Sammy and Me

When I saw that the Classic TV Blog Association was having a blogathon about horror movie hosts, I knew I would have to get involved.  The whole reason this blog exists is because of a horror movie host.

Let me transport you to a long-ago time in the early 1970s.  TV stations stopped broadcasting at 2 or 3 in the morning.  Cable TV was almost unheard of.  Infomercials did not exist.  In a big market, there were maybe 5 or 6 stations that you could watch.  In the evening, after the news, you could either watch Johnny Carson or an old movie.  That’s about all there was.

In those days, we didn’t have the cultural illiteracy about old films that we have today.  Films were literally suffused into the air.  We saw them all the time.  It was nothing to see a film 30 or 40 years old, even in prime time.  Black and white?  No problem.  We knew the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Boris Karloff.

Since films were so commonplace, there was some need for brand recognition.  In the 50s, when Screen Gems released the first package of Shock Theater to television stations, someone hit on the bright idea of having a horror film host.  I don’t know who it was.  Someone will tell you it was Vampira, others will say it was someone else.  It doesn’t really matter.

By the 1960s, almost every market had one.  In Indianapolis, my home town, it was Sammy Terry.  (You get the joke?  It’s a pun on “cemetery.”  OK, subtle it isn’t.)  By the mid-70s, most of these had died out, but a few survived.  Elvira and Svengoolie are two of the more known ones that have made it all these years.

Sammy Terry worked for WTTV, our local independent station.  WTTV was something of an anomaly.  It was technically a Bloomington station (about an hour south of Indianapolis), but they sneaked the transmitter northward to hit Indy.  That could be the subject of a blog entry in itself.  WTTV’s transmitter never worked quite right.  There was always snow in the picture, in a predictable pattern.  As a kid, I always suspected that it was my dad’s makeshift antenna that didn’t work, but when we got cable, I noticed that WTTV still didn’t come in quite right!

In those days, a TV section came every week in the local newspaper.  It was important.  TV wasn’t endlessly repeated, and there was no way to record it to watch later.  If a movie or a show came on that you wanted to see, you’d have to schedule your life around it.  WTTV, lacking both ratings and network affiliation, was like a window into the past, using outdated equipment and techniques well after the other stations had moved on.

One day, I was scanning that section and I saw that Sammy Terry was running the 1931 Frankenstein with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.  Now, in those days they marked all the black and white shows with a B/W sign.  Just why they did it, I didn’t know, but at least you knew if a movie was black and white or color.

I noticed that Frankenstein was not listed as a black and white program!  Could it be?  Did they even have color film in 1931?  I had no idea.  The whole concept fascinated me.  Luckily, I had someone to ask.

My grandmother was staying with us at the time.  She was profoundly overweight, in ill health, and she had cataracts that needed surgery.  In those days, cataract surgery was a big deal.  You had the surgery and it took 6 weeks to recover, and there were all sorts of problems with it.  Today you’re in and out and stapled in half an hour.

Grandma was not able to live by herself (which she normally did) during the recovery period.  I knew if anyone would know about color films of the time, she would.  She and I were really the only people in the family interested in the arts and movies.   Grandma loved the movies.

She’d seen Frankenstein, but she couldn’t remember if it was in color.  I asked her if it could have been in color.  She said it was possible, because there were some early color processes at the time, but she didn’t remember.

Well, that was all I needed.  I went to ask my mom if I could stay up and watch Frankenstein that weekend.

Well, mom was harried.  She was under a lot of stress taking care of grandma, and she did one of her typical stall tactics.  “Well see,” she said.  “If you behave.”

This is code for NO.

In all honesty, I can understand where she was coming from.  It was on late, and she didn’t want to deal with all that hassle, and worse yet, I was a sensitive kid who scared easily.  The idea of me staying up late was ridiculous.  She knew I’d have a fit if she outright said no, so she tried to stall me.

It didn’t work.

I behaved myself admirably all week.  I wasn’t going to give her an out.  I was planning to shove it back in her face on Friday night.  And that didn’t work either.

“Eric, you have to go to bed.  It’s late, and I don’t want you staying up that late.  You’ve never done it before.”

“You said I could if I behave, and I did.”

I knew the battle was lost, but intervention was around the corner in the form of my grandmother.

“Sister,” she said (she often called mom “sister” because she is part of a set of twins.) “I heard you tell Eric if he behaved that he’d get to stay up.  He’s been talking about this all week.  You should let him see it.”

“Mother,” countered my own mother, “I need to get to bed.  I can’t stay up with him and watch it.”

