Celluloid Asylum

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Welcome to insanity," greets Ira Gallen upon opening the door to his New York pad. Filled to the brim with a menagerie of toys and dolls, the apartment is an asylum of sorts; it's a haven for those icons - from Howdy Doody to R2D2 to South Park's Cartman - that have made an impression on America's pop culture consciousness. But the massive collection of tchotchkes belies the real treasure in Gallen's stash - miles of old footage from the early days of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. For almost 25 years, the 45-year-old Gallen has been an impassioned pack rat, scavenging through dumpsters, frequenting flea markets, and even shoveling through burned-down buildings to find and preserve the reels from TV's early days. In his search, he has accumulated more than 50,000 hours of television history. Today, Gallen has turned his passion into Video Resources, a lucrative stock footage and film research business.

"I have the whole history of the `50s and `60s that no one has seen," he boasts. "Name a topic, I have it. Ants, gardening, barbecues, frankfurters, hamburgers, malteds, oil, cars, boats." His collection includes early episodes of soap operas like The Guiding Light and Search for Tomorrow; kids' shows like Howdy Doody and Rootie Kazootie (his favorite); and even precursor programs to today's WWF spectacles, classic wrestling footage from the mid-'50s. Gallen has also unearthed some rare goodies from advertising's fledgling years on the tube, many of which he obtained from the libraries of old-time ad pros like commercials director Bert Hecht and animator Shamus Culhane. He has about 40,000 spots from advertisers like RCA, Nabisco, P&G and products like BrylCreem, Bosco, and Alka-Seltzer. There are old-style celebrity promotions, in which actors Dick van Dyke, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz step in and out of character during their shows to endorse products. Also interesting are "before they were stars"-type plugs from personalities like Mike Wallace, who actually dons a sailor suit for a Navy Insurance promotion, and Barbara Walters, who expounds on the wonders of Rexall Redi Spray deodorant.

But what emerges from Gallen's mostly `50s and `60s footage is not always the warm and fuzzy stuff of apple pie Americana. Some of the most interesting finds are true testaments to changes in the country's zeitgeist. A slew of commercials for cigarette brands like Kool, Lucky Strike, Winston, and Benson & Hedges harken back to a far less restrictive ad past. There is also a number of housewife-themed spots that today look bizarre, not to mention just plain scary. Take one mid-'50s ad that shows a husband coming home to a messy house and frumpy wife. Angrily, he whips out a gun and aims it at his spouse. He pulls the trigger and out shoots a flag that reads "Geritol." The next day, his home is spotless and his wife is cheery - after getting her iron, of course. Video Resources also has some peculiar sales films that were intended to convince corporations that TV was the next big ad thing. "When TV began, you had to talk major corporations into not advertising in newspapers, but to go to television," Gallen laughs.

The celluloid treasures from Video Resources have been tapped by megashops like Y&R, JWT, and DDB. Gallen has also donated a ton of stock to New York's Museum of Television & Radio, and his footage often finds its way onto talk shows. Jay Leno and Rosie O'Donnell have gone to Gallen when they wanted to surprise guests like Dustin Hoffman or Susan Sarandon with commercials from their pre-fame days. The company's stock footage can also be seen in such movies as Avalon, Donnie Brasco, Goodfellas and Quiz Show.

Today, Gallen continues unabated in his quest to amass U.S. television history. His collection now takes up floor-to-ceiling space in a warehouse, an apartment and two basements. As the reels pile up and the space disappears, it's a wonder he doesn't show the slightest sign of frustration. Perhaps his plans for the future might explain his unfailing historical do-gooderism. "I want to go to cinema heaven," he muses. "I'm worried one day I'll got to heaven, or somewhere in between, with all my films, but God won't give me a projector or any way of viewing them."

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