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Librarian Kent Moore hopes that a new film series will be enough to save his collection of 16 mm movies.
In a wing of empty rooms just behind the newly renovated audio-visual department of Hyattsville, Md.’s, Prince Georges County Memorial Library, Kent Moore stands at the door to a narrow, windowless cell a little larger than the size of a walk-in closet. The drab green hideaway was once one of Moore’s favorite places in the library. “This was my projection room,” he says wistfully as he shuffles into the long-deserted space. “I’ve spent many days watching movies. I would watch each one before deciding whether to purchase it or not…so then I could say I had seen every film I purchased.”
The 66-year-old Moore, whose 6-feet-and-then-some frame is softened by his oversized glasses, thinning gray hair, and the quiet passion that illuminates him when he talks about the films he loves, has headed the library’s AV department since 1966. Over the years, he has built its collection of 16 mm films from about 300 to almost 3,000.
When the American Film Institute published its list of 100 greatest American movies in 1998, Moore had seen all 100. He also had all of them in the library’s collection. And of AFI’s original list of 400 nominees, Moore had seen 399. “The one that I had not seen had supposedly disappeared,” he says, “but then it reappeared and had been discovered in a basement in Seattle. It was Richard III, the 1912 version. So they released it on DVD and I immediately bought a copy and brought it in”—here he pauses, shakes his head, folds his arms, and stares into the empty projection room—”but nobody was interested but me.”
Although most other area libraries purged their 16 mm collections long ago, selling them off or even tossing them in the trash, Moore continued to expand the P.G. County Library catalog up until 1992. In the ’70s, during the heyday of 16 mm, Moore lent out 5,000 films in one month. But in these days of VHS and DVD, he now lends only 20 to 30 16 mm titles a month, mostly to college professors screening films for their classes. Still, he has vowed to hold on to what he’s got, even as fewer and fewer patrons use his collection. Part of the problem, Moore believes, is simply that no one knows what his library has.
In an effort to change that, last month Paul Sanchez, operator of the P&G Old Greenbelt Theatre, and Jeff Krulik, a Washington filmmaker and longtime P.G. County Library AV department customer, kicked off a free monthly film series aimed at getting some of the library’s movies out of the mothballs and back onto the big screen. “We’re so geared now to looking at the television,” says Moore. “But if you go somewhere like the Greenbelt Theatre, where they have that large screen, it’s just different. If you look at something like Gone With the Wind, The Hustler, The Seven Samurai, it’s just so much better than looking at it on a 21-inch TV.
“We used to sit through four showings of Roy Rogers,” he adds nostalgically. “I don’t know, maybe that sounds boring, but we thought it was fun. It used to be so great: My mother would give me a quarter and you’d pay 12 cents for the movie and you would see a Western, a movie serial, a newsreel, a short, a comedy—all for 12 cents. Then you had 10 cents for popcorn…plus two cents for a Mary Jane….And then you’d come home with a penny.”
Moore notes that he grew up near four movie theaters and prides himself on having gained his cinematic knowledge from logging time in them, not the classroom. “I never went to UCLA or any place like that to study film,” he says. “Probably, if I ever got in a discussion with a producer or someone who knew film like that, I would be out of my element. But what I have done is I have looked at a lot of films. And I just try to look at all the films I can.”
Like most librarians working in the ’60s, Moore got his start in books. The Charlottesville, Va., native took his first job at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, where he worked for two years before he got an itch to move up. Because the chances of a higher-level position opening up at Pratt looked slim, Moore took his supervisor’s advice and applied for the AV job at the P.G. County Library. When he took over, the library was part of a consortium that shared 16 mm films with other libraries in the state. But before long, several of the libraries in other counties opted to drop their 16 mm programs.
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So Moore began beefing up his own library’s collection: Kurosawa and Bunuel, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Planet of the Apes and A Hard Day’s Night. These greats are all there when Moore unlocks the door to the cold-storage room that houses some of the collection’s most prized possessions. He walks up and down the aisles of stacked shelves as if he were tending a nursery, leaning in to read the names on the sides of the red, yellow, and blue cases and giving a few special ones a gentle pat. “A real movie person would really love this room,” he says. “Any time I bring any film geeks in here, I almost have to hose them down.”
Moore points out Pantomimes, a seldom-seen 1954 Marcel Marceau short, and The Black Pirate, a 1926 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler that is so rare Moore sent away to South America to get it. “I was having a hard time finding it, so I purchased it from Buenos Aires,” he says matter-of-factly. “I saw an ad in one of the movie magazines and I gave it a shot and I thought, I hope this guy is reputable.” Luckily, he was. The only catch was that the film arrived wound around a spool rather than on a reel, so Moore had to embark on the time-consuming task of putting it onto a reel himself.