“That’s fine,” Grandma said.  “I’ll stay up with him.”

Remember, I said that grandma was the only other person in the family who really “got” movies.  That was great.

Mom reluctantly agreed, laid a lot of ground rules, but the hour was late and she was tired.  She didn’t have the energy to fight.  HAHA!  It was going to work.

Grandma sat on our green couch and cautioned me that if I got overly upset about this then she’d send me off to bed and that would be it.  She folded her hands over her giant belly and waited for the movie to start.

I think I had seen parts of the Sammy Terry intro before, because it looked a little familiar.  Sammy wore a cowl and was made up with greasepaint, looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Played by local performer Bob Carter, there was always something avuncular and silly about Sammy, and he didn’t scare me at all.

I still remember this after all these years.  I’d worked myself into a tizzy about seeing this, wondering if it could actually be color.  I knew the time was nigh.  Sammy (or someone) had fashioned a poster for Frankenstein, done very cheesily in a hand-drawn way.  At the bottom someone had penciled in this tag line: “In Horro-Color!”

WOW!  Could it be?

It was my first Sammy Terry intro and I just wished he’d shut up and run the movie.  I don’t think my grandmother even lasted through the first 10 minutes of the show.  By the time the film started, she was gently snoring, with her hands still folded in front of her.

Well, as you probably know, the film was in black and white after all. (Of course, this sparked a lasting level of curiosity in me, because I have a long demonstration about the history of color in the movies that’s one of my most popular shows.)  I eagerly sat through the movie, color or not.  I was delighted.  The film had a weird rustic feel that I found to be really cool.  I sat quietly through the end of the picture, woke grandma up, and we both went to bed.

She created a monster.

I was hooked.  I wanted to keep watching Sammy Terry and see more of those films.  I had to.  Grandma gamely stayed with me on most of them, still usually falling asleep.  She had one eye done, 6 weeks recovery, and another eye, 6 more weeks recovery.  By that time, I was a hopeless addict.  She went home, but I kept watching Sammy.

I discovered that my parents didn’t care too much as long as I didn’t make a lot of noise to wake them up.

I discovered that the local bookstore had a new book by film historian Denis Gifford that gave a great history of these movies.  Mom had picked it out, and she had it wrapped “From Grandma” for Christmas that year.  I recently found the 8mm home movie of that Christmas, showing me unwrapping the present.  I still have the book.

That’s me (on the left) with my grandmother and sister, Christmas 1973

I seldom missed Sammy Terry, and I went on to catch the Saturday night offering on WTTV, which was called Science Fiction Theater.  In the summertime, WTTV had another film host showing Summer Film Festival which consisted of more mainstream films.  I loved it too.  WISH Channel 8 had host Dave Smith with another show called When Movies Were Movies.  I loved it too.

It got so that in the summer I was up until 3am most every night.

Sammy was still a special favorite.  I loved his silly jokes and weird introductions, his hairy spider (named George) who interrupted the proceedings periodically.  I even loved the stupid gaffes that we’d never see today.  The Sunday paper listed one film as Sammy’s show for the week, but the Friday paper listed another film.  That night, Sammy’s intros were for the film in the Sunday paper, but they ran the film listed in the Friday paper!  OOPS.

My grandmother died in 1975.  She was a special woman and I miss her to this very day.

WTTV canceled Sammy Terry in about 1976.  I was outraged.  I started a petition to put him back on the air.  But the times had changed and they didn’t want to go back.

They finally relented and brought him back in the early 80s.  The film package wasn’t as good as it had been, but it was still fun to see Sammy back again.  There were fewer Karloff and Lugosi pictures and more gut-laden Hammer films.

Then, in the mid-80s the world changed again.  When cable became widespread, the studios discovered that they could make more money from a cable film showing than from the local stations, so they pulled all the old films.  As historian Jim Neibaur has said, it was like they decided to make one station the repository for all the old films and they filled the rest with infomercials.

Sammy Terry was gone.  Bob Carter continued to play the character at live shows and in the occasional special.  I met him a few times.  He ran a music store close to where I lived.  Seemed like a nice guy, but it was never more than a passing encounter.

Mr. Carter has been in ill health for the past few years, so he has not been so active.  His son is carrying on the Sammy Terry tradition.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I wish him well.

Of course, I started to miss that late-night experience I had so loved.  I collected videotapes of my favorite movies.  Then 16mm film.  Then 35mm film.

