‘Over the last four decades, I’ve collected 5,000 films.’
John Carpenter, Massapequa Park
“I am known as ‘The Movie Man.’ I earned that name while growing up in Jamaica, Queens. In those days, you could buy 10-minute Super 8 versions of classics like ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Dracula’ and Gary Cooper’s ‘High Noon.’ I used to go into the city with my dad to a Manhattan camera store that had a full floor of these movies you could show in your home. I invited kids in the neighborhood to Saturday showings – advertising my events by putting signs up on telephone poles – and we’d all watch together in my house with the living room wall as the movie screen. I discovered that these supposedly ‘old’ movies still retained their original magic.
“They drew people in like they did during the early days of cinema. I became the most popular kid in the neighborhood, almost like a magician able to create movie magic for my neighbors. When I was in high school, I was introduced by a friend to a fellow who worked for David Letterman’s TV show. He had a house-load of 16 mm films, and he lent me one of these films to watch. It was as sharp and as clear as in a movie theater. The genres that I could collect in 16 mm were a lot wider than in Super 8. I was able to get films from the 1910s, including Charlie Chaplin’s first film, ‘Making a Living,’ in 1914 while he was not yet the tramp character, and, of course, the 1920s, ’30s and into the ’40s. At the time, many New York TV stations were getting rid of their film prints, throwing them into dumpsters, and collectors were salvaging them and selling them in a newspaper called The Big Reel.
“All over America, people were advertising prints for sale of feature films for $150, and $50 for a two-reeler. Over the last four decades, I’ve collected 5,000 films, including trailers, shorts, features from the silent era to the golden age of Hollywood. And I’m still collecting. Although chronologically old, they are often brand new to the audiences at the classic film programs I offer at public libraries in Amityville and Levittown. I learned as far back as childhood that those old motion pictures are a unification tool. Where else can you go into a pitch-black room with total strangers, sit right beside them and share emotions like one big film-fan family?”
I had to learn how to walk and talk again.
“A car accident in 1997 permanently injured both of my legs. But I chose not to be submerged in self-pity. And I became more successful than I was prior to my accident. At the time I was a professional actor, with leading roles in Off-Broadway musicals. I had also written, produced, directed and starred in ‘Late to Lunch,’ a recreation of the silent comedy genre and homage to my silent comedy hero, Charley Chase. This was 10 years before ‘The Artist,’ the first modern-day silent film, which won the Oscar for best picture of 2011.
“My own film was all shot and waiting to be edited when, one day, I was coming home from Manhattan to visit my parents in Massapequa Park. Walking from the station, I had been waved to cross the street by a car stopping at a yellow light, but as I stepped off the curb, the car behind it zoomed around and hit me. My head smashed through the windshield. My left leg was almost in need of amputation. I was in a coma in the hospital for three months. I had to learn how to walk and talk again. I also had to find something to keep me busy. I recovered at my parents’ house, and my editing room was in their basement, so I went downstairs every day, step by step on my bottom, to edit my film into the equivalent of a 47-minute four-reeler. It was shown in the Long Island International Film Expo. It was promoted by film historian Joe Franklin on his WOR radio show. And you can see excerpts of it on YouTube as part of a 17-minute documentary I made about my life, ‘Smelling Like a Rose.’
“Lately, I’ve been going deeper into the history of home film collecting. I collect 16 mm films originally sold by Blackhawk, a company that beginning in the 1950s released, for home consumption, complete two-reelers as originally seen in theaters. I still collect Castle films, which are 10-minute versions of newsreels and old theatrical films for viewing on home movie projectors. They are relics of the first years of film collecting, which goes back to the 1930s. It’s fascinating that these companies found that these silent films were still loved. And they are bringing me back to what interested me in film preservation in the first place.”
Interviewed by Jim Merritt