THUNDER BAY — Two decades of mid-20th century Lakehead history, captured on film for local television news broadcasts, will be digitized and documented in an ambitious, time-consuming and costly undertaking.
Lakehead University's Department of History and the Thunder Bay Museum call the project "Reel Memories of the Lakehead."
It's supported by the Northern Ontario Heritage Corporation and the Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple.
The project team, led by Lakehead's Ron Harpelle, will clean, screen, transfer and catalogue 2,000 rolls of 100-foot, 16 mm reels donated to the museum some years ago by the late Fraser Dougall, owner of Thunder Bay Television/Dougall Media.
From 1958 to 1978–when the switch was made to videotape–the station's news photographers and reporters did all their newsgathering with film, capturing historic events ranging from royal visits to the amalgamation of Port Arthur and Fort William 50 years ago.
Harpelle says the archived material also features milestones in the arts, entertainment and culture.
One segment, from 1961, documents the arrival in Thunder Bay of the Twist, the dance that was just catching fire across North America.
It shows, Harpelle said, "what can only be somebody's grandparents (today) doing the Twist. There's a dance, and a band, and there's somebody interviewing a guy who looks sort of like Buddy Holly. And he asks the guy 'How long have you been doing this?', and his answer is 'About two hours.' "
The clip is part of a montage released by the Thunder Bay Museum that also includes images of circus elephants being taken to a local car wash, and a speech by CCF/NDP leader Tommy Douglas.
Harpelle said digitizing all the material poses significant challenges.
"This is a really, really big project. We've experimented with projectors and cameras. It's not as straightforward as people might think. Transferring film is extremely expensive. We have to get at least 4K for quality. And you have to have storage space. I don't know how much it would cost if they sent it out to a commercial place but it would be a budget that people can't possibly imagine."
All the reels will be cleaned and checked for any deteriorating splices before being run through a projector so the images can be re-recorded with a digital camera. After that, the material will be downloaded and catalogued by date and topic.
The task will be assigned to two interns paid through funding from the NOHFC.
There's currently enough money to support one year of work, but it's not clear yet how much they can accomplish in that time.
Harpelle believes it's important to see the project through to the end.
"This is a visual record of Thunder Bay. It's just a wealth of information," he said.
The first public presentation of some of the digitized news film will take place at the Thunder Bay Museum's Taste of History dinner on April 3 at the Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel. It will include a 20-minute segment with highlights of the city's birth in January 1970.
"People will be able to see some of these things, and recognize the events, and say 'I was there' when that happened," Harpelle noted.
He described all the reels as being in "pristine" condition, since most of it them were only run through a projector once or twice – on the nightly newscasts – before they were put in storage.
"You can find some really rough archival stuff, but that's not the case here. If it's John Diefenbaker visiting the Lakehead, you can clearly see it's John Diefenbaker."
Harpelle expects that, once researchers become aware of its existence, they will take good advantage of this newly-accessible record of the city's past.