There were always rumors about the Intercollegiate Athletic Film Collection, that a treasure trove of films documenting the UW’s athletic history were buried somewhere in Husky Stadium. In early 2009, Hannah Palin, film archives specialist at the UW Libraries, Special Collections, met with representatives from the Intercollegiate Athletics Department to discuss a project to evaluate, inventory, and make recommendations for the care and storage of the department’s films. At that meeting, Ms. Palin was taken to the fabled storage room in Husky Stadium, containing hundreds of boxes filled with thousands of films and videotapes. The rumors were all true.
By Hannah Palin
“Yeah,” I was told with a yawn, “that’s what field work is like.”
No one seemed overly impressed or even disturbed by the fact that it was 104 degrees outside and at least four times that inside the storage room, tucked under the bleachers in Husky Stadium, where my students and I were working. (No one even seemed bothered that a reel of nitrate from the storage room took four hours to cool down in my air-conditioned office later that afternoon).
Raccoons lived in here. That’s what Bob, the facilities manager, told me one morning when he stopped by to check my progress.
“Oh, and that leak in the corner there,” he said, “runs down the wall four floors below to the ROTC office. It doesn’t look like any water’s getting into any of those boxes, though. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
My wonderful and very dedicated grad students, Zola and Laird, hadn’t shown up yet and I never knew if anyone was coming from the Intercollegiate Athletics Department. I had a feeling that their assignment to help me inventory the contents of this room under Tunnel 50 was definitely a punishment. They’d shuffle in, earbuds securely in place, begrudgingly take up an inventory sheet and start looking through a box filled with Betacam tapes. They’d do four or five boxes and then make a break for it, as if released from prison duty.
All of this came about because, for the first time in my eight years of working on grant-funded moving-image projects at the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, I was fully funded, able to work full time. And I was in heaven. All things moving image, all the time. Who could ask for anything more? My mission for the year was to discover film and videotape produced on campus, by campus, for campus. We developed a survey to see if we could ferret out moving-image collections hiding on professor’s shelves and in department closets. The response was underwhelming, but one day, late in 2008, I got an email from the Intercollegiate Athletics Department that they had film and could definitely use some help with it. The room that was used to house the Intercollegiate Athletics Department films and videotapes was also used by Larry and his staff. They had issued an ultimatum. Facilities needed more room and wanted the films out before the football season started in the fall. Essentially, move it or lose it.
I was taken over to Husky Stadium and the door to the storage room under Tunnel 50 was thrown open. There it was. The fabled Football Film Collection. Angels started singing.
Ever since I started hanging around Special Collections, working with their moving-image collections, I’d heard rumors that there were hundreds of films stored in Husky Stadium somewhere, sitting in the dirt, deteriorating beyond redemption. But no one had ever seen them and no one could ever give me any details. It was the Holy Grail of university films, but there it was – piled in boxes stacked four deep, 16mm film spilling out onto the floor next to gas powered leaf blowers and speaker systems, videotapes falling out of ripped boxes sitting on shelves with old programs and leftover T-shirts. There was an opening at the top of the room’s door which would, conveniently, allow rain, snow, and probably those pesky raccoons inside. So much for climate control. The good news? The floor was concrete, not dirt. (Although I found out later that such a storage space did, indeed, exist at one time.)
Negotiations between the two departments took longer than I would have liked and, in the meantime, the economy crashed. What started as a very workable budget, with a bit of preservation and transfer work thrown, became funds to do an inventory and move the collection to the Libraries’ storage facility.
Work began in July 2008 during some of the hottest weather the Northwest had ever seen. The saving grace was a beautiful view of Lake Washington from the top of the stadium. When the heat got to be too much, we would go outside, try to catch a breeze from the lake and watch a pair of eagles soaring down below us. I looked at Laird one afternoon and said, “You know, this doesn’t suck.” He nodded in quiet contentment.
We were handed a two-year-old inventory listing more than 4,000 items dating from 1936 through 2000. It quickly became apparent, however, that the inventory was wildly inaccurate and, after double-checking every box we could find, the Intercollegiate Athletics inventory swelled to 7,197 items, including over 921,525 feet of 16mm, Super 8, and one 35mm film, plus every conceivable videotape format ever manufactured – Umatic, 1”, 2”, Hi-8mm, Betcam, SVHS, VHS. The date range expanded to include crew films from 1928, football games from the 1930s and 1940s, and videotape through the early 2000s.
As one might expect, film in the collection focuses on the mass appeal sports – football, baseball and basketball – and little else. What was striking to me was that the videotape collection, dating from the 1970s, coincides with Title IX from 1972 and as a result, videotape in the collection covers a broad range of athletic activities – soccer, baseball, volleyball, gymnastics, swimming. Women’s sports, including basketball and softball, were only to be found in the videotape collection. Sadly, this part of the collection is still in limbo. Our mission only included film, not videotape, the poor stepchild of the moving-image world.
The more time we spent under Tunnel 50, the more I started to worry about the condition of all these materials and whether the dust and mold and remnants of the raccoon family were endangering the students working on the project. I decided to ask the experts on the Association of Moving Image Archivists for help. All of my worst fears were confirmed. Rick Prelinger alerted me to deadly bacteria lurking in raccoon feces and directed me to a CDC website on the subject. Dan Streible even forwarded a link to a Ro-Revus film warning children of the dangers of using the “out of doors for a baf’room.”
When we actually moved everything to the Libraries’ storage facility, (a move Bob said he’d made five times in his 30 years at the university) I finally saw the condition of the films for the first time. Weeks of working in a dark room lit by a single light bulb didn’t really prepare me for the interesting mold formations I saw on some of the reels. I panicked. My first inclination, since starting to work with film a decade ago, was to throw everything into the dumpster. It seemed like heresy, but I couldn’t help it. The reels seemed like they were beyond redemption. But the AMIA list came to the rescue again. “Don’t throw anything out!” came the response from knowledgeable folks like Paul Spehr, former assistant chief of Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division at the U.S. Library of Congress, and Mick Newnham, a senior researcher at the Preservation and Technical Research division of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. They became the voices of reason, talking me down off the ledge.
I took a deep breath, took some pictures, and started to isolate the scariest reels from the rest of the collection.
As it turned out, the majority of the collection was actually in fine condition, with surprisingly little signs of vinegar syndrome and no traces of mold. About 200 other reels definitely seemed salvageable but they were going to need some help, help that could only come with more funding. We put these films on shelves in the workroom, until we could tackle them at a future date. The 88 reels of truly frightening film were bagged up with molecular sieves, waiting for a funding and preservation miracle. Thanks to the current dire state of funding for anything other than subsistence-level operations, I’m not holding my breath that we’ll be able to see crew footage from 1928 anytime soon or that videotapes of women’s softball will be re-formatted.
I was told there would be days like this.
Hannah Palin, who entered Hell-under-Husky, is the film archives specialist at the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, and the regional coordinator of Home Movie Day. She wrote the Washington State Film Preservation Manual with Nicolette Bromberg. She is also a writer, producer, and performer in various media – writing, oral history, documentary filmmaking, live as well as audio storytelling. She has worked on a short-form documentary for KCTS public television in Seattle and has told stories in front of an audience at A Guide to Visitors. A series of her essays aired on KUOW 94.9FM in Seattle. Her radio pieces for public broadcasting include The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded (2003) and Sleep Deprivation (2007) for WNYC’s Radiolab. She has just had an essay published in the anthology, Friday Mornings Writing: 8 Writers, 1 Writing Group, 17 Years, edited by Waverly Fitzgerald.