News Stories & Columns
Glimpses of History
Glimpses of History
The Foothills Magazine was a supplement in the Sunday editions of the Charlotte Observer.
Cast of Thousands
Cast of thousands
Vintage films show local life over a half-century ago
By Robin S. Lattimore
Phillip White likes to talk to people about the town of Cliffside. Fascinated by its history and the stories of the people who have lived there, he has spent years collecting photographs, newspaper clippings and old postcards from the once booming textile village in southern Rutherford County.
While historically significant, none of White’s printed artifacts can match the rarest gems of his collection—a set of five vintage motion pictures filmed in Cliffside and the towns of Rutherfordton, Spindale and Forest City in 1937 and 1940.
“The five films that were made here during the Depression are a remarkable way to see how life was over a half-century ago,” says White. “More amazing is the fact that they might not even have existed today if I had not stumbled onto them by accident.”
A number of years ago, while he was helping to plan an anniversary celebration for Cliffside School, White, who is principal of the school, was approached by a local resident who encouraged him to recover and re-premiere film footage that had been shot in the town of Cliffside decades earlier.
The man informed White that during the 1930s a traveling photographer had visited Cliffside and had filmed the people of the community. The film was later premiered at the Cliffside Theater to packed audiences.
White’s search for the film ended in success. However, what he found was more than he ever imagined and the significance of his efforts has extended beyond the little town of Cliffside, to all of Rutherford County, the state of North Carolina, and to much of the Southeast.
“After some quick research and talking with as many people as possible who remembered the films, I was able to track down the film from the original cameraman, H. Lee Waters,” says White.
Out of the storage shed
“Waters allowed me to show the film at the anniversary celebration. Because the response to the film was so great, and because we had to show the film twice to a packed audience, Waters revealed to me while the footage was being projected onto the screen that numerous other films that he had made during the Great Depression existed.”
White’s interest in the films led him to uncover virtually dozens of reels and thousands of feet of original footage (over 100 hours in all), stored in Waters’ car shed in Lexington. After negotiations, White secured all of the footage that Waters had shot in Rutherford County.
A portion of the remaining footage was acquired by Duke University, where it has been preserved and made available to historians as a rare example of life in the American South during the Great Deppression.
Films to stay here
“I have no interest in sending these fims to Durham to sit in a vault. I enjoy having them here where I can share them with the people of this county from time to time.” —Phillip White,
Film Collector “Duke University has contacted me in the past with an interest in obtaining the original 16 mm films that I have from Rutherford County, ” White says. “I appreciate their preservation activities and film restoration projects. But, I have no interest in sending these fims to Durham to sit in a vault. I enjoy having them here where I can share them with the people of this county from time to time.”
The five films that exist of Rutherford County (all silent), are single films of Rutherfordton, Spindale, Forest City and two separate films of Cliffside and the surrounding area. The films vary in length from 20 to 30 minutes to over 45 minutes. White frequently plays videotape copies of the films for community celebrations, historical groups, school children and church groups.
The original cameraman, H. Lee Waters, was born in Cliffside and lived there when his family moved to Lexington when he was 12. During the ’30s, Waters opened a portrait studio in Lexington, but his interest extended to motion pictures as well. Because the Depression put a severe dent in the amount of business that Waters was able to bring into his studio, he took to the road to make a living with a new idea in mind.
Over a period of six years from 1936-1940, Waters visited 118 small towns and communities across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia and captured forever on film the images of the people there.
Waters’ pattern was to visit a community to film the people and then to return two weeks later to play his movies in the local theater. He drummed up attendance by placing placards in local shop windows, and by riding the streets with a microphone and loudspeaker announcing the films from his 1936 Oldsmobile, (a feature that he incorporated first in Forest City in June of 1937).
In a fantasy world
No one who went to the movies during the 1930s would ever have guessed that the United States was experiencing the greatest economic collapse in its history. For a quarter, or even a dime, anyone could buy admission to the fantasy world of Hollywood make-believe and for a couple of hours immerse themselves in a celluloid paradise.
Hollywood’s version of that paradise was an enormously successful and deliberate attempt to provide escape – a retreat from the reality of the Great Depression looming outside the theater doors. And Americans bought into that escapism in record numbers.
By the late 1930s, over 17,000 movie houses were showing roughly 400 different movies a year to some 85 million people a week. Theaters across America enhanced the appeal of a trip to the movies by offering double and even triple features, by giving away door prizes and free passes.
Using a marketing strategy that local theater operators found irresistable, Waters extended to Rutherford Countians, and many others, the rare opportunity of attending the movies to see not only Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, Judy Garland and Bette Davis—but themselves as well cast on the silver screen.
The films that Waters produced were intended to be shown as short features along with the line of cartoons and news reels that normally preceded the feature film.
As a result, hundreds poured into local theaters to experience for the first time the thrill of seeing their own families and friends captured forever by a medium that had previously been reserved for the icons and legends of the cinema.
Waters’ records of ticket sales from the Romina Theater in Forest City alone, show that nearly 1,000 people attended his showings on June 17 and 18, 1937. The theater attendance for showings in Rutherfordton and Spindale was equally impressive.
“With the Depression and hard times, people couldn’t justify spending much “With the Depression and hard times, people couldn’t justify spending much money, but to be able to see themselves on the same screen with a movie star was irresistible.” — H. Lee Waters money, but to be able to see themselves on the same screen with a movie star was irresistible,” Waters says. “Because television had not yet been invented, people had never had the experience of seeing anything but Hollywood on the screen. Viewing themselves in motion was totally overwhelming to them.”
