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1978-2008 – Thirty Years in West Virginia

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 A photo of me in front of my 4th floor office in the WV Cultural Center shortly after I moved to WV in Sept. 1978. I soon shaved off the beard and long hair, mainly because of the heat.  The poster to my right was a recent poster for the Cannes Film Festival given to me by legendary film programmer Al Milgrom, co-founder of the University Film Society in 1962, one of the oldest such institutions in the U.S.

Fred Glazer called me on the telephone – after Don Roberts, my Minneapolis library AV friend told me that he was going to call me early one June morning in 1978. I was looking for a job as a librarian and he had one to offer me. He told me what he had been doing for years in WV and I told him that I had been doing at the University Film Society (now called Minnesota Film Arts)since 1972. He said, “You’re hired…but I think that you had better fly here and check out the place first.” Luckily I had some money to pay for an airline ticket, and so I flew to Charleston in late June. After a two day trip, including two  nights at the Daniel Boone Hotel, I returned home to Minneapolis. I told Glazer I couldn’t start until September because I had some traveling to do….visit Les Blank in Berkeley, visit the Pacific Film Archives, visit relatives in Phoenix, and then attend the 1978 Telluride Film Festival on Labor Day weekend.

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 Fred Glazer around 1976 with a model of his Outpost Instand Library. Glazer was listed by American Libraries magazine as one of the “100 Greatest Librarians of the Century” and was chosen as THE outstanding alumni of the Columbia Library School, the first ever created, by Melvil Dewey himself.

People have often asked me why I came to WV.  I told him that a guy named Fred Glazer called me on the phone.  Glazer himself never realized that he and founding director Steve Christo had created the last 16 mm film collection in the world. Most film collections were founded after WWII since 16 mm films were used extensively to train the millions of military personnel. Public libraries, universities, special libraries – all purchased, exhibited, and promoted the use of 16 mm films. Glazer and Christo had used largely federal funds starting in 1976 to purchase 1,500 films and Singer projectors for all of the public libraries in the state. During the next two decades I would spent about $100,000 each year on new 16 mm films, often buying the first copies of not only the best educational films from companies like Pyramid Films and Direct Cinema, but also bringing the best indie feature and foreign films to the state. People from all over the world knew about the program.

As a person who likes to rank films every year, I thought that I would celebrate my 30th anniversary in WV with my own listing of “Top Ten Film Events” that have occured. Here they are –

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1.  The WV sneak preview of John Sayles’ “Matewan”in  fall 1987 in Beckley, WV with a party sponsored by WVSWP-TV under the guidance of Donn Rogosin. The film received a national review on Labor Day 1987 by Vance Hiner of WVPBS Radio who attended this preview for the local people who were in the film. I had been working with Sayles since August 1983 when he showed up in my office with producer- girlfriend Maggie Renzi, almost losing the film to Virginia where the state government had shown a lot more cooperation. I programmed the ONLY WV showing of the restored 35 mm print of the film made by the Independent Film Channel (IFC) several years ago as part of the WV Filmmakers Film Festival in Sutton. WVLC has also loaned out the unique 16 mm print in its collection as part of labor celebrations around the country.

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2. The premiere of Mari-Lynn Evans’ three-part Appalachian trilogy in spring 2006 at The WV Cultural Center for “The Appalachians.”For several years I had been helping Mari-Lynn research Appalachia, even doing a filmed interview in the Cultural Center. Unfortunately, both my interview and Ken Hechler’s were left on the cutting room floor, but the film series, book, and CD became a mini-industry. WVLC bought a copy for every library in the state, thus making the greatest film series ever done on Appalachia available to everyone FREE at local public libraries.

