Interview with Fred Shay: Movie archivist and historian

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Fred Shay with some of his equipment and restored archives.

The people who made the movies you love to collect get a lot of attention in books and articles. You can find information on just about anyone who ever worked in motion pictures. The process in getting those movies to you on DVD takes the expertise of a lot of people you never hear anything about, even though their work involves finding, restoring, and converting the films. With so many films destined for oblivion, their efforts ensure some rare films will be saved for collectors to enjoy and appreciate. You won’t find anyone who knows the elaborate steps in this process better than Fred Shay. Some classic serials might not exist today if he hadn’t cared enough to make saving them his mission.

Shay has tracked down some of the rarest serials, as well as television shows, released in recent years by VCI Entertainment and other companies. Shay also puts in long hours as the curator of the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame Museum at the InfoAge Science Center at Camp Evans in Wall, N.J. He oversees a collection that includes more than 45,000 radio shows and many other artifacts from radio’s golden age.

Shay has always been a man of many interests, so his nostalgia and appreciation for the past inevitably led to an interest in finding and collecting films not found on the collector market. He became an archivist and historian.

Journalist Paul Holbrook recently interviewed Shay. Here is what he had to say about his work – his labor of love.

Holbrook: How did you get into this?

Shay:
I got started doing this work in 1979. DC Comics contacted me to transfer some old radio shows from disks to tape. The Christopher Reeve movie version of Superman was popular then and they were going to celebrate Superman through some reprints and stuff. That started me with a lot of collecting and swapping. I found out when swapping that there was so much terrible quality out there. I decided to contact Jim Schonberger in Chicago, who allowed me to rent about 150 films. I transferred them to DVD with a new updated telecine and the picture was excellent. I dug some films out of the Library of Congress and found some through other sources. I’ve done a lot of things though VCI – Terry and the Pirates, The Phantom, Mandrake, Jack Armstrong, I could go on and on, I don’t know how many others I’ve done.

Holbrook: Where do you get the rarest serials these days?

Shay:
I made the deal for The Phantom and Mandrake with King Features. I had to get permission from Columbia to go into the Library of Congress and get Terry and the Pirates, Jack Armstrong, Captain Midnight, and Brenda Starr, which will hopefully be coming out in 2008.

Holbrook:
How hard is it to get access to material in the Library of Congress?

Shay:
It’s nearly impossible now. They used to be pretty reasonable about permission to access their prints. Now they seldom let any prints out, and they charge an exorbitant price for a copy if you do get a permission. I wanted to get a better copy of Captain Midnight and when we asked them about their fees, they said $45,000.

Holbrook: Are there any particular films or serials that you’re most proud of having rescued?

Shay: There have been so many, it’s hard to say. One of the most recent ones is that Brenda Starr serial. When I found it in the Library of Congress, the nitrates were really just about ready to start to ooze. It cost $1,000 to ship it to New Jersey in a refrigerated truck for restoration.

Holbrook:
Have any of your films turned up out of nowhere? Like attics or places nobody would expect them to be?

Shay:
No, they are all from collectors, who sometimes amaze you with the rare things they have in their collections. People send features from all over the country and I transfer them to tape and send the film back, so we both have copies.

Most of the B-movies I have you’ll never see on television. Stations like Turner Classic Movies show the same movies over and over and over but never delve deeper into all the B-movies in the archives. It’s the same with old television series. Those that exist on kinescope aren’t considered worth screening. But so much of it is truly great.

Holbrook:
Are there any films out there that you know exist and you’re eager to get your hands on?

Shay:
I’d like to talk Columbia into giving us something on the serials Bruce Gentry and Brick Bradford. I’ve seen dupes which are not very good and if I’m lucky before I die, I’ll get into Universal and get the 12 of their first 14 serials which nobody has seen since their original releases.

Holbrook:
What all do you usually do to a film to restore it? Do you go in frame by frame?

Shay:
I clean the film and keep it moist all the way through the machine. I have the very latest telecine which gives 451 lines of resolution. I’m working with someone now who is doing frame by frame restoration on many of my serials.

Holbrook:
So how much time elapses between starting the job of saving and transferring a film to your finishing the job?

Shay:
Within a week, I think, at the most.

Holbrook:
What about kinescopes? Ever worked with them much?

Shay:
Oh, all the time. When Kate Smith died, she donated all her old shows to Boston University, and her people brought them to me so I could transfer them to DVD. I’ve got every existing episode of her show.

Holbrook:
Is it easy to work with old tape? Or would you prefer to stick with film, if you had your choice?

Shay: Oh, you definitely want to go with film.

Holbrook:
What about the other films you have restored but haven’t yet made any plans to release?

Shay: Well, the problem is the rights issue. A lot of these things I get from these people are still copyrighted. The only thing I’m trying to do is preserve them. I’ll eventually donate them to the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

For further information, visit www.infoage.org or call 732-280-3000.

More Images:

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A still from one of the Jungle Jim adventure movies.
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A still from the Drums of Fu Manchu.
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Roy Rogers and Trigger.

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