Waters, 92, who still lives in Lexington, feels that the significance of his films lies in the fact that they have captured life as it was almost 60 years ago. Not Hollywood-but Main Street America. The subject of his films was the audience itself.
Uniquely, Waters’ films, like those produced in Hollywood, provided escape. The images that he captured are not of a distraught people who have succumbed to the reality of hard times, but a people who had continued to go on with the business of living and the joys of life.
Featured in his Rutherford County films are thousands of “home-folks” on the streets and sidewalks of the county’s towns, school children playing at the local municipal swimming pools and on the lawn of the Spindale House, workers outside of mill gates, and students leaving their schools at the end of the day.
One man’s memories
“I remember vividly walking down Main Street in Rutherfordton and being filmed by Mr. Waters,” recalls Tom Keeter. “I was a little boy with a crew cut on my way to the SylvanTheater when he filmed me. My family went to the movies a couple of weeks later to see the film. It felt pretty special getting to be up on the screen when: everybody could see you.”
Keeter was filmed by Waters in 1937. In recent years, Keeter has viewed the film again and says that he is always amazed at how unique it is to watch that one small segment of his childhood over again.
Also featured in the Waters’ films are local landmarks and buildings (many no longer standing), mills and industries around the county, and the workers who were employed in those factories.
The films have captured street scenes of T Model Fords, old-fashioned store fronts, and the styles and fashions of the day, including women in hats and gloves and children in knickers and suspenders.
Significantly, in reference to the Cliffside films, they have preserved the images of a town that has for the most part ceased to exist. Most importantly, they have preserved for future generations a view of rural life in America that has become almost forgotten and one that future generations of American children will never know.
Road trips end
With the beginning of World War II, the need for studio photographs of soldiers and their sweethearts increased. Also, Waters found himself making photographs of babies by the hundreds to be sent to their soldier fathers overseas. As a result, the majority of Waters’ time was required in his studio in Lexington, and his numerous road trips came to an end.
Unlike the communities and towns that Waters filmed elsewhere and whose footage is held in Durham or in the private hands of collectors, because of Phillip White’s interest and appreciation for history, the films made in Rutherford County are stored and kept here where they were originally filmed.
“When I show the movies for groups of people, I often find myself not looking at the films at all,” says White, “but at the faces of the people who are viewing again or maybe far the first time the way life was here. It is a tremendous feeling to see their reactions and to hear what they have to say about these glimpses of history.”
From the July 16, 1995 edition of Foothills Magazine. Copyright © The Charlotte Observer. Reprinted with permission.
Captured forever on celluloid
Historic images can be found in Duke collection
In an era when over 23 million video recorders can be found in homes across America and when computer technology can instantly transmit live images across thousands of miles, it is astonishing to remember that only 65 years ago, motion pictures were still a marvelous novelty.
From bulky reels of colloid, flickering images were projected onto screens that allowed the make-believe world of Hollywood to come to life. Uniquely, film also captured forever many real-life images that have become historic treasures.
At Duke University in Durham, a team of film historians and preservationists have acquired and maintain a growing collection of historic films. Many of the films were shot by amateur cameramen and women, and a significant number were shot in North Carolina. Included in Duke’s holdings are over 25 films shot by H. Lee Waters across the Southeast during the 1930s. Of local interest are scenes filmed in Shelby, Cherryville, Gastonia and Gaffney, S.C.
“Several of our films made by Mr. Waters have been purchased by the university. Others have come to us as gifts,” says Robert L. Byrd, director of special collections for the university. “In a number of cases the arrangement weas that Duke preserve the original films here in the William R. Perkins Library, and when possible, supply the donor with a 16-mm print or a video copy. Whatever the case, the originals are kept and maintained under secure and stable conditions.”
All the H. Lee Waters films in the collection at Duke have been sent to preservationists laboratories to have negatives, new 16-mm prints, and videotapes transfer produced from the original films. The returned originals have been stored at Duke as “archival masters,” not to be viewed but to be used only for making additional prints or tapes as needed. Second and third generation videotapes are made available to library patrons.
Rutherford County thoroughly covered
“Each one of these films is a remarkable piece of celluloid history,” says archivist Daniel Wood. “The study of the Great Depression in North Carolina and across the South is made much more vivid for our students and visiting historians because these films have been preserved.”
While none of the films shot in Rutherford County by Waters is a part of the collection at Duke, Woods says that as a film historian, he is amazed at the amount of footage that is held by Phillip White of Cliffside. No single county or city filmed by Waters was more thoroughly covered than Rutherford County.
“To my knowledge, Rutherford County certainly must be Waters’ most visited location,” Woods says. “Although none of the films made in Rutherford County is a part of the collection at Duke, we appreciate the care that has been given in copying and preserving them.”
In addition to the H. Lee Waters’ films, Duke University has over 250 short-reel films produced over the past 80 years by amateur cameramen. The University also houses a growing collection of original prints from feature-length documentaries and films made by historians and aspiring directors.
Want to know more?
For more information on the Duke University film collection, call the office of special collections at (919) 684-3372 or fax (919) 684-2855.
From the July 16, 1995 edition of Foothills Magazine. Copyright © The Charlotte Observer. Reprinted with permission.