Like many film collectors, I started the hobby when I was still in school (5th grade), with my first projector being a battery-operated model that I’d spotted in the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog. Capable of showing both Super 8 and Regular 8, that little two-tone grey toy with the removable cover that doubled as a screen never let me down, even after endless hours of use. It may have only handled a 50' reel, but to me it was the doorway to another dimension in those pre-cable/pre-video/pre-Internet days. Yet whenever I saw that ad for the "Thunderbird" projector in the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, a machine that could show an entire 200’ film, I could only imagine watching such an amazing amount of movie on a single reel. As a kid, with my film funds limited to allowance and lawn-mowing money, that $29.95 price tag on the Thunderbird seemed like a king's ransom in the mid-Seventies. While I still loved my little plastic projector, the first signs of "50' Frustration" were beginning to appear.
Adding to the agony of only being able to run a 50' film was the fact that many newer releases, such as PLANET OF THE APES (an Easter gift from my Mom), were available exclusively as 200' digests, as were some of the classic creature features, such as 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN and 1941’s THE WOLF MAN, or some of the Ray Harryhausen digests from Columbia. Fortunately, I discovered that my toy projector could be made to handle a 200' reel...sort of. If I took off the plastic cover over the projection lamp (actually a small bulb like you would find in a bicycle headlight), I could just barely fit a 200' reel of film onto the machine. Unfortunately, there was no room to also attach a 200' take-up reel once this had been done. Steadfast (or stubborn) film fan that I am, I rigged a 200' take-up reel on a rod from an Erector set, and hand-cranked the film onto the reel as it came out of the projector (ignoring the strained whines of the little battery-operated motor as it struggled with the weight of the larger reel.)
This makeshift approach to projection went on for the next few years until, on another Christmas Eve, I received a real projector—an Airequipt 2100 Z Dual 8 projector with zoom lens, 400' capacity and no batteries required! The zoom lens meant bigger, brighter and sharper images. (Although with this came the gradual realization that, unlike with my toy projector, replacement bulbs would no longer cost a quarter!) I would actually be able to sit back, relax and watch my 200’ prints of PLANET OF THE APES and the Little Rascals in SPOOKY HOOKY without the risk of spraining my wrist as I cranked the take-up reel.
In the wake of this latest piece of "hardware" came a shift in focus with the "software" of my collection. Nearly every film purchase from that point on was a 200' digest or short subject, with an occasional 400' extravaganza (a major cause for celebration). As the larger reel capacity became increasingly common, those sad little 50' reels that had once been the core of my collection started to become more and more neglected, with the observation being made that they took almost as long to thread through the projector as they did to watch. In the late Seventies, as sound digests gained in both length and popularity, it seemed as if the 50' format had become a thing of the past; a bastard child that few collectors continued to acknowledge. Even the companies releasing 8mm and Super 8 began to abandon them, although Castle Films/Universal 8 gave certain 50’ titles new life with an unusual approach: Realizing the classic monster movies and Abbott & Costello comedies had long been the cornerstone of their company, they grouped a number of the 50’ digests from those franchises into silent 400’ volumes. There were two horror compilations and at least one Abbott & Costello collection.
With the arrival of home video came numerous changes in the home movie market...with many companies going out of business. Blackhawk's catalog began listing huge close-out sales on Super 8 Disney and Columbia product to make room for VHS releases, while department stores and camera shops slashed prices to clear out their racks. I was able to grab up 200' reels at almost 50' prices, and 400' reels at 200' prices. This sudden surge in my collection saw the old movie screen getting the most use it had in years. I even took advantage of the mark downs to pick up a Chinon Whisper Dual 8 projector, as the old Airequipt was showing signs of wear and tear after all the miles of film ran through it over the years. Meanwhile, Super 8 Kodachrome and Ektrachrome film stock and prepaid processing mailers from Kodak were starting to appear in the bargain bins of some stores (which came in handy during a trip to the Bahamas over spring break). But eventually my Super 8 spending spree slowed down again. Actually, it came to a grinding halt.
Except for a couple of girlfriends who expressed interest in experiencing "sofa cinema," the projector spent most of the Eighties in the closet. Then, almost a decade later, without warning I found myself in the midst of a "Reel Renaissance." I took a job as an audio-visual consultant at a public library, working with both film (16mm) and video equipment. Around that same time, a friend and fellow collector from my high school days decided his projector's only function would be to show his family’s home movies about once a year, and that if he wanted to see a "real" movie he would run down to the local Video Towne or Blockbuster store. Knowing I sometimes still indulged in 8mm matinees, he offered me his collection of Blackhawk, Castle, Columbia and Ken Films digests.
