Lights, camera, Marquette!

A screen grab from original footage (circa 1919) shot by the Delft Theater shows the old Post Office on the corner of Third and Washington streets in Marquette. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — A unique piece of Marquette history, which will be shown tomorrow night, was literally rescued from a dumpster.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the owners and managers of the Delft Theater in Marquette shot 35-millimeter movie footage of area events and activities. That film was then shown in the theater, placed before films starring such stars of the day as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.

There was also footage shot of several local businesses, in what may have been an early version of the pre-show commercials that populate movie theaters today.

Flash forward to 1980, when Jack Deo owned Superior View Studios, then located above Donckers in downtown Marquette. Looking out his window one day, Jack saw what appeared to be several canisters of movie film lying in a dumpster behind the Delft.

“I immediately ran down and talked to (theater owner) Paul Florence, who was cleaning out the theater. In the basement were all the old films from the Delft Theater and he was nice enough to give them to me instead of throwing them away,” Jack recalled.

The footage he recovered was irreplaceable, chronicling both everyday life in Marquette — shots of schools, businesses, and life on Lake Superior — as well as special events, such as pageants at Northern Michigan University, parades and the arrival of Army generals on a nationwide tour.

Deo sent the film away for preservation, a process he said involved two different processes: the films shown in the theater, and the negatives on which it was shot. The negatives were stored in tightly wound reels, but in 1980, 60 years after the footage was originally shot, large portions of the film reels had started to degrade.

“Some of the film had already started to turn to dust,” Jack said. “There was a George Shiras movie that was gone, among others. However, there were some that were still intact, so the negatives were sent off to the only lab in the country that could process them.”

Deo received some assistance from Russ McKee, who ran the Michigan Department of Natural Resources magazine at the time. Jack was working with the magazine and showed McKee what he had found. “He knew they were worth saving,” says Jack, who ended up with two 16-millimeter reels of film.

Since then, the 16-millimeter reels, taken from the original 35-millimeter footage, have been transferred to several other formats, now digital.

And while the original footage, some of which has experienced severe degradation over the past century, will never match today’s 4K television picture or IMAX movie screens, what remains is a vital link to Marquette’s past.

Instead of seeing mere still pictures of the area in the 1910s and 1920s, the movies bring to life an era of the city in a way that few have ever seen before.

All of which was saved from a dumpster 43 years ago.

Scheduling note: That footage (and more) will be screened, with commentary from Jack Deo and Jim Koski, as well as live silent movie-era music played by Bob Buchkoe, during “Lights, Camera, Marquette: The Silent Films of 1914-1949,” a fundraising program for the Marquette Regional History Center at 7 p.m. Thursday at Kaufman Auditorium. Doors open at 6:15 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. For more information, call the History Center at (906) 226-3571, or visit www.marquettehistory.org.


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