There are film buffs, and there Film Buffs. Falling squarely in the latter category, Eric Grayson, an Indianapolis-based film collector, historian, and preservationist, teaches film history, offers screenings of rare films (some of which he has found and preserved), and is, on occasion, called upon by major national institutions to offer his skills and vast knowledge of rare footage and film stars sometimes long forgotten.
It all started innocently enough. “As a kid, I used to stay up late and watch the Sammy Terry movies. I was just obsessed with the movies. Then we got a VCR and I started taping them, and then got a 60 mm projector, and then got into 15 and 35 mm projections,” Grayson recalls. “It’s really a mental disorder.”
If that’s the case, Grayson has been able to find hundreds of others who are just as crazy about old movies. He collects old films from a variety of sources, including dumpsters, buying from libraries that are closing, and getting them from other collectors. He lovingly restores them, makes copies, and distributes them to be shown around the world in a worldwide network of historic movie palaces. “I’m very picky about who gets to run my films, though.”
Grayson brings his love of old films to Garfield Park on Vintage Movie Nights. This summer’s theme has been science fiction — the next screening will be of 1950 science-fiction film, Rocketship X-M, at Garfield Park Arts Center on July 12, at 8 p.m. For the admission price of $5, audiences get a color cartoon, and a chance to hear Grayson talk about his passion for film.
Grayson’s Vintage Movie Nights are an opportunity for him to show movies overlooked by others. “I don’t show the standards, like Casablanca and that kind of thing. I love finding new films. That’s so exciting to me. Even if they’re not very good movies, I still love it. There are movies that might not have been seen in 80 years and they’re up there again.” He said that when he ran the Marx Brothers films last year, he showed a few that hadn’t been seen in a long time. “I had people come up to me later who were Marx Brothers fans who had never seen some of these films. It was all new material for them.”
“I do this to rekindle a passion for film that’s been lost,” he notes. Online streaming of movies and television showings of a limited number of movies have lead people away from the shared community experience of going to the movies.
For the past several years, he has served as a consultant to the Library of Congress. Grayson consulted with that institution on its restoration of the 1951 Edgar Ulmer film, The Man from Planet X. “The Library of Congress had the original negative,” Grayson said. “It was messed up. It had been shot on a tight budget and was made up of different film stocks, whatever odds and ends of stock the director could get.” He added, “These film stocks were reacting with each other. It made the making of a new print nightmarish. They wanted to know what an older print looked like so they could refer to that to see how it used to look before the film began eating itself. I provided that.”
Grayson is currently working on the partial restoration of the movie serial King of the Kongo (1929). The grant is from the National Film Preservation Foundation, through Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc. Learn more by visiting www.filmpreservation.org/about/PR-2014-06-24.
It is painstaking work to restore badly damaged films, and it is sometimes hard to explain to people why he would spend hours working on a movie that wasn’t very good in the first place. “I get asked ‘Why bother with that?’ sometimes. But we have to go back to that whole ‘mental disorder’ thing. I’m just a sucker for old films.”
Grayson also has a great appreciation for current filmmaking. “I’m not against digital films at all,” he stresses. “But my mission is to keep this kind of film alive, and develop an appreciation for it.” He is a projectionist at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. “I am an electrical engineer, and have a background in film, so that works out.”
He also gets work transferring film footage. “I worked on the new documentary about Bobby Leonard for WFYI, transferring old home movies.” The documentary, Bobby “Slick Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier, will premiere at Bankers Life Fieldhouse July 29 at 6:30 p.m. (tickets available online at the Web site www.wfyi.org).
“I love the old movie processes. There’s nothing like the older films shown on the screen. Blu-Ray doesn’t look like that, give you those deep colors. It’s really beautiful. That’s why I put a lot of work into this.”