Wednesday, May 29, 2013

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The photos you see above are part of a remarkable project that is very much like Permanent Record. In fact, it's so PermaRec-ish that I can't believe I hadn't heard about it until just now.

Here's the deal: Two years ago a photographer named Jeff Phillips found a bunch of old slides in a Missouri antiques shop. He was intrigued by the images, so he bought the entire stash — over 1,000 slides — for $60.

The slides, including the three shown above, chronicled the life and travels of a couple. A few of the slides were inscribed with names: Harry and Edna.

Phillips decided he had to find out who Harry and Edna were, and what had become of them. So he started a Facebook page called "Is This Your Mother?," where he began posting some of the slides. Within three weeks, some of his more genealogy-minded followers, using clues provided in some of the photos, had solved the puzzle, and Phillips soon found himself in contact with Harry and Edna's descendants. (Harry and Edna themselves had passed away in the 1980s.) The descendants initially thought it was a bit odd that a stranger was so interested in their family, but they soon warmed to Phillips and his project, which filled in many gaps in their family history.

There's so much about this that feels familiar to me — the need to find the story behind the artifacts, the generosity of volunteer researchers who helped put the pieces together, the connection with the family members connected to the artifacts. It's exactly what happened to me with the Manhattan Trade School report cards.

Kudos to Phillips and his readers for producing such a satisfying project. You can read more about it in this article and on Phillips's website.

In addition, 30 of the slides are being featured in an exhibit at the Foundry Art Centre in Saint Charles, Missouri. The show opened two weeks ago and will be up through June 21.

(My thanks to reader James Poisso for tipping me wise to this one.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

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The photo at top is an old hatbox filled with about 250 letters from the 1940s. Below that is a photo of one of the letters and a snapshot that was tucked inside of it.

The hatbox was purchased in 1998 at an estate sale by an Oklahoma woman named Pamela Gilliland, who paid $1 for it. She didn't realize the letters were inside until a few days later. They were all from a pair of brothers who served in World War II and were writing home to their parents. After one perfunctory attempt to locate the family went nowhere, Gilliland put the hatbox and the letters in a closet, where they've sat for the past 15 years.

Gilliland recently learned about a Tulsa-based amateur historian named Doug Eaton, who's had some experience connecting military artifacts with their original owners. She contacted him, and he's now agreed to help her. Here's a shot of him with some of the letters (click to enlarge):


This seems like a good basis for a book, no? Read more about it in this article from the Tulsa World.

(My thanks to reader James Poisso for bringing this one to my attention.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

nicework.jpg "Nice Work If You Can Get It"

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Photos by Ted Barron; click photos to enlarge; click song titles to listen

My friend Ted Barron, who runs the excellent music website Boogie Woogie Flu, recently purchased a 78-rpm Billie Holliday record from 1937. As you can see in the photos above, both sides of the record's sleeve were inscribed with the word "Cole."

Tucked inside the sleeve was a postcard. Postmarked in Jersey City, N.J., on Feb. 21, 1953, it was addressed to one Max Cole at "Station W.O.V." in New York (click to enlarge):

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The text of the postcard reads as follows:

Hi, Max,

A bunch of the fellows and myself catch your show from 6:30 to 6:55 every morning on the way to work. Our only regret is that we can't hear your whole show. If you have a chance, we would appreciate a Sinatra record during the time mentioned above. The boys from Continental Can in Paterson would really enjoy this.

Thank you,

Al Russo
Tom Napp
Tony LaManna

Wow, that postcard offers so many potential avenues of investigation! One at a time:

Max Cole — the postcard's addressee, and whose surname is written on the record sleeve — was a giant of New York City radio, where he worked for 60 continuous years. Prior to that he was an actor, although that chapter of his career was interrupted by his military service in World War II. (You can get further details in this fascinating obituary.) Cole's first radio job after the war was at the New York station WOV — the station to which the postcard was addressed. Which leads us to...

