Now in art houses: old education films
BROOKLINE, MASS. — In 1974, a cheerful, androgynous man-child named Telly was used to teach grade schoolers phone etiquette and dialing technique. The character wore all white: tights, gloves, heeled boots, belted shirtdress; and sang his lessons in a cloying timbre. Best of all, Telly lived in Telezonia, a place that could only be reached through a tinfoil tunnel, accessible only through the rotary dial of an enormous pink telephone.
Sixteen millimeter short films like "Telezonia," once used to educate American schoolchildren and workers, are now reappearing in art-house theaters and online. Time and technology have transformed earlier generations' lessons into a younger audience's entertainment. But beneath unbelievably campy surfaces, these vintage films encapsulate a sort of lay anthropology, a window onto the collective fears and convictions of past generations that is as illuminating as any documentary – and far more droll.
Late on a Tuesday, in a cozy screening room here at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, a program of shorts has been organized around the theme of "catchy and annoying songs." One, from an industrial safety film called "Shake Hands with Danger," repeats the raspy chorus: "I used to laugh at safety, now they call me three-finger Joe."
"Initially, the draw is they are kind of goofy and corny and you laugh at the hairstyles and the dialogue. After a while, you start looking at them with a more critical eye," says Skip Elsheimer, who curated tonight's show. He operates under the name A/V Geeks (www.avgeeks.com), and appears both hip and geeky. Since the '90s, Mr. Elsheimer has made a career of collecting more than 18,000 films and traveling the country to screen them. "What brings people back," he says, "is the cultural significance, the look to the past."
In fact, one of tonight's more eager audience members plans to return for tomorrow's screening – and the next night's as well. John Wood, a 30-something fundraiser for the local YWCA, came with a friend.
"They're brilliant American things," Mr. Wood says of the films he calls "time capsules." "And by brilliant I don't mean good, I mean quintessentially American – and funny."
His friend, Frank Furnari, a self-described audiovisual geek ("I was the kid who ran the projector") first showed Wood a few of the films on the Internet.
They adore Mr. Bungle, the ill- mannered puppet from a 1959 short that taught proper lunchroom behavior by really bad example. Websites such as YouTube and Google Video reach a wider, younger audience, and because of them, interest has surged. But they were preceded by Rick Prelinger's free online archive (www.archive.org/details/prelinger), which went live in 2001.
Mr. Prelinger began acquiring in the early '80s and amassed the largest known collection of "ephemera": 48,000 educational, industrial, and advertising films now in the Library of Congress. Since the archive was launched, he says, there have been 6.5 million downloads of the 2,000 films available.
Those in the Social Guidance category include useful tips on prom etiquette (offered by Coca-Cola Junior Misses) and grooming: Because it draws attention to stubby fingers, red nail polish should be avoided.
Most educational movies, filmed between the '30s and '80s, were lost when projectors gave way to VCRs.
But by sifting through piles of teaching refuse, abandoned in school hallways and district warehouses, Chris Moore, another collector, salvaged his batch, with such instructional titles as "Glue Sniffing – Big Trouble in a Small Tube." Last month, the former elementary school science teacher in Austin, Texas, launched a website (www.droppinscience.net) to sell copies of '60s filmstrips.
The audience for vintage media has become increasingly varied. In recent years, Prelinger has noticed teenagers and college students taking a greater interest in customizing the old films. "It's all grist for the remix mill," he says.
Heather Lawver, a 20-something living with her parents in Sterling, Va., has created "The Heather Show Vintage Kitschorama" (www.podcast.heathershow. com). Her first web-based episode, which debuted in September, is a tour of the Corningware factory: The host introduces a rocket nose cone, and percolators are too carefully scrutinized by 1950s housewives. Ms. Lawver added buoyant clips and music to the introduction and her own mocking subtitles throughout.
Yet when asked about the appeal of the old Prelinger Archives films, she talks about historical perspective. "They're average films about average people made by average people," she says. "So you really get a slice of what life was like back then."
Elsheimer considers Prelinger a kind of mentor, and some of his collection has also come from him. Others were scavenged from archives and auctions. Today he lives in an old 14-room boardinghouse in Raleigh, N.C., overtaken by celluloid. Only the kitchen and bathroom are sacred. "I try not to put them in the actual bedroom," he laughs, "but with varying success."
Back at the theater, the film's four young telephone novices (one in a mullet and macramé vest) have learned from Telly how to turn the big rotary. So it's time for them to leave Telezonia. They exit the way they came – via the tinfoil tunnel.