Earlier this spring, I was standing with my husband, Dale, and Gary Carroll in front of the Liberty Theatre in downtown Vandalia. We were watching Eldon Brackenbush maneuver the cherrypicker lift as he applied new paint to the Liberty marquee sign.
As we stood there, Dale asked Gary if any type of memorabilia had been left in the old movie house when he bought it. Gary laughed and said that very little had been left behind. He had found one silk movie advertisement rolled up and stored up on a high shelf, along with two reels of an old Vandalia movie from 1936.
I must tell you, my historical radar went on full alert and, holding my breath, I asked Gary where the reels were now. "Inside on a shelf," was the answer, and when I left that day, two reels of precious Vandalia footage went with me.
Gary said that at first he thought it was a Lions Club film, and had notified the local group about its existence. But there was limited interest in it. He knew of a later film, from 1938, that had been sponsored by the Lions, and preserved on video by Charles Mills Jr.
Gary had taken the time to clean up the larger of the two reels, and remembered that there were clips of a marching band on the second, smaller, reel. There was also a sound band on the reels, so we knew the film had sound.
As it turned out, the Fayette County Genealogical & Historical Society, of which Im an active member, was holding its monthly meeting at the Evans Public Library that evening, so I took the films with me. At that time, we had no idea what we had.
Following a brief discussion, the group approved the funds to have the films preserved by a film restoration company.
There are very few companies doing this type of work, and we were fortunate to find Debenham Media in Pennsylvania. They were as excited as we were about the old 1936 footage.
After they began to work with the film, Debenham told us that we had about four or five years before the nitrate films would have degraded to a point where the images would have become unusable.
We also learned that the film had a title, "Your Town On Parade In 1936," and was produced as a short subject by Pacific Film Company, to be shown at the Liberty Theatre. Herman Tanner was the sponsor.
The 1936 film is 45 minutes in length and opens to a smiling Tanner, posing with theater ushers and employees. Pacific Film Company spent time in town catching Vandalias downtown businesses at their busiest.
Each of Vandalias schools received a visit, with the children either posing or filing by the camera. Alice Feery, Lincoln School principal, is pictured with her students.
Vandalias Rotary members, including Harry Rogier, Frank Denny and Charles Evans, are pictured outside the Evans Hotel, after their weekly meeting. As the camera slowly panned the group of men, a brief shot of the old capitol can be seen in the background.
The cameraman visited various Vandalia businesses, including the newspaper office, restaurants, gas stations, Beccue Dairy and Leihser Hardware.
The thought that this film could have been lost is a scary one.
With the experienced help of Robert Whiteside of Archival Productions in Sorento, the 1936 movie and 1938 Lions Club film, available only on VCR tape, were placed together on a DVD.
The Lions Club movie from 1938, on five reels of tape, had floated between various club members over the years, ending up with Harry Truitt. His son, John, is credited with preserving this film by entrusting it to John Palacek and Charles Mills Sr.
The five reels were transferred to video and shown to small groups of local residents, while the job of identifying as many people as possible pictured in the movie went on.
In 1990, Charles Mills Sr. gave a copy of the VCR tape to the county genealogy society, and we also arranged many showings of the silent film to local residents. Each time, we were able to put names to more faces in the hour-long film.
Using my notes from these shows, I then began work on a running commentary for the 1938 film.
With the discovery of the 1936 movie, it seemed that NOW was the time to do it up right, and offer both views of Vandalia to the public.
Copies of this valuable DVD, "Vandalia, Illinois, Historic Films 1936 & 1938," are available for purchase at downtown businesses for $12.50 each, or through the mail from the Historical Society for $15.
On behalf of the Fayette County Genealogical & Historical Society, I invite you to join us as we take a step back into history.