Old film clips found in storage locker turn into unexpected gift
A current-day documentary, “Grays Harbor Happenings,” gives new life to rediscovered film clips depicting life in Grays Harbor nearly a century ago.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Watch the film: “Grays Harbor Happenings: The Newsreels of C.D. Anderson”
More information: University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections
“I like to say I save lives,” Nicollete Bromberg says with a smile.
Maybe someday, she’ll save yours.
But don’t expect Bromberg, or her colleague, Hannah Palin, to charge into a burning building to rescue you, or to dive into Lake Washington when you fall overboard.
The work they do in basement workrooms at the University of Washington won’t prevent anyone from dying.
But it could keep them from fading away.
Case in point: Bromberg and Palin, who work in the UW Libraries’ Special Collections, are enjoying the success of a film eight years in the making, showing life in Grays Harbor during its heyday in the 1920s.
The documentary draws on high-quality film clips shot by Charles D. Anderson, one of about a dozen studio photographers working in Aberdeen and Hoquiam in the 1920s and 1930s.
In a sense, his work is so exceptional because the activities it portrays are so ordinary:
Children splash in a wading pool. A spinning saw blade slices through a 3-foot-wide log. Women serve strawberry shortcake at a community gathering. Students file out of a boxy school building in a fire drill.
And plenty of boys in tweed caps mug for the camera.
The 27-minute production, “Grays Harbor Happenings,” which can be viewed on YouTube, has received several awards, including a national bronze Telly Award this year for History/Biography.
But Bromberg and Palin say their greatest satisfaction lies in the possibility that the film might encourage people in other communities to search their basements and attics for film and video that can document their time, their place, their lives.
Year by year, as film and video records deteriorate, valuable links are lost to the people and events that have shaped our world, our towns, our families, Bromberg said.
The Aberdeen film clips surfaced in a roundabout way.
After being out of sight for decades, apparently with no one searching for them, they turned up in an abandoned storage locker in the Seattle area.
When the woman who bought the locker’s contents offered the films to the UW Libraries, Palin said she and Bromberg didn’t even have equipment to work with 35mm film.
But a cursory look at the labeled cans indicated they might contain carefully documented work from a bygone era.
“We said, ‘Bring it on,’ ” Palin recalled.
In Special Collections, Bromberg is the visual-materials curator and Palin is a film-archive specialist. Bromberg offered this translation: She applies for the grants that keep Palin working.
All of the work in Special Collections is funded through grants and private donations, which helps explain why this production took eight years to complete.
“The first time I was able to actually see what was on these newsreels, my breath was taken away,” Palin said. “It was like going through a time machine.”
Back in their day, Anderson’s films were shown in Aberdeen movie houses as a local newsreel, played before the feature films.
Area historians and researchers, including John Larson of the Polson Museum in Hoquiam and Roy Vataja of the Aberdeen Museum of History, helped uncover news clippings, documents and personal memories that added context to the film clips.
Director Ann Coppel combined current-day interviews and footage with the Anderson clips to weave an account that links Grays Harbor’s past and present.
Anderson’s films were made at a time when the adjacent cities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam were riding the boom of the timber industry — sending lumber as far away as San Francisco.
Even though there was a significant wealth gap between the laborers and the business owners, Anderson’s clips seem to indicate that both groups took part in community celebrations.
Anderson was among a dozen studio photographers in town and may have produced the newsreels to drum up business.
He called his work “Grays Harbor Happenings,” a title the current documentary has borrowed.
Anderson’s newsreels were so popular that newspapers (there were three dailies at the time) ran articles saying when and where they would be shown.
The reason for the enthusiasm was obvious: Virtually everyone in town, Palin said, would see themselves or someone they knew “up on the big screen.”
Researching the film clips unearthed a particularly poignant story about the good-looking couple — the groom with slicked-back hair and the bride with a large white hat — who won a contest to be married on stage during a fair at Elma in 1926.
The joyful scene in the wedding clip shows no hint that within a few years, the bride would die of tuberculosis.
One of the couple’s children, Chuck Gurrad, grew up to be Aberdeen’s mayor in the 1990s.
Gurrad was just 3 years old when his mother died, and his only memory of her is of a woman lying in bed with many pillows around her.
“To see her actually moving on the stage ... it kinda gets you,” Gurrad said. He had never seen the film clip, or even known of its existence, until producers of the documentary showed it to him.
Palin had hoped to also reach Anderson’s descendants to ask them about the movies, but she said “his trail runs cold after the 1930s” and there is some thought he may have returned to his native Norway.
The fragile flammable nitrate film he used, which Palin needed a permit to handle, is now preserved in a freezer at the library. Its content has been copied onto more durable polyester film.
Palin calls the project the most rewarding experience of her career.
Its impact was apparent last year when it was first shown in Hoquiam and drew 1,000 people to two showings.
“This project confirmed that the work we do in Special Collections ... has a meaning, a purpose and a tangible impact on the communities we serve,” she said.
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222