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3. Writing a film review column for Graffiti magazine for about 15 years. Thanks to Michael Lipton and his friends, a true alternative magazine once existed in the state. For all those years starting in 1991, ending in December 2006 after about a year under a non-Lipton owner, I was able to tell my fellow West Virginians about some of the hundreds of great films being made about West Virginia. Some were made by local filmmakers, many were made by people from outside including Luis Argeo from Madrid, Spain. I had to hand out a lot of copies of Graffiti since people even in Charleston said they had a hard time finding it. I recently found one of my cable TV shows called “Film Festival” that celebrated the first anniversary in 1992. It was fun to watch.

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This is not an actual photo of the event. Cultural Center photographer Mike Keller created this collage showing somewhat how the film looked on the OUTSIDE of the Cultural Center. Decades latter, people still have never heard of another similar event.

4. Showing “King Kong” to 4,000 people at the 1982 50th Anniversary of the State Capitol. I was asked by Norman Fagan to program a week of movies from 1932. I finished with a showing of “King Kong” on the OUTSIDE of the Cultural Center after a day of celebrating. After the film there was fireworks. I will never forget climbing up the tower that Mike Switalski had set up with the extra powerful xenon projector to show the film. It looked great!

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November 1987 – Christopher Janus, famous West Virginian from Montgomery, with his friends Valerie Valentine and Prof. Kalaras at The La Belle Theater. Gov. Manchin proclaimed the first Greek-West Virginia Day in honor of his visit.

5. Programming films for the South Charleston Museum starting in July 2004 and continuing to this day. Starting with Jude Miller’s great film, “The Captives” about Mary Ingles, continuing with Bill Richardson’s “Mine Wars,” for five years I have been able to truly show the world and local audiences that there are great films being made in West Virginia or by others about West Virginia.

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Dottie Thomas, director of the Ohio County Public Library, brought her library’s popcorn machine to Huntington in 2006 to help make “New WV Film Night” more enjoyable. And it did…everyone loved eating the fresh popcorn while watching the DVD of the restored Appalachian masterpiece, “Harlan County, USA.”

6. Showing films for these thirty years at the annual conference of the West Virginia Library Association. Every year I have presented great films, most recently Davitt McAteer’s film, “Monongah 1907″ in Morgantown, the restored DVD of “Harlan County, USA” in Huntington and any number of other films for three decades. Librarians have had a chance to see directly some of the many films being produced in the state.

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Robin Hammer designed logo for the WVIFF. If you look at the plates in the lobby of the WVSU Capitol Plaza Theater, my name is posted first.

7. The WV International Film Festival started in 1984 when I programmed a week of films provided by New Yorker Films. Held at the now WVSU Capitol Plaza, it was a rough beginning using portable 16 mm projectors. During the years since it has screened many great WV films as well as bring the best foreign films to the area. I have also brought many of my best film friends to the event including Les Blank, William Sloan from MOMA , Linda Duchin from New Yorker Films, John Hoskyns-Abrahall from Bullfrog Films and Dennis Doros from Milestone Films. I have also programmed many documentary films including the world premiere of a great doc on Gray Barker, “Whispers from Space,” during the spring documentary festival.

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 Congressman Ken Hechler with his friend Mimi Pickering at the showing of her two Buffalo Creek films. She filmed her interview with Ken in my 4th floor office of The Cultural Center.

8. In January 2006 I was asked by then commissioner of Culture and History Troy Body to program a film event. I brought Mimi Pickering to the WV Cultural Center to show her two films about the Buffalo Creek Disaster. The first film had just been chosen to be on the National Film Register by the Library of Congress, thus keeping it in pristine shape for future generatons. My friend Ken Hechler appeared at the event since the second film showed what he had done as a WV Congressman to help the victims of one of America’s worst industrial accidents.

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9.  The founding of the WV Filmmakers Film Festival in Sutton in 2001 with Kevin Carpenter. It has been a real joy to help promote WV’s own filmmakers with their own festival, giving many great filmmakers awards for films that eventually became famous nationally.

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 The only photo of the Film Services staff, standing in front of walls that made my office, showing posters for some of the 2,000 feature films in the collection. Me on far left, Frani, then my assistant, on far right with Steve,  Jean Naylor, Mary Spencer and Patty Wills in front. Year probably 1979, taken by Ross Taylor for WVLC reasons.

10. Chairing film festival juries for The American Film Festival annual for 10 years in Film Services. For about 10 years, from 1979-89, I chaired pre-festival film juries on various subjects including  “new films on health and mental health,” new feature films, and other subjects. During a couple of Saturdays in the winter, a group of jurors that included people such as Robert Gates, Merle Moore, Dee Caperton, Bill Drennen, Clair McInerney, Mike Vavrus and many others would gather in our screening room to preview new films. Some years we actually gave out the blue and red ribbons to films, but normally we pre-judged films, selecting the finalists that would be judged a second time in NYC. Thanks to Frani, we always had excellent food and drink and a great time watching exciting new films. By judging the new films on health and mental health, replacing a jury at the NYC Medical School, I became an expert in the area, and advised William Sloan when he edited a booklet about such films. The National Video Resources also purchased copies of some of the best films, selling them at a great discount to libraries around the country. I also chaired two programs – one on improving media relations between library media programs and the press, and one on computerized booking programs (which WVLC never got.)

Almost from the first day I was in WV, I have been programming film festivals not mentioned above. First there was the Bohemian Hollow Film Festival with Bill Kimmons. We showed films all night outside at his backyard. One year we erected a 10 foot “King Kong” display, getting interviewed on TV. Then there was the Unitarian Film Festival, working with Charleston Gazette editor Jim Haught, showcasing new films for more than a decade at his church. Around the same time I started working with Peter Godfrey at the Jewish Film Series, now called the WV Jewish Film Festival under the direction of Dr. Fred Pollock, showing 35 mm films at the Park Place Cinemas, once the WVIFF, plus videos and DVDs at various sites in the summer. I also programmed the Italian Film Festival for the Clarksburg Italian Heritage Festival for about a decade. During the last four years I have programmed the Labor Film Festival in Paden City, WV, once home to a huge Labor Day parade which continues. It was the site of the first union meeting of the Knights of Labor before the 20th century. The films are shown at the Eagles Club, across the street from the Paden City Public Library, the two organizations that sponsor it now. I have programmed a WV Labor Film Festival every May for several years in cooperation with the South Charleston Museum, presenting many great films. I helped the American Conservation Film Festival in Shepherdstown get started several years ago, working with former Charlestonian Topper Sherwood. I have programmed many films at The Cultural Center including classic Hollywood, WV, Pare Lorentz films, and many more.

In 2004 I traveled to NYC to introduce a week-long WV film festival at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village. We stayed with WV native Doris Kornish and had a great time. I introduced the week long film series, starting with Karen Kramer in person, the director of “The Jolo Serpent Handlers,” the first film person I brought to WV in spring 1979. Unfortunately, the new programmer at the Pioneer Theater totally failed to promote the series, and almost no one came. But several WV filmmakers traveled to the theater including Ray Schmitt, Mike Lilly flying all the way from California, Gerry Milnes, and a few others.

Is it any wonder that I called the cable TV show I hosted for 17 years, “Film Festival”?

Two incredible events that I spoke at took place in New York state – one was at NYU at an activist film conference and another was the First NY Conference on Film Exhibition at Saratoga Springs. It was great to be around other people who did things that I did like program film festivals. I got to meet one of my biggest heroes, Amos Fogel, author of my favorite film book, “Film As a Subversive Art,” who told me  in front of a group of people that the letter I had written him was “the best letter I have ever received.”

We have received many honors over the years starting with the NPR  story about Film Services on the day after Thanksgiving 1987. The reporter, Vance Hiner, interviewed me and several friends, creating a good story about one little film program that tried really hard to provide maximum access to the world’s best films.  I also received a national honor from The U.S. Dept. of Education a few months before for having the best 16 mm statewide program in the country. Earlier that fall I also received a lifetime achievement award at the WV Intl. Film Festival, given to me by my good friend William Sloan of MOMA who was the special guest of the WVIFF, spending 10 days in WV, showing films from his world class collection. I was honored in 2006 as a “West Virginia History Hero”by the WV State Archives which is one of my proudest honors. ( I latter nominated Ken Hechler who was given the same award this year.) The same year The Pinch Reunion honored both Frani and I with their annual Samaritan Award, one of four given that year. My friends William C. Blizzard and Ken Hechler received the award the year before.

