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.

An ever-growing beast lurks deep within the Miami-Dade Public Library's main branch downtown. Hatched there in 1986, it has been pulsing with life ever since. But while the creature dwells within the walls of the library, it is not of the library.

The creature has a name. It is the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center, an archive dedicated to preserving Florida's heritage as it has been recorded on film and videotape. It is tended by director Steve Davidson and his staff of three, who repair, restore, catalogue, and exhibit the flickering images. They do it in spite of the twin demons of limited funding and daunting quantities of donated materials. They do it in spite of public apathy. They do it because they are afraid that if they don't, a significant part of Florida's cultural identity will be lost. In short, they do it for you.

"History has become perishable," says Davidson, speaking in the hushed, modulated tone appropriate to an archivist. "We're trying to preserve it." As tanned and athletically built as you might expect of a man who spends his days in a windowless, fluorescent-lighted library cellar, the Wolfson Center's director certainly looks the part: Take off the glasses, and the curly, silver-flecked black hair and bushy mustache evoke a plumpish Gabe Kaplan.

Perishable history is a concept that surfaces often in the conversations and writings of archivists such as Davidson. In less than half a century television has gone from a novelty viewed by a privileged few to a mainstay of modern life, the primary means by which a majority of Americans receive their news. Not coincidentally, the medium has begun to supplant print as a source material for historians.

"Film and video records of our daily lives will be the stuff of history," asserts Larry Viskochil, curator of prints and photographs at the Chicago Historical Society. "It's not so much about the movers and shakers of the world, but about what normal people do. The pie-eating contest on Main Street is just as important as the Kennedy-Nixon debates. That's how history is built up. It's a kind of layered thing." From those layers one can divine trends, attitudes, and social movements, like the evolution of civil rights, the origins of the space program, the disappearance of family farms.

According to Viskochil, America's TV stations broadcast an average of 400 feet of newscasts per day each. There are 600 commercial television stations in the U.S., which multiplies out to about 87.6 million feet of news videotape per year. "Television is so fundamental a part of our existence these days that we need to have a wide representation of it just to know ourselves," muses Ernest Dick, corporate archivist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Unfortunately the changes wrought by the information revolution far outpace efforts to preserve and document all that data. And those countless hours of TV news images are particularly vulnerable. Most TV stations quit using film in the late Seventies, switching to videotape, which is even more fragile. Never all that conscientious about preserving film in the first place, broadcasters have been downright cavalier about video, erasing and reusing tapes as a matter of routine. This practice enrages archivists, normally a cerebral lot not known for their militancy.

"Today's news is tomorrow's archival footage," Wolfson director Davidson whispers reverently. "It might have been news," he sighs, "but it's really so much more than that. It's culture. It's history. Video is so ephemeral. So much has already been destroyed."

Jointly founded by Miami-Dade Community College, the University of Miami, and the Miami-Dade Public Library system, the not-for-profit Louis Wolfson II Media History Center was jump-started with a donation from WTVJ-TV (Channel 4) of more than three million feet of film dating back to 1959. This initial infusion has caused some confusion: Although the archive has no financial affiliation with WTVJ, the wealth of material from that station, coupled with the center's name, which honors WTVJ'S long-time owner, created a lingering misimpression. Major donations from Eastern Airlines, WCKT-TV (now WSVN-TV Channel 7), and the Peabody Awards (broadcasting's version of the Pulitzer Prize), plus regular contributions of materials from most of Dade's TV stations, have altered that perception but have not completely erased it. Additionally, with the assistance of several donated VCRs and monitors, in 1991 the Wolfson Center began an aggressive recording program, taping news broadcasts aired on channels 4, 6, 7, 10, and 23.

Davidson stresses the need to retain as much news and documentary footage as possible, without regard to a story's perceived worthiness as historical document. "Often, with the passage of time, the images that are presented take on an entirely different meaning than what was originally intended," he explains. "What eyes do you look at it with? The pace of cutting? The way man-on-the-street interview subjects in the Fifties were so uncomfortable, and today they're sophisticated, expecting the technology? As sociohistorical document? Hairstyles, accents, automobiles, architecture -- sometimes this type of visual information is more important in the long run than whatever editorial viewpoint a story was taking."

As a case in point, Davidson presents "The Scandal of Our Slums," a news special aired in 1961 by WTVJ. In keeping with the station's (and anchorman Ralph Renick's) conservative political views at the time, the gist of the program was that black people deserved to live in ghettos because they were lazy. As evidence the segment furnished a shot of a crowd of nattily attired blacks dancing the Huckle Buck (eerily similar to the electric slide) in a steamy nightclub. Thirty years later a sequel to the award-winning PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize used the same footage to illustrate the bustling vitality of Overtown nightlife in the days before the construction of I-95 and the expansion of downtown Miami doomed the neighborhood.

Although most of the collection is news-oriented, the passage of time can drastically alter the tone of any given item. Some seem quaint now, some tragic. And some are downright hysterical. Nineteen-fifty-nine's "Honky Tonk," for example, makes Reefer Madness look even-handed and contemplative by comparison. The segment was one in a series of editorials tricked out as documentaries titled FYI (For Your Information) that aired on WTVJ during the station's early years. (The locally produced news show has nothing to do with the FYI Murphy Brown works for, although Murphy's pompous, blustering co-anchor Jim Dial has a lot in common with South Florida broadcasting legend Ralph Renick, who hosted and co-wrote most of WTVJ's FYI installments.)

