SMU curators preserve valuable footage of North Texas history

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SMU's best-kept secret is two floors beneath the Greer Garson Theatre and the display case that holds her Academy Award. It’s a basement where two young film “archaeologists” are preserving valuable pieces of Dallas and North Texas history.

Jeremy Spracklen and Scott Martin work in a 55-degree vault surrounded by more than 100 years of North Texas history on video and film.

"I just kind of love being surrounded by it,” said Martin, the assistant curator of the G. William Jones Film and Video Collection at SMU.

The duo is responsible for cleaning, restoring, and digitizing miles of film dating back to the late 1800’s and film and video from the earliest days of Dallas television. The collection includes turn-of-the-century silent films, some of Greer Garson’s original screen tests, the Gene Autry Collection of his Dallas-produced films, and newsreels from that dark day in Dallas -- November 22, 1963. The current collection includes more than 9,000 film prints and negatives and more than 3,000 videotapes.

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"It's interesting that because there are so many materials here, every time you go through the vault you see something different,” said Jeremy Spracklen, the curator of the G. William Jones Film and Video Collection. "We just got in over 100 prints last week. So, we're still growing."

One of their current projects is digitizing decades of newsreels from WFAA-TV Channel 8, saving Dallas history and making it available online for the general public to see.

“It’s a lot of nothing followed by 'oh my God I can't believe we have this,’” said Spracklen of their often unexpected finds.

"The goal here is to get this stuff out in front of as many eyes as possible,” said Martin. "Not just for study purposes, but to fill in the blanks of people's lives. And we can create, basically, the story of Dallas during the 60's and 70's."

But why should you care about all this, a basement full of old movies? Like the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection - a snapshot of early 1900's African American history, or Denton's biggest film star - a dog named Benji, or a TV interview with a teenage ventriloquist from Dallas named Jeff Dunham destined to become a Las Vegas star? Because if it’s not saved and preserved here at SMU, all of this might - literally - melt and disappear.

"In a way, we're getting to capture these moments in time and give them back to the city,” said Martin.

“To maintain the mission of preserving film in its original form or in its digital form,” said Spracklen of his goal every day.

"I kind of feel like we're doing something, we're doing tangible good in the world by providing of this history of Dallas that has never been seen before, like we're actually doing something good,” said Martin.

"But it takes having a facility like this to be able to make that happen,” said Spracklen.

A facility, the only one of its kind in North Texas, that they hope will continue to grow, and continue to get the funding it needs to stay open. And also to keep two young film buffs working.

"It kind of feels like we're archaeologists, right,” joked Martin.

Archaeologists keeping memories, and Dallas history, alive.