turned off the TV, or dropped a magazine, and said: “This is it! That day I’ve always called ‘Some Day’ is finally here. And I know just what to do”?

Probably not. For most people that day never arrives. There’s too much cleaning to be done at home, weeding to do in the yard, a living to earn, meals to prepare, weddings and funerals to attend, walks to take… you know: the things that compose a normal, busy life. Most of the things – and I really mean MOST – that we’d like to do some day, or should do some day, never get done.

It’s not procrastination that feeds this syndrome, and certainly not laziness. It’s the difficulty of breaking the normal rhythm of one’s life. When you work hard every day and rest only a little every night, who needs another job? Thank goodness we have the future to rely on. Until we don’t.

Hence today’s story, which continues one I began a few weeks ago (“Getting some old books back to where they once belonged,” Local 9/13/17). During my years as an old-and-rare books seller I came across some things that were not easy to categorize or know what to do with. I set them aside, and there they sat till I nearly couldn’t see them through the dust. Then this past summer I decided to treat myself to a “time-out” from my real life and dig into some of these problem cases.

This story begins with a visit to a ranch-style house out in Huntington Valley, or maybe it was Rydal, about 20 years ago. I’d gone there to see a collection of circus materials a lady inherited from her uncle. He gave her advertisements, tickets, photographs of the entertainers such as the cowboys and Indians, freaks, glamor ladies, animal acts, high wire acts, trapeze artists, just about everything under the big top, including the clowns.

Most of the items were from the 1930’s through the 1950s. The lady, once a young niece, was now in her 70s and thinking about moving to a smaller house. She’d never known what to do with her uncle’s collection so it had sat in the attic.

Now, I’ll tell you something about collections, something I’m sure is true. At the heart of every collection, no matter what the material, lies love of the yearning kind. The farther back into childhood that love began, the deeper the yearning. A child touched by an adult’s kindness never forgets. For example, I know a lady who collects sewing notions because her grandmother used to hold her in her lap and teach her to sew. Then grandmom died. Fabric, buttons, pieces of lace, bobbins, even the sound of a sewing machine, heard with her eyes closed, can evoke that feeling of belonging, of being cared for, of being happy.

I also met a man once who collects small electric fans because when his family moved to America from Colombia his grandfather had a small fan with brass blades. Those nights in the family’s dimly lit room in Brooklyn, with the fan quietly humming, were magical to him. He never forgets. He buys more fans.

And so the circus collection spoke of some man’s enchantment with the world of the big top. I bought the entire collection with confidence. Within a month I’d sold them all. despite the tiny stabs of seller’s remorse I felt each time I let one go. But there was one small part of the collection I held back.

Inside a plastic bag the niece sold me were nine boxes of Kodak 16mm 100-foot movie rolls. Dates on the boxes ran from 1939 through 1952. Handwritten notes on the outside of the boxes told cryptic tales of where and when the lady’s uncle had taken the footage. I was grabbed by a need to see these movies projected. Then, curiosity satisfied, I could sell them, or better yet, donate them to a museum. After some research I decided that the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., might be the perfect recipient. But first I had to see them.

I looked into having them transferred to DVD, but found that would cost me between two and three-hundred dollars. Too much for me to spend to make a copy of a gift – probably for one-time use. I asked around the usual places, but no one seems to keep 16 mm projectors around anymore. I considered asking Circus World Museum to make a DVD copy for me as a condition of my donation, but that started seeming too complex to negotiate.

The job sat still for a while. Someone suggested the website “Northwest Neighbors.” I tried that and got one offer to borrow a projector. I drove over and picked it up. The machine was the cutest, most aesthetically engineered little device I’d ever seen. It had been made in Germany in the 1930s. I took it home, figured out, more or less, how to use it, and ran a sample film through it. The projection lamp went on, and the first few frames bubbled and smoked and refused to move any further into the infernal device. Chastened and ashamed I returned the projector.

Coincidentally, a newspaper story appeared about an incredible Philadelphian named Jay Schwartz. He is a film buff and preservationist. He owns hundreds of offbeat commercial and odd amateur motion picture footage and puts on exhibitions now and then, according to when and where he wants. He operates as Secret Cinema (Google him, he’s delightful).

I wrote to him and offered the collection of movies to him, for free, if he’d provide me with a screening. Yes, he said, sounds interesting. We’ll be getting together soon.

My conscience is now at ease because I know the movies will be going somewhere where they’ll be preserved, seen and appreciated. And my own personal curiosity, the reason for this 20-year delay in passing them along, will be satisfied. Maybe he’ll even be able to make me a DVD and I’ll invite you to come see them too.

Either way, one less mystery box sitting on my dusty bookshelves.

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