"This program will not be devoted to telling you that [the popularity of striptease and dime-a-dance nightclubs] is bad. It is what exists at the moment," Renick monotones by way of introducing "Honky Tonk." He then trots out a procession of deadly earnest political and law enforcement officials who roundly condemn the risque establishments.

"I am not one of those who subscribes to the principle that we reside in a subdivision of Hell," claims Dade Sheriff Tom Kelly, launching into a spiel about the evils of pinball, which he labels "an elementary training class for children in gambling." State Attorney Richard Gerstein goes him one better by asserting that garish billboards contribute to juvenile delinquency, as well, whereupon Miami Police Chief Walter Headley explains the difficulty of enforcing laws against B-girls: "We must have our men solicited. It is not easy to make the cases stand up in court. The problem of sexual perverts is a disturbing one. Just after World War II, I was of the opinion that all of the perverts in the country had decided to converge upon Miami."

Renick concludes the report with this warning: "There are virtually no legitimate nightclubs left in the city. Those left have been turned into lowdown joints catering to the most base tastes. It's up to you whether you want Miami to be Sin City or Sun City."

Other FYI episodes play more solemnly when viewed through the lens of several decades. In one 1964 segment a middle-age woman, her eyes tired and brimming with tears, is filmed watching President Lyndon Johnson attempting to explain American involvement in Vietnam. He sounds more like a vacuum cleaner salesman than a savvy politician whose Machiavellian mastery has helped him ascend to the highest office in the land. This woman isn't buying. Her son, a soldier, has just been killed. Uncharacteristically restrained, Renick allows the images to speak for themselves -- a mother's grief, a politician's hollow rationalization.

This is television at its most powerful, and it is the Wolfson Center's stock-in-trade. A brief sampling of other such moments:

Wind sweeps over a desolate stretch of runway at Miami International Airport. A somber narrator delivers a voice-over that sounds like the last rites for Eastern Airlines. "Time is running out on a once great airline," he intones. A familiar litany of the carrier's troubles follows -- low employee morale, heartless creditors, the formation of WHEAL (We Hate Eastern Airlines), a ranking of tenth out of eleven in on-time performance. For anyone who followed Eastern's collapse throughout the Eighties, none of this would raise an eyebrow. What comes as a surprise is the date the film was made: October 15, 1963. Frank Borman wouldn't even fly his first Apollo mission for another five years.

November 18, 1963. A radiant President Kennedy steps up onto a makeshift podium to deliver a speech in front of a huge crowd in downtown Miami. Security is light. Kennedy is smiling. "The president, with his deep tan, looks healthier than most of the Floridians up there on the platform," quips anchorman Renick, covering the event for WTVJ.

Assignment: Fun, Sun, Romance, a promotional film financed by Eastern Airlines in the mid-Sixties, follows a comely young travel writer on a six-day holiday in Miami Beach. Highlights include a room with "every modern convenience" from walk-in closets to finger-touch climate control; a dinner date with a handsome young attorney who takes her to the Pompadour Club to watch black people in exotic outfits cavort with chickens in staged pagan voodoo rituals; and fast-paced poolside activities from cards to shuffleboard.

WPLG-TV (Channel 10) look at South Beach in 1974 characterizes the neighborhood as "a ghetto in the sun, a place where old people and old values are making a final struggle." An elderly woman who can barely walk shoplifts onions. Another bruises fruit so she can come back to the grocery store a few hours later and buy it for half-price. Hundreds queue up to buy two-day-old bread at a discount.

The year is 1986. An enterprising WTVJ reporter goes undercover as a homeless woman, transformed by a makeup artist from a perky young newswoman into a decrepit old bag lady. She panhandles, she dives for pennies in the fountain of a luxurious hotel. She even washes windshields at an intersection. The reporter? Katie Couric, who will go on to more fame and a better wardrobe at NBC's Today show.

Sinatra on location during the filming of Lady in Cement. Larry King hosting a JFK Remembered program on WTVJ in 1965. Walter Cronkite disseminating the daunting logistics of broadcasting space shots from Cape Canaveral. Liberty City residents protesting the arrival of the first black in their neighborhood with picket signs that scream, "We want this nigger moved!" Anita Bryant lamenting "the seed of sexual sickness germinating in Dade County." A wild-eyed Cassius Clay visibly intimidating Sonny Liston at the weigh-in before the legendary heavyweight boxing match that would, in Clay's words, "shake up the world!"

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."

From the Wolfson's inception, Steve Davidson has worked to make the public aware of this unique resource. The center has sponsored seminars and screenings in conjunction with MDCC, the Miami Film Festival, the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, the Miami International Book Fair, Art Deco Weekend, and the Royal Poinciana Festival. Twice each week video rarities handpicked by Davidson and his staff are screened in the main library's auditorium; the series, titled Video Rewind, is televised daily on Metro-Dade Television (cable Channel 34), though it's currently on hiatus through August. What's more, the center is one of only three institutions in the nation authorized to screen the winners of the Peabody Awards.

Given all that exposure, you might guess the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center is one of South Florida's best known and most treasured cultural assets. Guess again. Few Miamians are aware of this vast storehouse; fewer still make use of it. Davidson guesstimates that the annual number of patrons who attend Wolfson seminars, screenings, and special events falls between 1500 and 3000. The number who walk in to view the holdings independently is about one-tenth of that.

But the center has come a long way in a very short time. And although Davidson says he'd love to see attendance at screenings reflect the national acclaim the archive has received, he's got his hands full overseeing the collection.

Besides, Davidson has bigger fish to fry. After all, as Larry Viskochil would say, he's "in the forever business.

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