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The First Queen of Celebrity Gossip: Rona Barrett

posted April 1, 2015

Reelin’ in the Years, a San Diego-based footage licensor, dusts off Rona Barrett’s Hollywood interviews; those join the archives of David Frost in the company’s footage library.

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Images: Reelin’ in the Years Productions

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rona Barrett interviewed Hollywood figures and others from popular culture — and, to bring that trove of footage to us, David Peck suffered a recurrence of pneumonia (more on that, later).

A pioneer of “entertainment reporting,” Rona Barrett was one of the most popular interviewers of Hollywood stars throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Viewed now, her up-close-and-personals with the likes of Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Kirk Douglas, and Cher can surprise, amuse, and make you wonder.

The Barrett archive may preserve and now again project everything you may love about Hollywood, and loathe, and everything in between.

Reelin’ in the Years Productions, a leading licensor of footage of musicians, entertainers, and historical figures, is now managing the Rona Barrett interviews for licensing to the kinds of clients it has for all its holdings: news organizations, film makers, advertisers (as in this American Express ad), and others, including researchers.

robin williams copyReelin’ in the Years, which Peck established in the San Diego area in 1992, licenses material from a range of sources, from large TV networks to home-movie archives. It has licensed our client’s footage for feature films, documentaries, TV commercials, DVDs, CDs, museum exhibitions, and concert tours.

Licensing the Barrett archive signals a step ahead in Reelin’s marketing approach. Until recently, the company specialized in licensing footage of musical performances, and also issued a series of stellar multi-DVD box sets of music greats. Between 2006 and late 2011, for instance, it Jazz Icons series provided restored footage of live performancs by jazz greats. The company located the footage in the vaults of television stations and networks, most in Europe, that did what few, if any, American stations did in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, nor since – and are unlikely to do in the future: They presented jazz in concert programs of 30 to 90 minutes.

hitchcock copyIts 2003 release, The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966 Volume One and Volume Two (since expanded to four volumes), was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Long Form Music Video, and received a Keeping the Blues Alive award from The Blues Foundation. It has, in fact, won several awards for its releases, which have included a multi-platinum selling Motown series and a British Invasion series. In 2014 it issued The Merv Griffin Show 1962-1986, a 12-DVD box set.

But issuing DVDs, however gratifying from the standpoint of memorializing the most significant musical accomplishments of American cultural history, comes with too many impediments to remain viable, says Peck: “We kind of stopped doing DVDs because,” he says from Reelin’s headquarters. “First of all, the DVD market just kind of went into the toilet. Terrible. Publishers want too much — they don’t come down with their prices; and there’s no real place to sell these things, any more. So, we kind of just stopped. We’re sticking with clip licensing, and getting more libraries, because that’s what keeps the lights on.”

cruise copy 2The company has been expanding its portfolio of historical footage archives, and will continue on that path. Late in 2014, Reelin’ in the Years began licensing the Sir David Frost Archives, and it also manages the archive of The Merv Griffin Show.

Taking on the Rona Barrett archive is in that vein. After organizing fan clubs for pop idols like Eddie Fisher and Steve Lawrence, Barrett became a newspaper gossip columnist in 1957 for the Bell-McClure syndicate but soon began working for teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian.

She began interviewing Hollywood stars on film in 1966, for an LA television station, and soon was placing her material with other stations as drop-in packages. She expanded successfully into celebrity-gossip magazine publishing.

A teaser reel of selections from the Barrett archive that Reelin’ has placed online evokes a range of reactions: Young icons of 30 and more years ago now appear at various turns innocent, naïve, self-satisfied, disingenuous, and, in a few cases, admirable.

stallone copyWhat drew Hitchcock to suspense? “The mere fact that one could control an audience,” he told Barrett in 1980. “Not people; audiences, en masse.”

Robin Williams, 1978: “If I can’t keep growing, then I’ll know, it’ll be, like, ‘It’s time to say, “Unplug it, Tom; the machine’s off.”’”

Is it easy to become normal now that you’re famous? Farrah Fawcett-Majors, 1978: “I still do my normal, everyday things; I’m still a housewife; I’m still a wife.”

Alice Cooper, 1978: “People really think that I live in a big, black castle, with people hanging on the walls, and things like that.”

Would Donald Trump, in 1980, like to be the president of the United States: “I really don’t think that I would, Rona.”

cher copyAnd so on… Sylvester Stallone, 1978: “All my life, since I lifted weights and what not, people assumed that since I developed my body, my brain must be on, er, ah, out to lunch.” Tom Cruise, 1984: “I’m interested in my personal growth, what’s going to make me happy; not how much money am I going to make.”

