Vintage Piece of Historic Film Documents a Long Ago Fourth of July

Horses on parade in Pathé News newsreel of East Hampton’s Fourth of July parade in 1915. Courtesy Historic Films.

LTV studios in East Hampton has a lot of old film in its vaults. As the local public access station and television studio, over the years LTV has become a repository of sorts for all kinds of footage shot by generations of East End residents, most of it in 16mm or 8mm format. But no one expected that one particular piece of footage discovered there recently, a rare 35mm film, would turn out to be as old as it is.

“They told me about it,” said Joe Lauro, a Sag Harbor resident who learned of the film’s existence from Genie Chipps Henderson, the archivist at LTV. “They said, ‘We think it’s from 1925, but we have no way to look at it.’”

Lauro, however, did have a way to look at it. As the owner of Greenport-based Historic Films archive, he regularly purchases and preserves all kinds of vintage film, video and sound footage. Because he had acquired a Laser Graphics scanner that allows him to digitally transfer old film footage, Lauro told Henderson he could put the film on the machine and see what it was. Soon, he learned that the footage was not from 1925, as Henderson suspected, but rather, it was a full decade older.

“I cleaned it, put it on a core and did a 6.5K transfer,” Lauro explained. “There was a little nitrate deterioration in the beginning. Then it unspooled and it was this amazing time machine — here you are, July 4, 1915, East Hampton downtown. People’s faces are so clear. It was this moment of history, a local to local event, a little celebration.”

It was, in fact, the Independence Day parade, a celebration held on an unpaved East Hampton Main Street, complete with the Riverhead Brass Band playing on the side of the road as legions of riders on horseback, automobiles decorated with flowers carrying flag waving participants and floats depicting replicas of East Hampton’s famous landmarks —a saltbox home with smoke pouring from the chimney and a windmill with spinning blades — passed by the camera.

“In one part of the parade, you can see these old guys in Union uniforms — they’re Civil War veterans with long, white beards,” said Lauro.

Riverhead Brass Band in Pathé News newsreel of East Hampton’s Fourth of July parade in 1915. Courtesy Historic Films.

The footage also shows a group of young girls dancing in front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, presumably after the parade, while a crowd of spectators unfamiliar with the concept of the “selfie” stare uncertainly at the camera filming them, one belligerent boy repeatedly firing his cap gun in the direction of the camera operator. Another potion of the film featured a speech by actor and summer resident John Drew Jr., for whom Guild Hall’s theater would be posthumously named in 1931, but Lauro notes he didn’t transfer that footage because there was no sound and he had no way of discerning what Drew was saying.

At the time the footage was shot, the 20th century was just getting started. The 1918 flu pandemic had not yet taken hold of the world, Woodrow Wilson was president and the U.S. had just entered World War I. Though the full story of the parade footage is not yet known with certainty, Lauro said the film was part of a Pathé News newsreel that had been donated to LTV by local historian Averill Geus. Geus’s father, Frank Dayton, was an avid photographer and historian and likely acquired the film from the John E. Allen archive, a stock footage library with film dating from 1896 to the 1980s.

Working with DSH Electronics in Finland, Lauro colorized the transfer of the black and white footage in a way reminiscent of hand-tinted postcards from the era. Lauro also has in his archive a pre-1925 sound effects library on 78 rpm discs and was able to pull the sounds of horses, vintage cars, and a brass band to add authentic audio to the footage.

“I found sounds appropriate for what we were looking at and created a soundtrack for it,” said Lauro. “I saw there’s a motorcycle in the footage, I have to go back and add that sound. Those things had no mufflers, so I want to add that.”

Hamptons windmill float in a newsreel of East Hampton’s 1915 Fourth of July parade. Courtesy Historic Films.

Finding 35mm footage from this era is extremely rare, said Lauro, who suspects that it is likely one of two “shorts” that would have been shown in regional movie houses prior to a feature film.

“For an event like this, they would hire a local stringer who would cover it and dispatch them to a town or they’d hire a regional photographer to do it,” explained Lauro. “It would only have been shown in the theater in the region. It would be a thrill to see yourself in the movie theater. They didn’t even have radios then. All they were doing was playing piano, reading and entertaining each other. Going to the movie theater and seeing yourself was quite a novelty and a savvy distributor used that as a way to lure people into the theater.

“That makes it even rarer,” added Lauro. “My company represents American Pathé, and so much of it is just gone. In my estimation, this would only have been shown locally and it was all ephemera — of the moment. It was sleeping for 100 years and woke up.”

Making footage like this even more fleeting is the fact that in 1915, 35mm film was made of silver nitrate, meaning that when subjected to heat and humidity, as film often was, the emulsion would break down and transform into a volatile and dangerous gelatinous substance. As a result, a large number of nitrate films from the early part of the 20th century were intentionally destroyed or ended up exploding or bursting into flame (which is what happened to the movie projectionist in the 1988 film “Cinema Paradiso”). Once burning, it is extremely difficult to extinguish nitrate film, which does not need air to continue burning.

“Eighty percent of silent films from that era don’t exist because of all the nitrate,” said Lauro. “It used to be 90 percent didn’t exist, but with birth of the internet and archives around the world, prints have been found and a number of things have surfaced, but most of it is gone.

“The first American Pathé newsreels began in 1914 and there’s very little that still exists in its original nitrate native form from those early years,” said Lauro, who when asked what he does with nitrate films when he comes across them responded, “We make sure they’re stable. We don’t keep them in house. We get the best possible transfers and donate them to the Library of Congress.”

Girls dancing in front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Pathé News newsreel of East Hampton’s 1915 Fourth of July parade. Courtesy Historic Films.

Now, Lauro is hoping to find a way for the 1915 parade footage to be screened publicly on a big outdoor screen this Fourth of July somewhere in East Hampton in order to bring it full circle and give it back to the community where it was created more than a century ago. But in the meantime, the footage is scheduled to run locally on LTV in East Hampton and SEA-TV in Southampton beginning the week of Fourth of July. Check schedules for showtimes.

He is now working with LTV on housing and digitizing some of their other films.

“The next one I have in mind is a circa 1925 film made for the East Hampton Fire Department — it’s amazing,” Lauro said. “It shows the workings of the department through a simulated fire set in an old building, and on a boat — you get to see all the local members at work.”

To learn more about Joe Lauro’s passion for historic film and audio archives, listen to him on WLIW (88.3 FM) Sunday nights at 10 p.m., when he hosts “American Grooves Radio Hour.” The show focuses on pre-World War II recorded music accompanied by stories from his collecting adventures. Lauro is also a stand-up bass player who performs with a rotating lineup of bands every Monday night at the Clubhouse, 174 Daniels Hole Road, East Hampton.

Here’s a link to the film: