Ashes to Ashes, History to Dust?

When Sherman Grinberg first acquired the American Pathe and Paramount newsreel collections over 35 years ago, he helped pioneer the archive footage industry and establish his company as a world leader. But since his death over 15 years ago, Grinberg Worldwide...
May 1, 2000

When Sherman Grinberg first acquired the American Pathe and Paramount newsreel collections over 35 years ago, he helped pioneer the archive footage industry and establish his company as a world leader. But since his death over 15 years ago, Grinberg Worldwide Images (headquartered in Los Angeles) has slipped from prominence in the archive community.

‘It’s a sad thing,’ says Jessica Berman-Bogdan, a 20-year veteran of footage research and member of the audio/ visual trade organization focal. ‘Because of the lack of promotion and preservation, the Grinberg library has fallen way behind all the other libraries and people have forgotten how important it is.’

Today when researchers call up footage from the Grinberg catalogue, they can’t always be sure it still exists. Some reels have disintegrated, some were destroyed by Pathe before ever making it to Grinberg, others have just been misplaced. ‘There’s a lot of stuff missing or partially missing,’ said Berman-Bogdan. ‘But I can’t give you specific examples because sometimes you later find bits and pieces elsewhere.’

The historic value of Grinberg’s collections is undeniable. American Pathe is one of the oldest newsreel services, and among the exclusive images in the Paramount collection are Chicago strikers battling police in 1937, Frank Sinatra being cheered by bobby-soxers in 1944, and W.C. Fields on a Paramount set during the 1933 Los Angeles earthquake. Grinberg also possesses several smaller collections, including African-American newsreels from the 1940s; the ‘Industry on Parade’ television series from the 1950s; and 40 years worth of television commercials.

Matthew White, formerly president of the Chicago-based WPA Film Library (now head of video archives and licencing for National Geographic Television), says of Grinberg’s holdings, ‘I haven’t done an inspection of the film, so I don’t know what’s there. But on paper it’s some of the treasures of the country.’ WPA represents the British Pathe collection in North America. (British, French and American Pathe are linked in name only.)

Dire predictions about Grinberg started in the early 1990s, as its market presence diminished. During that time, stock footage sales were undergoing significant shifts that buffeted the company, says Bill Brewington, a Grinberg librarian since 1972. Grinberg had represented the stock libraries of 20th Century Fox, MGM Studios and ABC News for several years. ‘It was our main source of income,’ notes Brewington. ‘Suddenly the studios saw they could make money off this old stuff and took back their collections.’ Documentary budgets were falling at the same time, he says, and his customers were increasingly finding cheaper footage from the National Archives’ public domain collection. As a result, Grinberg’s staff dropped from 50 to under five.

Since then, alarming rumors that Grinberg’s management has neglected to properly preserve its nitrate reels (which are currently divided between vaults at the Film Center Building in New York, Iron Mountain in Los Angeles and WRS in Pittsburgh) have continued to circulate. However, current Grinberg owner Charles Bonan says those claims are exaggerated.

‘When we took over the collection [in 1994], there was a lot to be desired in the care it had been given since Sherman’s death,’ Bonan concedes. But he estimates less than 20% of the reels have disintegrated, and disputes claims that they have been improperly stored. Several users of the collection suspect higher losses, though they have no hard proof.

Nitrate film has always been hazardous for archives. ‘It begins to shrink until it won’t run through the projector and you can’t copy it,’ explains Ray Fielding, a leading film appraiser and the author of the 1973 book American Newsreel. Fielding also appraised the Grinberg collection for its sale to Bonan. ‘Then it turns into a gummy mass and, in the last stages, dust. It can also ignite spontaneously in temperatures over 100 degrees [Fahrenheit].’ The film industry stopped using nitrate around 1950, switching to less volatile acetate film.

Specialists like Fielding recommend making safety film copies of nitrate prints and placing the originals in cold storage for ideal preservation. But when it comes to Grinberg’s 20 million feet of nitrate, such a process would cost millions of dollars, he says. Other stock footage companies, such as WPA Film Library and Hot Shots, have resorted to making master copies on video as a money-saving alternative to safety film.

Bonan says the plan is to consolidate the Grinberg collection in special nitrate vaults near Burbank this spring. They will also embark on a massive project to copy the entire nitrate collection in the next two years, either to film or video, he adds. Plans to re-launch Grinberg for the world of e-commerce are also in the works. ‘We’ve laid low long enough and the reason is, we had a long-term strategy,’ he says. ‘I always envisioned that we would create a website where learning institutions, ad agencies, publishers, researchers and TV stations from all over the globe could download any image they need. This company will be

completely different by the time September rolls around.’

Bonan has lined up new investors to digitize and colorize the library. The colorization process will allow Grinberg to secure a new copyright on the public domain Pathe material. ‘I’ve been the underdog in the past,’ says Bonan, who helped launch Turner Broadcasting in Europe. ‘And we’ll win again. The people who have said bad things about Grinberg will either be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised.’

Fielding points out that many archives besides Grinberg have preservation problems. ‘I’ve seen some terrible things. There’s so much material today, no one knows how to grapple with it.’ He hopes that organizations like the Association of Moving Image Archivists and the U.S. Library of Congress will raise greater public awareness about film history. ‘It’s like the national parks,’ he said. ‘The more the public knows about it, the more they’ll be alarmed when they realize it’s vanishing.’


Everything old is new again

Filmmakers seeking old news footage now have two new resources – the collections of Fox Movietone and New York’s WPIX-TV.

Fox Movietone rivals the newsreel collections of Pathe, Paramount, Universal and Hearst for its scope, covering the years 1919-63. Twenty years ago, Fox donated sections of the collection to the University of South Carolina. But what remained has been held back from researchers for the past five years. ‘They basically shut down operations to transfer all the material from film to tape,’ explains Peter Bregman who now runs the Fox Movietone licensing department. Bregman previously knew the collection as a researcher. When he joined Fox three years ago, he began lobbying management to re-open the collection’s New York office. Six months later, he got his wish.

‘I haven’t really publicized it because I don’t know how much I can handle,’ Bregman says.

The library of WPIX-TV has recently been turned over to Hot Shots Cool Cuts for representation. ‘It’s a tremendous local news source from the 1940s to the present,’ says Andrew Conti, director of sales for Hot Shots. ‘It’s the opening of Studio 54, Andy Warhol getting shot, the Beatles in the ’60s. But it was completely disorganized and non-accessible.’ His staff is currently cataloguing the collection on the company’s website. ‘This is a massive undertaking. We’re about 25% of the way through with it. I would hope within the next year or so to have it completely accessible.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.