Peck and co. have transferred and catalogued over 100 hours of interviews from the Barrett archive — her frank one-on-ones with actors, directors, and other movers and shakers. Others among the hundreds of celebrities in the archive are Jack Nicholson, John Travolta, Richard Pryor, Raquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Sally Field.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with film that has sat around for any length of time, many of the various media used — 2-inch, 1-inch, and U-matic tapes — had “a fair amount of mold” on them, says Peck. He turned for help with some of them to David Crosthwait at DC Video, in Burbank, Cal., as Reelin’ in the Years often does. DC Video specializes in re-mastering archival, rare, and obsolete videotape formats to modern media formats. The company also offers services in video noise reduction, video enhancement, videotape cleaning, image improvement, videotape reformatting, videotape digitizing, archival videotape assessment, video editing, and videotape duplication.

Says Peck: “It took careful restoration on David’s part to get them looking great.

trump copy“The problem is, with any tape, how they were stored. That’s always number one. Humid climates are worse than colder climates.

“Then, you have things like the stock of the actual tape.”

Some gauges, he won’t take on himself, particularly 2-inch” – “I send that to David; that’s his specialty.”

The issue that arises with U-matic videotapes, he says, is that they often becomes sticky: “They have to go in a special sort of confectioners’ oven, and they have to be baked at a certain temperature, for a certain amount of time. That’s a very intricate thing that David Crosthwait does. He’ll get them to play and they’ll look great. The thing that sets David apart, a lot, is that he really takes his time with the stuff, and he’ll do two, three, or four passes or seven, eight, nine passes with the film, if he has to, to get it to play right.”

Mold is not to be messed with, Peck says. “Poor David Crosthwait, sometimes he’ll have to don a haz-mat suit because that stuff is very toxic inside your lungs. As a matter of fact, in late December, I had pneumonia for a couple of weeks, and it started to get better on antibiotics. Then I signed the Rona Barrett Archive, went up to the vault, spent a few hours there, and I got sick again and had pneumonia again, because there was so much crud in there. And my lungs hadn’t fully healed. So next time I went in, I wore a mask. I’d learned my lesson.”

arafatThe David Frost tapes were in a variety of locations. Frost was in broadcasting for 50 years, and he owned outright some of the series he made, while others belonged to, for instance, the BBC.

Says Peck: “What we found out was, he had two storage facilities in L.A., one in London, and then we found a facility that did production in the late 1980s and early ’90s that had a lot of stuff that he had kind of forgotten about.

“That’s where a lot of the raw tapes were – tapes of interviews with Yitzhak Rabin and Robin Williams, and other people. And they were on an old format called M2 which looked like VHS tapes, but they’re not: they’re professional formats that Panasonic developed to compete with Sony in the late 80s, and the networks said, ‘Oh, great, we’ll save money,’ but it turns out that the format was — and you can quote me on this — it was utter shit.”

David Crosthwait, says Peck, “is one of the few guys, god bless him, who has the machines, and he has the wherewithal to transfer the tapes – it’s a very, very tricky format.

nixon copy“But the stuff is so important, it has to be done,” Peck says. He offers as one example a Frost interview of Nelson Mandela in 1993, “right before he became president. That’s priceless.”

Reelin’ in the Years has posted a sampling of the Frost tapes, too.

Peck is an enthusiast as much as businessman, when it comes to the content of what he collects; for example, he calls the Frost tapes, regardless of whether the interviewees are American or not, “a piece of our history, and that is true whether it’s of the Ramones or of Martin Luther King Jr. To me, it’s all important, for different reasons. Obviously I’m not equating the Ramones with Dr. King, but it’s important for different reasons.”

He adds: “There’s always the fan side of me and there’s always the business side of me, they’re just running together.

clinton copyWith The Rona Barrett Archive, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Sir David Frost Archive, Reelin’ In The Years Productions now has over 4,000 hours of interviews with icons of film and television, politics, comedy, literature, art, science, fashion, and sport filmed between 1962 and 2012, with more libraries coming on line, soon. It also has more than 20,000 hours of music footage spanning the last 90 years. Researchers and rights-clearance officers can look for what they might need on the company’s search engine.

Reelin’ in the Years doesn’t deal in stock footage, but rather in personalities, whether it’s the Beatles, or Martin Luther King Jr., or George Clooney or Yasser Arafat. Says Peck: “It’s people performing: singing, or doing stand-up comedy, or being sat down to be interviewed.”

Reelin’s technicians have sifted through the Frost archive, and “it’s been great locating raw tapes of interviews with some of history’s most important figures. I can’t imagine another person who has had as many in-depth sit down interviews with as many world leaders as he.”

gates copyBecause the material includes footage that was edited out when Frost made his broadcast programming, the archives are full of surprises, Peck says: “We found all 30 hours of the interviews that he did with Nixon. All the raw tapes. It’s pretty amazing.”

“One my favorites in this David Frost reel,” says Peck, “is Bill Gates in 1995 virtually predicting every detail of what would become the iPhone.

“I wonder if Steve Jobs was at home watching this interview and taking notes!”

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