Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Sacramento Picture: History comes alive

The Sacramento Picture (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.26.15

Our digital age has unleashed countless miracles, and one of the best is the growing cornucopia of archival material that is becoming available to anybody with Internet access.

California Gov. Pat Brown, at the microphones, prepares to introduce presidential candidate
John F. Kennedy during the latter's whistle-stop visit to Sacramento in September 1960.
You can't see Kennedy in this image, although the president-to-be is standing directly
behind Brown, just inside the dark train car. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento
Time was, researchers or curious civilians were limited to hard copies of vintage documents, audio recordings and newsreel footage stored on site, at locations with limited public hours ... if they offered visiting hours at all. If you lived in San Francisco and wanted to investigate something that existed only at some repository in San Diego, that represented a significant investment of time and expense. Not surprisingly, most folks simply wouldn’t bother.

Things are different today, with access to such materials no more difficult than firing up a laptop in your living room.

And, as a charming and informative new documentary amply demonstrates, you simply won’t believe what has become available.

The Sacramento Picture is written, directed and produced by Sacramento-area historian and film critic Matías Antonio Bombal, who also narrates (and has a talent for deliciously droll asides). Editing and post-production are by Chad E. Williams, and the two of them have assembled a lively 95-minute glimpse of what can be found at the Center for Sacramento History.

The film will screen one time only, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, at Sacramento’s Tower Theater. Tickets are modestly priced, and the experience is well worth the cost.

The Center, the larger regional history repository in California, has a mission to preserve and protect its collection, while also making its contents available to the general public. The material is slowly being digitized and made available via the web, thanks to the California Audiovisual Preservation Project, a joint effort between UC Berkeley and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Bombal’s film is an engaging blend of archival footage and on-camera commentary by folks such as historian William Burg, journalist Ginger Rutland and beloved former KCRA newsman Stan Atkinson, who provide context for the video sequences.

They’re quite a treat.

The oldest footage, dating back to 1910, reveals the scope of Sacramento’s then-quite enormous hops-growing industry. Another vintage clip, filmed on opening day (April 6) of the 1920 “Base-ball season” at Sacramento’s Buffalo Park, shows streetcars bringing throngs of fans to watch their beloved Sacramento Senators take on the visiting Seattle Indians.

Buffalo Park sat at the corner of Broadway and Riverside, where a Target store and parking lot are found today, just a few blocks from the Tower Theater.

School children are glimpsed in a 1935 segment filmed at the venerable Marshall School. A visit to the school nurse alternates with recess activities and a session in a music appreciation class, where — rather unexpectedly — the young students are seen wearing headphones, “so as not to disturb adjacent classrooms.”

Bombal and Williams execute some ingenious editing magic during another segment, starting with an establishing shot in today’s downtown Sacramento, which morphs perfectly — the exact same viewing angle — into some 1937 footage of the merry hustle and bustle of the Sacramento Junior Traffic Patrol Parade, as everybody marches south down 7th Street and crosses “Jay” (J) Street.

A lengthy segment proudly profiles Sacramento’s WWII effort, by spending an afternoon with “Mr. and Mrs. Sacramento Victory Gardener” — actually Prentiss R. Ferguson, his wife and their two young children — as they harvest and then enjoy a meal of home-grown veggies.

And here’s a fun fact: Walt Disney was commissioned to draw the iconic bees — Scoopy and Gaby — that became well-recognized mascots for, respectively, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and radio station KFBK. Disney patriotically donated his $1,500 fee to the war effort.

Fast-forward a few years, to 1953, and we watch excited children line up outside the Tower Theater, in order to watch a matinee screening of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Atkinson then takes center stage, recalling his 1957 arrival at KCRA Channel 3, accompanied by vintage footage of his youthful self. He celebrates longtime colleague Harry Sweet, a station cameraman who had the foresight to realize that the news stories they created and aired, day after day, eventually would be regarded as a priceless historical record.

Sweet therefore began to squirrel away stacks of film canisters: initially at the KCRA studios, and then — when station execs objected — at his own home. Much of what the Center for Sacramento History possesses, and is previewed in Bombal’s film, is possible only because of Sweet’s efforts. (No surprise, then, that he gets a poignant dedication during the closing credits.)

Next, we’re intrigued by Bombal’s matter-of-fact presentation of how the “tone” of local news coverage has changed, over time. This distinction often is amusing, as with people interviewed during “person on the street” segments; they talk awkwardly, quickly flustered, due to the novelty of confronting a microphone.

One woman, asked to comment on Russia’s Luna 2 spacecraft landing on the Moon on September 14, 1959 — thus beating the United States — tartly replies, “I wish all the Russians would go to the Moon ... and stay there!”

Alternatively, the difference in tone can be shocking, as with the quite graphic coverage of crime and vehicular accidents, the camera often looming over bloodied victims: all quite typical of the late 1950s.

Things turn even more serious during the early stages of the 1960 Capitol Mall redevelopment project, which — as Rutland pointedly explains — displaced homes and businesses belonging primarily to people of color. Japanese shop owners are particularly incensed by what they perceive as the same callous indifference that led to their forced relocation to internment camps during World War II.

Elsewhere, a gaggle of “typical citizens” visit Lockheed’s production facility, staring and giggling at a just-constructed U.S. Air Force Titan intercontinental ballistic missile. One civilian eagerly pushes a button that causes the missile’s second stage to rise slowly from its base: a sequence that evokes memories of ridiculous special effects in cheap 1950s sci-fi movies.

Bombal chooses silence here, allowing the image to speak for itself ... although the scene is counterpointed by some ironically hilarious music.

On a lighter note, we witness an August 1960 visit to Sacramento by British film sexpot Diana Dors, the “Siren of Swindon,” who attracts a swarm of eager male fans.

Bombal shares another fun fact as we watch representatives from Sacramento’s KVIE Channel 6 — which debuted Feb. 23, 1959 — celebrate their first birthday in the summer of 1960, while receiving a proclamation from the city mayor. The station’s call letters have specific meaning: The “VI” represents their channel (6), while the “E” stands for “educational.”

Who knew?

Bombal wisely saves the best for last: a jaw-dropping clip of John F. Kennedy’s September 1960 train-bound visit to Sacramento, as part of his whistle-stop campaign. As enthusiastic crowds display banners that read “Welcome to Sac, Jack!,” Gov. Pat Brown introduces Kennedy, who then delivers a brief but quite inspirational speech.

Amazing stuff.

Be sure to remain for the entire closing credits, in order to hear “Sacramento, CA USA,” a clever and witty song performed by Greg Sabin, Patrick Skiffington and The Freebadge Serenaders. (They obviously spent hours studying Tom Lehrer.)

Bombal, Williams and their production team have created a thoroughly engaging and entertaining film, well worth the viewing experience. And the best part, of course, is that it’s just a glimpse of the wonders to be found at the Center for Sacramento History.

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