Room with a Viewer

A young Larry King. A racist white enclave called Liberty City. A homophobic Anita Bryant taken seriously. South Florida's past is present at the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center.

The list, it would seem, is endless.
Steve Davidson pegs the Wolfson's current collection at ten million feet of film -- or approximately one football field shy of 1894 miles. But that figure, extrapolated from the number of cans stacked on the archive's shelves, is hopelessly outdated; Davidson has been quoting it since 1991. Regardless of the exact total, that's a whole lot of 16mm film, enough to make the center the largest regional repository of moving images in the U.S. If all you did for a living was view this film and you worked eight hours a day, five days a week, and didn't take vacations, sick leave, or holidays, it would take you more than two years to work your way through.

And that's just film. It doesn't include the treasure trove of original videotapes and home movies, or the piles and piles of support materials -- scripts, editorials, scrapbooks, photos.

"Getting material in the door is the first line of defense," asserts Davidson, whose staff does much more than merely look at moving pictures. Donations arrive in everything from shopping bags to cardboard boxes, and the Wolfson workers must redo splices, repair sprockets, remove debris, and transfer every scrap of film to videotape for use as a working copy. Compounding the problem is the fact that Davidson does not know from year to year what his exact budget will be; funding to cover salaries, seminars, screenings, and special events is cobbled together from a variety of sources. Most of the equipment the center uses is donated. UM and Miami-Dade Community College chip in to pay for videotape and other operating expenses; the schools also frequently arrange for student interns to help out. Though the downtown branch of the Dade County Public Library donates space, Wolfson receives no direct county funding and is not part of the library system.

Nearly everything the Wolfson workers touch is one-of-a-kind. There are no shortcuts. Cans made from archivally sound substances are used to store film wrapped around plastic cores (reels are too abrasive). Each can must be stored flat on its side, horizontally (vertical storage can cause sagging). Cataloguing and indexing can prove to be an excruciating task; a single can, which holds 1600 feet of film, might contain up to 30 different news stories.

All that preservation and organization, of course, is a means to an end. The Wolfson's holdings are accessible to everyone, from the professional documentarian to the average schmo who walks in off the street. And it is this emphasis on public access that distinguishes the Wolfson from other film storehouses.

"Anybody can walk in looking for anything," says Davidson, adding that the center gets about 25 visitors per month. The archive doesn't charge for viewing any footage that already has been transferred to videotape; the public is welcome to make copies of Wolfson holdings for personal use (there is about a $50 to $75 charge for this service, depending upon the amount of staff assistance required). "It's like the library itself. We don't pass judgment or censor anything. We don't care if someone wants to go back in the footage and see what happened on their birthday, or when they were in the Orange Bowl parade, or appeared on the Skipper Chuck show." (As long as you make an appointment, he emphasizes.) By the same token, says Davidson, "If anybody has film that might be of cultural or historical value -- especially home movies from the Twenties and Thirties -- and is willing to deposit it here, we'll restore it and make them a videotape for free."

As Ron Simon, senior curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, puts it: "The Wolfson serves as a model where people can bring in their own testimony and add it to history, like a video town hall."

Yet while the Wolfson itself emphasizes community exposure and public access, the repository's sterling national reputation owes more to word of mouth generated by professionals such as news organizations, documentary filmmakers, and other archives. Toronto-based filmmaker Ron Mann made use of the Wolfson Center in assembling Twist, his 1992 documentary about the dance craze. "People think there's a warehouse somewhere where our whole history is held, but that just isn't true," laments Mann, who maintains regular contact with Davidson.

Other Wolfson beneficiaries include ABC, PBS, the BBC, and HBO Sports. Estefan Productions came calling when they put together Gloria Estefan's "Mi Tierra" video; so did Mira Nair, for the upcoming feature currently being filmed in Miami, The Perez Family. When filmmakers seek footage depicting the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1968 and 1972 Republican presidential conventions, the Mariel boatlift, the Liberty City riots, or the first Clay-Liston fight, they contact the Wolfson.

"I can go to the big archive houses in New York and around the world and get the big headlines, the big picture, the broad brush strokes that give us a sketch of the story," said Elizabeth Deane in a speech to the audience gathered for the fifth-annual Wolfson Center Film and Video Awards (which recognize excellence in film and video programs that are about Florida or that are produced within the state) in June of last year. "But we have to come to places like the Wolfson to fill in the details. And this is often where we find the things that make a film sing -- make the story we're telling really memorable," continued Deane, a native South Floridian and producer of some of the most-watched programs in PBS history, including the documentary miniseries Nixon and The Kennedys. "We'll track down people who have appeared in a news story we see at the Wolfson years after that story happened -- people we wouldn't even have known about if we hadn't found them in this archive. It gives our work subtlety -- the light and shadow that fill out the picture."

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