Newsreels spur interest in Columbia WWII museum

jwilkinson@thestate.comMay 14, 2013 

SCREENSHOT FROM Fox Movietone News Story 49-15: Aviation: Doolittles Raid on Tokyo in the USC collection. This film clip shows bombers as they set out from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to bomb Tokyo and other Japanese cities, in the first raid in response to Pearl Harbor four months before. Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle standing with Marc Mitchner, Captain of the "Hornet." Doolittle places medal belonging to Mitchner on bomb. Doolittle walking with Mitchner. Shots of bombers in flight and aerial shots of Tokyo during air raid drill.

USC LIBRARY

  • BY THE NUMBERS

    84,000: Estimated number of South Carolinians who served in World War II

    11 million: Feet of film donated to USC by Fox Movietone News

    300,000: Amount of unused square feet of space in the S.C. State Museum

Is Columbia the right spot for a World War II museum?

Marvin Chernoff — a former public relations executive who was a force behind the Doolittle Raiders 50th reunion here and the steel Palmettos art project, among other initiatives — thinks so.

He said the museum could be built around the Movietone News Library collection given to the University of South Carolina in 1979 by the Fox Film Corp.

“It’s a resource unlike any in the world,” he told a subcommittee of Columbia City Council on Tuesday. “I think people (traveling on the area’s interstate highways) would stop and spend half a day in Columbia to watch them.”

Fox donated 11 million feet of its massive 77 million-foot collection of raw and edited news film to USC. The reels originally were shown in movie theaters from the 1920s to the 1940s and were the pre-television equivalent of a nightly news broadcast.

The gift was the culmination of almost a decade of conversation between USC faculty, S.C. Educational Television, Lowell Thomas (the voice of Movietone News) and Fox subsidiary Movietone News Inc.

In the early 1970s, USC faculty member Jim Jackson began the negotiations, espousing that the movie reel library was the equivalent of a great manuscript and rare book library. The university entrusted with such a library would become a global center for study, he said.

Working with SCETV, Jackson proposed a PBS series, narrated by Lowell Thomas, built around newsreel footage from the Fox library. The series, Lowell Thomas Remembers, launched in 1976 and ran successfully for several seasons on PBS stations nationwide.

The collection includes:

•  All silent newsreel elements from the original Fox News library from 1919 to 1930 and the original paper records supporting that material.

•  All outtake and unused film from Fox Movietone News from 1928 to 1934 and the paper archive supporting that material.

•  The published newsreels as well as all outtake and unused film from Sept. 1942 to Aug. 1944, which includes most of World War II.

Chernoff said the World War II footage could be the lynchpin for a new museum, which could be located in 300,000 square feet of unused space in the S.C. State Museum or another location.

Members of the arts and historic preservation subcommittee were generally supportive of the idea, but were cautious about how much of a role the city would play in such an effort.

“The university is in the best position to do what’s proposed,” said council member Leona Plaugh, who is not a member of the subcommittee but sat in on the meeting. “But the concept is intriguing.”

Members asked Chernoff to form an exploratory committee and come back to them when the idea had taken better shape.

Tom McNally, USC’s Dean of Libraries, contacted after the meeting, called the idea a “neat project” and said he believed people would respond to it.

But, McNally said space is at a premium at the university.

“Space is the final frontier around here,” he said.

The university’s priorities for the library is raising funds to digitize all of the Movietone reels – a project estimated at $5 million – and for the long-term storage of those files so they can be posted on the Web for everyone to view.

“We’re all about access,” he said. “The issue is the cost to store this – all 2,000 hours of it. It’s a legacy of the 20th Century that can’t be lost.”

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