Stock Footage's Unfinished Symphony

By Published on .

It doesn't take much of an eye to see what makes the collection of footage at Historic Films so special. Just listening to the archives of the East Hampton, N.Y.-based stock house reveals a hefty stash of noteworthy musical performances, from idols like Elvis or Ella Fitzgerald or obscure artists like '60s Hong Kong band Hi-Dee-Ho or the Louisiana Mental Asylum Orchestra.

For the past two decades, Historic Films founder Joe Lauro, an avowed cinemaphile, has spent his life tracking down rare filmic finds. He started his career at Archive Films and then went on to open his own stock research house, Associated Researchers & Image Quest, in 1991. In 1997, he teamed up with documentarian John Solt, changing the company name to the much tidier Historic Films. Today, Historic offers about 50,000 hours of footage from vintage television shows, news programs, advertising and home movies, not to mention its growing 30,000-clip musical library. The majority of Historic's clients are cable channels like VH1, MTV and A&E, along with documentarians like PBS all-star Ken Burns. But Historic's footage can be seen also on a handful of spots, from agencies like Leo Burnett, Grey, Campbell-Ewald and TBWA/Chiat/Day. It provided the footage and photography of Virgin founder Richard Branson for Apple's "Think Different" campaign, and it also provided images of Marilyn Monroe for a national Chevrolet spot, as well as Elvis material for AIG via Ogilvy & Mather.

In the commercials world, Lauro says, "People aren't using archival materials as much as they used to, but they are using it in many more ways. For example, you can remove John Wayne from a scene, or put in your own actor. There's so much more you can be creative with. Commercials people need to solve problems in the best way, and that often leads to stock footage, be it archival classic stuff that they shouldn't have to reshoot, or modern material that's easier to get than having to send your own cameraman to shoot the scenes. Stock footage really fills in the gaps, and can make things amazingly cheap."

The Elvis clips were found in Historic's specialty collection of music footage. When Solt partnered with Lauro, he brought with him all 23 years of The Ed Sullivan Show. The 1,100 hours of footage are chock-full of classic performances from the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Jackson 5, the Doors and Barbra Streisand. Historic has also reaped a huge bounty from overseas film vaults. One of the company's most recent acquisitions is the entire Danish Broadcasting Archive, which turns up heaps of rare jazz and blues footage. "There's very little of American jazz artists on television in America, but in Europe, you might have a one-hour program of Miles Davis," Lauro explains. The archive boasts "tons of Miles from the '60s through the '80s," as well as Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, B.B. King, Son House, and stellar rock acts like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, U2 and the Grateful Dead. The library even includes footage from the tragedy at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, where nine concertgoers died in the mosh pit during a Pearl Jam performance. Other international finds include '60s and '70s footage from German American Bandstand-style programs Beat Club and Musikladen.

Historic's TV wares also include footage from the Steve Allen Show (which includes a rare poetry reading by Jack Kerouac); disco-era dance programs; Jubilee Showcase, a Chicago gospel hour; and 135 episodes of the Ernest Tubb Show, a country music fest from the '60s.

And the beat goes on. Lauro is presently giddy over some recent acquisitions, including a collection of Elvis home movies that shows the King doing offbeat things like sailing on a fishing boat and wearing a Nazi helmet. Also, rare reels from Chicago blues drummer Sam Lay have just arrived at Historic's doorstep. Lauro finally secured a deal with Lay, who'd played the Southside Chicago Blues club circuit in the 1950s with musicians like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Lay's 8mm movies captured a lot of post-gig hanging out at local bars and clubs with his fellow musicians. "Sam had this stuff in his apartment for 40 years," recalls Lauro. "If you wanted to see it, you'd have to go to his house and view the original film. It took us several years to organize a deal he felt comfortable with. He was just very protective." The demand for his archives may vary with stock's vicissitudes, but the rush of scoring new footage is enough to keep collector Lauro going. "Historic Films is like an unfinished symphony," he quips. "It grows all the time."

Most Popular
In this article: