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Classroom classics saved by the bell

Film archivists get a school system's entire collection of vintage 16mm educational films.

June 25, 2004|Jim Suhr | Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — With celluloid made obsolete by video and DVDs, the St. Louis school system is donating to a group of cinema buffs 2,100 educational films from the days when one lucky kid in the classroom would get the privilege of running the whirling, clacking projector.

The entire collection of 16-millimeter films will go to the nonprofit Academic Film Archive of North America. Among the titles: "Marijuana," an anti-drug flick narrated by Sonny Bono, and "Beware of Strangers," featuring Bill Cosby's cartoon character Fat Albert.

"We no longer have the facilities or staff to manage" the collection, said Sharon Huffman, the school district's archivist.

The collection is about 50 years old and consists of about 6,000 reels. The move comes months after the school system's audiovisual department -- believed to be the nation's oldest, dating back to shortly after the 1904 World's Fair in the city -- was ordered scrapped.

The site where the films were housed has been sold, and the reels, once carefully kept on racks, are languishing in boxes "in less-than-ideal conditions," Huffman said.

She said the school system could have auctioned off the collection piece by piece. But school officials wanted to preserve it intact and also keep it in St. Louis, where the film organization has an archive.

"I was relieved that we were able to get word of this. Often, we hear that a collection went to the dumpster, and that's heartbreaking," said Margie Newman, a documentary filmmaker who heads up the archive in St. Louis.

The group, founded in 1996 and based in San Jose, Calif., says that more than 100,000 North American educational films were made between the early 1900s and the mid-1980s.

The archive's focus: films made between 1960 -- when makers of educational films received an infusion of government money -- and 1985, when decreased funding and the advent of video effectively ended the 16mm classroom film.

Newman said that 16mm films typically fetch only $2 to $25 on online auction sites.

"Yes, there are the campy ones," Newman said of some of the films."But the truth is, there are plenty of wonderful, high-quality films, especially in the area of the arts. And there are great films about such things as tribes in Africa."

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