Soon after this, I discovered a place in Ohio called Trader's World, where just about every kind of new and used item imaginable could be found in the dozens of dealers’ booths that filled the facility...including some very familiar square cartons of cartoons and other "reel" treats. Holding that battered box from Blackhawk in my hands on the threshold of my 30th birthday brought back the same excitement that, at age 13, I had felt the first time I saw a rack of Castle Films at K-Mart. My sense of nostalgia just got jump-started as Super 8 sentiment set in, especially as visits to Trader’s World unearthed films I’d long heard about, read about, dreamed about, but had never been able to track down. I was now able to get, and combine, double digests taken from the same film, such as DOOM OF DRACULA/HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; TRIAL OF FRANKENSTEIN/FRANKENSTEIN’S NEW BRAIN; HOUSE OF DRACULA/THE WOLF MAN’S CURE, and; BATTLE OF THE GIANTS/ONE MILLION B.C.
Once again I began adding "new" titles to the celluloid library, and found myself going back and watching those very first films I ever owned. It was like visiting old friends, but it still seemed as if those tiny 50' reels were more labor-intensive than their running time was worth. Not willing to part with my little 8mm amigos, I began to think about how to make them more user-friendly. Maybe these could become “selected short subjects,” so if a 50’ reel had a theme similar to that of a 200' or 400' title, it could be used as an opening act by simply splicing it onto the longer film. But that only took care of a few of the reels. If I could have found some of those dayset reels of footage that announced "Coming Soon" or “Our Next Attraction,” I might have been able to use some of the 50' reels as previews to accompany longer digests, such as tacking that 50’ FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN onto the 200’ WOLF MAN reel. However, you can't use what you don't have....
Taking a cue from short story collections, I decided a nice set of anthology reels could be compiled from the 50' digests, each built around a particular genre or character. Certain subjects immediately came to mind, such as "Creature Features: The Black Lagoon Trilogy," or "The Mummy Movie Marathon." Turning from chills to thrills, a number of those Republic serials digests from Ken Films could be compiled into a "Classic Cliffhangers" reel or, for the kid in all of us, “A Celebration of Animation” could collect select cartoons from Walt Disney, Max Fleischer or Walter Lantz. Sadly, not all digests are created equal, and picture quality could vary considerably from company to company. As a result, it was usually best not to mix Castle Films and Ken Films titles on the same reel.
The line of 50’ compilations started the ball rolling, and I began to branch out, pairing up 200’ digests into 400’ “double features.” 1967’s PLANET OF THE APES had kicked off the first big-budget, big-screen sci-fi series for 20th Century Fox. Ten years later, STAR WARS launched an even more lucrative fantasy franchise for the studio. Mounted on a 400' reel, these two 200’ digests became the first in a series of Super 8 "Blockbusters of Science Fiction" compilations I started to put together. (Although the 200’ digests of STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would make an impressive pair of titles, too.) That would be followed by a double bill of George Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and a Hammer Films "Jurassic Classics" presentation of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. And with all those drive-in delights from AIP that Ken Films put out, there are a long list of titles to tackle in the future: THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and AT THE EARTH’S CORE, Roger Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE RAVEN, Herman Cohen’s I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF and I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN…well, you get the idea.
Just as my toy projector had given way to a silent projector with 200’ and 400’ capacity, eventually Super 8 sound projectors with 600’ and 800’ capabilities would come into the collection. As a result, I began exploring the possibilities of sound “triple features.” ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, MEET DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE and MEET THE MUMMY became an “Abbott & Costello Meet the Monsters” reel. Then came my “Karloff Frankenstein Trilogy” of FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, while my “Legend of the Wolf Man” delivered three times the terror with THE WOLF MAN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But I felt like I was still playing Little League after a friend of mine trotted out a 45 minute long reel of the 16mm digests of Castle Films’ DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE WOLF MAN and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
Although we were working on different scales with different gauges, we both found it was as much fun putting these programs together as it was sharing them with others. And while it may be easier to just toss a tape or disc into the video machine to watch a movie, there is something more intimate and interactive about film…you become a part of the process. Don’t let your imagination be limited by the size of reel your projector can handle, or if you’re working with silent or sound, or with 8mm, Super 8 or 16mm. Break out the splicer, grab a box of Sno-Caps and pop open a Dr. Pepper…it’s time to create some movie magic!
...Keep those projector bulbs burning!