Over the years, Moore’s willingness to take chances has paid off. After all, that’s how he ended up with the oldest 16 mm copy of Roots in the country. “A friend of mine, who was a salesman at the time, 25 years ago, called me and said, ‘I’ve got this great movie for you!’ And I said, ‘OK, how many times have I heard that?’” Moore remembers with a laugh. “And she said, ‘It’s going to be on TV and it’s going to be a great movie.’ And I said, ‘How much is it?’ And she said ‘$7,000.’ And I said, ‘Jeez, I’ve never purchased any movie for $7,000—if that thing’s a bomb I’m going to be in big trouble!’ But she said, ‘I’ll guarantee you.’ So we bought Roots, and the day after it started to be shown on TV we started getting these calls: ‘Are you going to get Roots?’ And I said, ‘We already have it.’”
This is also the way the library amassed a sizable collection of films by controversial Boston documentarian Frederick Wiseman. “His were expensive,” Moore recalls, “but I used to get a lot of use out of his material because so many people were interested in documentaries and in what he had to say. He had a film that was banned all over the country, and we got it before it was banned. It was called Titicut Follies, about the Bridgewater, [Mass.], mental institution. And after they had banned it, everybody was saying, ‘You can’t show this,’ so [the distributor] withdrew it. But by then I had already purchased a copy, and they called me and said, ‘We want to make sure you only show this to people who are studying psychiatry’ and this and that kind of thing and I said, ‘Hey, come on now, a person comes in and wants to borrow something and I’m going to follow them home?’”
Sanchez and Krulik were so anxious to get their hands on these and other 16 mms in Moore’s collection that once they came up with the idea for their monthly series, they scheduled the first installment with only a couple of days’ notice and virtually no publicity. Nonetheless, they ended up drawing a crowd of about 35 to see Harold Lloyd’s silent Safety Last at the Greenbelt Theatre on the first Saturday of February.
“We only had two days to tell anyone, but we still ended up getting a real cross-section of the population,” says Sanchez, whose
single-screen art-deco-era movie house is one of the few theaters in the country that still maintains a 16 mm projector. “It’s like taking a trip back in time,” he says. “We’re hidden in the original part of Greenbelt that was Eleanor Roosevelt’s pet project, and it hasn’t changed very much since then.”
Sanchez believes that his old theater and Moore’s old movies are a perfect match, but it was Krulik, who met Sanchez while working on a documentary about the area’s historic movie houses, who introduced the two. Krulik had gotten to know Moore during his undergraduate days at the University of Maryland in the ’80s, when he would comb through the P.G. County Library’s collection for things to screen for the campus film society—and get into long discussions of old movies with Moore. The three now collaborate on selecting films for the new series, and, just like in the old days, show a cartoon, a short, a newsreel, and a feature at each screening.
“I want to have a Kent Moore Day,” Krulik says. “I’m hoping he’ll be able to come in and introduce some of the films and talk about them—because I know he’s got some that he’s really proud of.”
For his part, Moore still worries that his love for 16 mm isn’t shared by enough people besides Sanchez and Krulik. After all, even the Pratt Library, which, aside from being the place where Moore got his start, also happens to have a large 16 mm catalog, was recently forced to pare down. The reason is simple: Because of renovations, the library just doesn’t have the space to store 3,500 seldom-circulating movies anymore.
According to Marc Sober, former head of the Pratt’s AV department, the library is tossing its outdated educational films first. But he’s concerned that the features might be next—and that some cinematic treasures might be lost forever. “There are some films that we may have the only copy of,” he says, citing The Rite of Love and Death, a 1965 film starring Japanese writer and martial-arts master Yukio Mishima in which Mishima stages a fight that includes his own beheading. “When Francis Ford Coppola’s company was making the film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, they tracked our print down. They said ours was the only one they could find, and we sent it out there for them to look at it.”
For the past year, Funk’s Book Cafe in Baltimore has drawn attention to the Pratt’s film collection by showing some of its movies in a free weekly series similar to the Greenbelt Theatre’s, but Sober is still pessimistic. “We just can’t seem to get people to come down here,” he says. “I think we’re OK for a while, but our collection will get much smaller.”
It’s a feeling that Moore can’t help but share. “For all intents and purposes, they do take up a lot of space,” he says of his own movies, “and we really don’t know what to do with them. I mean, what do you do with them? Do you just throw them away? I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who would want to buy them, but that gets tricky,” he says with a sigh.
“I guess I would just take them all.” CP