For the past year we have been working diligently and silently on a new initiative–to digitize the Detroit Historical Society’s sizable collection of video tapes and film reels. Recently we augmented our existing collection of film with nearly 2000 video tapes and film reels, which had been in storage with the City of Detroit. Each of these videos provides a new window on the city’s history. Within, one may find parades, interviews, city events, and other glimpses into life in the Motor City, all in motion. Whereas in their original formats, these tapes and films required specialized equipment–VCRs, U-Matic decks, and projectors–to view, we aim to make them as easily accessible as the rest of our online digital collection. And thus, we now invite you to a virtual premiere of this project’s first crop of videos, view-able on our YouTube channel, and searchable through our online collection database.
And what would this virtual red carpet premiere be without some famous faces? Among this this initial offering of you’ll find mayors. Coleman Young, of course, features prominently. An early favorite here is this behind-the-scenes clip from a 1992 commercial in which Mayor Young questions the director’s suggestion that he be both firm and warm. Young’s successor, Dennis Archer, also makes several appearances. He can be spotted both hard at work while making the pitch that secured Super Bowl XL in Detroit, and cutting loose on the dance floor at a function honoring the city’s seniors. Even our present mayor, Mike Duggan, shows up, speaking as Wayne County Prosecutor at a 2002 police conference. Athletes also can be found among the footage. The Detroit Recreation Department enlisted both Kirk Gibson of the Detroit Tigers, and Olympic cyclist and skater Sheila Young-Ochowicz for public service announcements in the early 1980s. We also have four tapes, from two different camera crews, shot of Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, and the rest of the Bad Boys during the Pistons’ 1989 victory parade. The current announcer for the Pistons, John Mason, can be heard first finding his voice as a guest basketball announcer during a 1990 charity game shot for government access television. There’s also musicians, including electro legends AUX 88 performing a special all-cover set spanning the history (and pre-history) of techno at the 2002 Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and–as seen in the above trailer–the Blue Pigs, a public relations effort from the Detroit Police Department.
Of course the true stars of the videos are the city of Detroit and its people. This was the focus of the 1985 promotional film, “This Is My Home, This Is Detroit,” directed and produced by the Oscar and Emmy-winning local filmmaker Sue Marx. In the film, Marx interviews Detroiters about their neighborhoods. Among the subjects we meet an elderly couple who reminisce about Black Bottom from the grounds of a new Elmwood Park housing complex, a man who oversees a community beautification project for children in the Jefferson-Chalmers area, and a young family in Rosedale Park. In addition to the feature itself, over ten hours of additional footage from the production is part of the Detroit Historical Society’s collection. These extra scenes include extended interviews, and footage which didn’t make the final cut, including a street fair on Michigan Avenue, the interiors of several specialty grocery stores, and a tour of Indian Village.
Several other unique glimpses into Detroit’s past are offered in this first crop of videos. Two videos are composed of footage apparently shot for a 1962 documentary on Detroit’s Chinatown. Although much of the footage is silent, the camera takes us into a family run-store, and into a Chinese-language school. Two other films feature the parade celebrating the 250th anniversary of Detroit’s founding from 1951. All the more remarkable is that these home movies capture the elaborate floats and costumes of the participants in color. Maritime history enthusiasts will be excited to find not just one, but two angles of the 1956 launch of the EDMUND FITZGERALD.
As garden-variety VCRs, and the more exotic U-Matic decks, and 8 and 16mm projectors become more and more scarce, it becomes all the more important to preserve these endangered media formats as digital files, lest these windows on Detroit’s history be lost forever. If you are interested in following along with our progress in this task, subscribe to our YouTube channel. We will continue to regularly upload newly digitized videos from the collection.