I have greatly enjoyed working with Goldenseal editors Ken Sullivan and now John Lilly, publishing an annual list of new WV/Appalachian films. I have also enjoyed working with the WV Filmmakers Guild over the years. I am sorry I missed their 25th anniversary celebration this last June. It was great to work with Gov. Caperton and Commissioner of Culture & History Bill Drennen on many film projects including founding the WVIFF, now the official state film festival, and creating the WV Film Office.

Mike Lilly was an important person in my life starting around 2001, working with him on completing his WV indie film, “Correct Change,” WV’s best-made indie feature. I have also enjoyed working with WVPBS on a large number of projects including “West Virginia – A Film History, ” “West Virginians in War,” directed by Russ Barbour, and countless other films they have made over the years. I am thrilled that WVPBS has continued to sell many of its finest films including “The Griffin and the Minor Cannon”by Brad Stalnaker and Jean DuBerry, WV’s finest animated film, and one of the finest recently made by ANY US PBS station. ( They received an award for producing the best local film of any PBS station in the country one year.) Jacob Young, once a WVPBS filmmaker, has had special interest for me as the director of not only “Dancing Outlaw”but many other “Different Drummer” films plus his magnus opus, “Holy Cow, Swami!” which has only been shown once on WVPBS. Lately I have had special enjoyment working with Ray Schmitt, B.J. Gudmundsson, Kelley Thompson and Terry Lively, four  WV filmmakers who have changed the landscape of WV filmmaking.

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 An award-winning documentary by Wayne Ewing. The first WV film I saw was his film, “If Elected” about Warren McGraw’s campaign for the WV Senate. Scenes from that film were used in this film documenting one of the most outlandish judicial campaigns in American history.

I am really looking forward to seeing everyone’s reactions to a film I have been working on for two years – the Ken Hechler film. I was unable to attend the world premiere at Marshall University in April 2008 because of health. It has been a real source of pride for me to work with Ken Hechler on many projects during my 30 years in the state, and to show the film about another old WV friend, Judge McGraw, called “The Last Campaign.”

I should note that I was director of WVLC Film Services starting on September 14, 1978 until January 1999 when I became the first WVLC Research Librarian. ( I worked in long-ranging planning at the University of Minnesota even before I worked at the U. Film Society.)

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Steve with “the most famous professor at the University of Minnesota,” Herbert Feigl, the last living member of The Vienna Circle, the most influential group of philosophers of the twentieth century. ( I have been trying to make a film about them for 35 years. None exists as far as I know, but many books have been writen about them.) About 1969/70. I became a personal friend of his, taking the last course he taught in spring 1971. I think I recall him telling me that he introduced Bertrand Russell to Ludwig Wittenstein. Feigl found the world’s first university center for the philosophy of science, The Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, which still exists and publishes regularly.

I was originally a physics major at the U. of Mn, transferring to philosophy of science. I graduated with a BA magna cum laude in June 1971, continuing as a graduate student in philosophy for two more years.) I received my MA in Library Science from the U. of M. in June 1979, after writing TWO MA theses, one rejected but published in a national magazine as “Cinema Anti-Therapy.” My accepted thesis was on “Film Selection Policies in Public Libraries, ” used around the US for decades. I pointed out that US graduate library schools failed to educate their students on film history, thus making it almost impossible for America’s public libraries to create adequate film collections.

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Carol Smallwood has edited a nice book called “Thinking Outside the Book” that includes two articles about my recent activities, “Local Hero” (p.39) and “Sandynista”(p.253). It is one of the best books showing the creative people who work in libraries these days.