One of Corey Ayers' coolest finds so far is some 1931 silent camera footage of Amelia Earhart.
Ayers came across it in the Colcord Family collection in the Oklahoma Historical Society's film archives. As the society's moving image archivist, Ayers has been repairing, documenting and cataloging everything from old local television programs to home movies.
In the midst of one home video, Amelia Earhart suddenly popped into view, Ayers said.
“She comes up and gives a speech, but there's no audio,” he said. “Apparently she was doing a publicity tour and had landed there. … Someone from the Colcord family just happened to be there with a camera. That was an exciting find.”
Earhart, the famed aviator, was doing cross-country promotional flights in 1931 on behalf of Beech-Nut gum. At the time, she was flying a Pitcairn PCA-2, a rather strange contraption that combined an airplane fuselage and wings with a helicopter's rotors.
The Colcord footage shows fairly close-up images of Earhart walking from her aircraft wearing loose fitting clothing and standing on stage talking. It even captures her departure; the craft rolls along the grass before launching into the sky like a huge, ungainly insect.
For the past year, Ayers and colleague Diane Wasser have been going through the video collections, converting some of the 12 million linear feet of film into high-definition footage. Each reel of 8 mm and 16 mm film also is saved as a smaller digital file and uploaded to the Historical Society's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/OHSfilm).
There you can see Earhart's Oklahoma City visit and a wealth of other clips. The channel is home to about 320 films documenting Oklahoma's past.
Among them are some classic moments from “The Ida B Show,” a long-running magazine-style program on KOCO-5.
The show starred Ida B. Blackburn, who is the mother of Oklahoma Historical Society Director Bob Blackburn.
“We found in her collection a rare Beach Boys interview,” Ayers said. “It's blowing up on the Internet. It shows Brian Wilson playing at Springlake, which was a little old amusement park in Oklahoma City. … We put it up on YouTube five days ago, and it's got about 2,000 hits already.”
There's no audio with the clip of the Beach Boys' performance, but there is sound with Ida B's interview of brothers and bandmates Brian and Carl Wilson.
The collection also includes interviews with entertainer Frankie Avalon, Western star John Wayne and musical group Herman's Hermits.
Other popular clips include a 1966 interview of Oklahoma author Ralph Ellison and a promotional film from the 1960s — titled “Growing With Pride” — that champions Oklahoma City's urban renewal. (Today many mourn that period in the city's history, which drove residents from downtown and saw landmark buildings bulldozed in the name of progress.)
Everyday people occupy much of the footage.
The Warren T. Basore collection, for instance, consists of home movies shot from 1959 to 1978. Shots of unidentified people inside unknown homes or buildings aren't all that helpful for historical researchers, but the Basore films include footage of Oklahoma City and Tulsa neighborhoods.
“They really help people doing research on fashions, locations and events,” Ayers said.
The YouTube clips are good enough for most people, he said, but television networks, documentarians and those with special interest in particular shots may access the high-definition versions by appointment.
High-def files consume immense quantities of memory; in the past year alone, Ayers and Wasser have filled hard drives with seven terabytes of data.
The work isn't easy. Damaged film must be sent out for repair or trimmed and spliced.
“It's a kind of slow, deliberate process. ... Processing and archiving is not a real speedy thing, but it's big to us because some of these things haven't been seen since the 1920s,” Ayers said. “This is the first time, with today's technology, that these are being seen. It's pretty amazing.”