WOV was a New York radio station with a long and complicated history. It was at 1130 on the AM dial from 1928 through 1941, at which point it moved to 1280. (In 1959, the station was sold and its call letters changed to WADO, which still operates at the 1280 frequency today.) Max Cole worked there from 1946 through 1955. During that period, the station's studios were located at 132 W. 43rd St. — the heart of Times Square — which explains why the postcard was processed by the Times Square Station post office:


Continental Can Company, where the men who sent the postcard worked, was one of America's two primary can manufacturing companies in the 20th century. (The other was the American Can Company.) By 1954, one year after the postcard was sent, Continental Can had 81 plants spread out across the country, including the one in Paterson, N.J., where the postcard guys worked. Here are two of the company's ads from the 1950s (click the lower one to enlarge):

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Although the postcard guys worked at the plant in Paterson, the postcard itself was mailed from Jersey City, so at least one of the three men who sent it presumably lived there. Interestingly, Google Maps shows that the drive from Jersey City to Paterson takes 27 minutes. That matches up perfectly with the postcard's reference to the employees listening to Max Cole's radio show "from 6:30 to 6:55 every morning on the way to work."

In 1959, six years after the postcard was sent, the Paterson plant laid off 200 workers due to a steel strike:


Were the postcard guys still working for Continental in 1959? If so, did they get caught in the wave of layoffs?

Changes in the packaging industry eventually led to Continental Can's demise (you can read more about that, and the rest of the company's history, here), although I'm not sure exactly when the Paterson plant closed. The building is listed as a notable sale on the home page of a New Jersey realty company. Details of the sale, which took place in the fall of 2011, are as follows:

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Al Russo, Tom Napp, and Tony LaManna are the three Continental Can employees who sent the postcard. If we assume that they were at least 25 years old when the postcard was mailed in 1953 (and possibly quite a bit older than that), they would now be at least 85 years old. In other words, there's a strong chance that they're now deceased, so I went looking for obituaries. I found this obit for an Alan Russo, who lived in the right place and was about the right age, although there's no mention of whether he worked for Continental Can. I also found a death notice for an Anthony LaManna, again without corroborating details. I was unable to find anything regarding Tom Napp. (There were several death notices for people named Tom Knapp, but they weren't the right age.)

Frank Sinatra — well, you know who he was. It makes sense that the Continental Can guys would have requested one of his songs, since Sinatra was born in nearby Hoboken. I really like that the postcard refers to him simply as "Sinatra" but that someone — presumably Max Cole — wrote in Sinatra's first initial, just for clarification (click to enlarge):


"The Song Is You" is a song title written in the lower-left corner of the postcard, and is apparently the Sinatra song that Max Cole chose to play for the Continental Can employees. The tune, which was written in the early 1930s by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, was a favorite of Sinatra's. He recorded it eight times during his career, beginning with a 1942 session for the Bluebird label. That's probably the version Cole played. This one goes out to the boys at Continental Can:

Several of Sinatra's subsequent versions of the tune are available here.

Interestingly, it appears that "The Song Is You" was not Cole's first choice of what to play for the Continental Can employees. If you look closely at the lower-left corner of the postcard, you can see that another song title was written and then erased before "The Song Is You" was written (click to enlarge):

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The first song title is tantalizingly close to being legible, but I can't quite make it out. Can anyone else decipher it?


One Additional note: Although the postcard was postmarked in Jersey City on Feb. 21, it was processed by the Times Square Station on Feb. 22 (click to enlarge):

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This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Feb. 22 was a Sunday in 1953. More notably, Feb. 22 is Washington's birthday, which was still a Federal holiday back then. (The default Monday for Presidents Day didn't come into use until 1971.) So the Times Square Station post office was apparently one of those rare branches that are always open, or at least always processing, even on holidays.

I'm more attuned to Feb. 22 than most folks because my parents got married on that date in 1948. The idea was that their anniversary would always be a holiday. Unfortunately, Presidents Day put an end to that.


So that's a pretty detailed breakdown of the info on the postcard. But there are still some unanswered questions. For starters, it's odd that the postcard ended up tucked inside a Billie Holiday 78, instead of in a copy of "The Song Is You." More importantly, what happened to Messrs. Cole, Napp, and LaManna? Would anyone like to delve a bit deeper into that research? It would be amazing to reconnect this postcard with the descendants of the guys who sent it.

(Special thanks to Ron Underberg for research assistance on Continental Can.)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

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The photos shown above are of an old film canister that reader Tim Smith recently acquired. The canister has sent him down an interesting rabbit hole, which I'll let him describe in his own words:

Last weekend I was in an antiques store in Oceanside, California and came across an old film reel canister. It had a label on the front that said, "Surfer Girls" and "Fireball & Brushes." I thought it would make a fun knickknack on the bookshelf. When I got it home and opened it up, I found six small film reels inside:

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I'm not sure what these are. All the labels say "Fireball" and "Brushes for fireball," so my guess is that these are for a fireball explosion in a movie.

I was intrigued, so I started investigating. Here's the short version of what I found: Back in the late ’70s these two guys Al Silliman Jr. and Chris Condon produced a few movies together -- mostly low-budget grindhouse fare. One film, The Stewardesses, actually did make some money (and is still available on DVD, in a 40th-anniversary edition). The duo also produced, wrote, and directed a tank of a movie called The Surfer Girls -- the same name that's on the canister. Here's a poster for it that I found on the web [click to enlarge]:

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What's interesting about this movie is that Al and Chris started a company called Stereovision, which showcased their newly invented 3-D movie-making process. According to IMDB, The Surfer Girls originally came out in 3-D in 1978 and was then retitled Kahuna! in 1981. In 1982 it was retitled once again, as The Senior Snatch, and resissued "flat" (i.e., not in 3-D). I'm guessing this is one bad movie but perhaps a decent story for cocktail parties.

At this point I remembered that the antiques store had another film reel with "Stereovision" written on it. Eureka! I suspected that this might be The Surfer Girls itself (or one of its retitled iterations), so I went back the following morning and bought the reel:

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It's a 9-3/4" standard reel, which holds about 1,000 feet of film -- that's 12 to 15 minutes of running time. Most movies at the time were comprised of eight to ten of these reels and sent to theatres in cases of two reels each. Reels that were intended for theatre use had a bunch of markings on them so the projectionist knew when it was time to cue up the next reel. In this case, I have reel No. 7:

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Since I don't have the first reel with the opening credits (or a 35mm proector, for that matter), it's impossible to know which movie this is from. But I'm thinking it's probably from The Surfer Girls. And it's almost certainly from one of Al Silliman Jr. and Chris Condon's 3-D movies, because each frame has a double image:

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Meanwhile, some additional research reveals that Al Silliman Jr. is actually Allan Silliphant, who went on to create Anachrome -- another company specializing in 3-D technology. He is still around and lives near me in Southern California. I sent him an email telling him what I found and asked if he'd be interested in a little email correspondence for some backstory. No reply so far. (Silliman/Silliphant's partner, Chris Condon, passed away in 2010. After their moviemaking adventures, they founded Sierra Pacific Airlines. Now there are two guys I would like to have had a beer with!)

I'm toying with the idea of trying to either obtain or rent a projector so I can play the reel, or perhaps find a company that can convert it to digital. I'm also wondering what happened to the other reels. An awesome finale would be to have a screening with Allan in attendance, but that is probably a pipe dream. I'm still hoping to hear back from him, but I don't want to be pest or cross over into stalking territory.

I know very little about filmmaking. If any of your readers know more about this and can help fill in any of the gaps, I'd love to hear from them. They can contact me at this address.


Fascinating stuff, right? Big thanks to Tim for sharing the story of his find. If you know more about all this, feel free to contact Tim at the link shown above, and/or post info in the comments. Thanks.

Friday, May 3, 2013

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The photos shown above, as well as the others interspersed throughout the text of this entry, are all part of a remarkable project that's been unfolding in southwestern Missouri. As you can see, most of these photos have been damaged, some of them severely. That's because they were all whisked away in the devastating tornado that hit the town of Joplin in May of 2011. A project called the Lost Photos of Joplin, organized by a church in the neighboring town of Carthage, has been collecting them, archiving them, and attempting to return them to their owners.

The photos -- more than 35,000 of them -- were found in four different states. Some of them ended up in Paducah, Kentucky, more than 350 miles away. Some are professional portraits; others are amateurish snapshots; many were wet and dirty when they were found. But all have been treated like the precious family artifacts they are. As of mid-April, 15,563 of them had been claimed.

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The Lost Photos project has cleaned and scanned all of the photos and uploaded them to Flickr and also to the project's own website, where Joplin residents (or, um, journalists who happen to be interested in found objects) can view them. If Joplin residents see photos on the site that belong to them, they can fill out an online form to claim them. The project also periodically holds "claim days," during which Joplin residents can come and search through binders of photos.

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It's a pretty inspiring story -- so inspiring that a short documentary film about it, called Photos in the Wind, is being made. Here's the trailer:

You can learn more about the film here. Meanwhile, you can also follow the Lost Photos project on Facebook.

(My thanks to reader Jeff Whitener for bringing this one to my attention.)