I’m not on TV (not yet, at least), but I carry film projectors to run film shows wherever I’m wanted.   I got to run a movie with WTTV’s cartoon show host, Cowboy Bob, and WFBM’s Three Stooges host, Harlow Hickenlooper.  It was freezing cold, and with the two of them there, including me and an assistant, I think we had 6 people in the audience.  Oh, well.  I had fun anyway.

And that still doesn’t bring the story to a close.

One of the things that dogs me about new technology is how we throw out the whole of the old to embrace the new.  We often don’t fully appreciate the magic of what we had until it’s gone.

The old horror hosts and the movie hosts in general helped us appreciate films made before we were born.  It was just part of who we were.  Now, all you have to do is channel hop over Turner Classic Movies and you’ll never see them at all.

It’s no disrespect to Robert Osborne or Leonard Maltin to say that they’re not the same as the guys from the old days.  They are preaching to the converted.  You don’t watch them unless you specifically want to see an old film.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes we look at old films as either obsolete relics or unapproachable HIGH ART.

There is little appreciation for film as an art form today.  That’s why I created Dr. Film.  It’s a deliberate throwback to the old hosted-film format.  Dr. Film isn’t specifically for horror films, although we will show them. It’s got the poverty-induced sets and goofy jokes that all the hosted-film shows had.

What’s different about Dr. Film is that its purpose is to subtly educate (and I hope it is very subtle).  I hope it’s just strange enough to catch an errant viewer asking, “What the heck is THIS?” before he flips the remote one more time.

No, this doesn’t mean I regard the new Sammy Terry as competition, because he’s not doing the same thing.  Nor do I regard Svengoolie or Elvira as competition.  I embrace them all (I’d particularly like to embrace Elvira in that tight dress, but I digress.)

I always think that a rising tide floats all boats.  And I think that the movie host is something we’ve lost and that needs to return.  I think we all miss them, even if we don’t know it.

Dr. Film isn’t really competition for anyone, because the show hasn’t made it to the airwaves.  In all honesty, it probably never will.  But I’m still in there trying, because I’m trying to save a part of our past that I miss.

Instead of tilting at windmills, I’m saving film.  I might just as well be trying to save Fizzies, Burger Chef, and handmade chocolate sodas.  Hey, maybe it’s a lost cause, but someone has to do it.

Digital is Over There! It’s Only a Matter of Sampling!

Bruce Lawton made me aware of an article in the New York Times that I found highly annoying.  It was highly annoying because it was inaccurate.  It reflects the complete misunderstanding of what “digital” means in the media and public.  In short, the public and media seem to believe this:

“Digital imaging processes are a modern miracle and are a complete replacement and upgrade from older technologies.  All digital images are perfect by their nature and will never degrade or become outdated.”

This is simply not true.  I hate to burst your bubble.  A closer summation would be this:

“Digital imaging is a miraculous tool that allows us to do things that were previously impossible to accomplish.  They can produce very high quality, not perfect, reproductions of their source images.  Their biggest drawback is that they become outdated quickly and most digital storage devices have short shelf lives.”

Now, once again, I’ll draw criticism from the masses: “You hate anything digital!  You’re a luddite!  You’re clinging to an outdated technology like film!  Get with the modern program!”

Once again, this is not true.  I use digital imaging all the time.  I think it’s great.  I did digital restorations for the Buster Keaton picture Seven Chances.  I am doing a digital restoration on King of the Kongo.  But I still believe in film.  Film doesn’t get computer viruses, hard drive crashes, or incompatible software upgrades.

I have film, actual film stock, manufactured in 1926 that is still projectable in modern projectors and plays fine.  I have digital images from 1991, carefully saved and copied,  that are incompatible with any modern program.

What would you think of a library that had a book from 1991 that you couldn’t read anymore?  Not because it was damaged in some way, but rather because they couldn’t figure out how to open it. You’d say they were crazy.  You’d be right.

I’m going to refute the New York Times article point by point, but first I have to lay out some ground work.  Fear not, technophobes. I’ll try to make it as clear as possible and minimize all the math.  It really is pretty simple, but for some reason, people want to believe in the miracle part of it instead of the truth.

In the early 1980s, Disney made the first real computer feature.  It took years to complete, but it was called Tron, released in 1982.  Tron was made with a bank of computers each with less computing power than your iPhone.  Your old iPhone.  Yeah, that slow one.

Tron is not notable for many dramatic triumphs (after all, it’s basically The Wizard of Oz set inside a computer), but for cinema, it was a real breakthrough.  Disney experimented with various resolutions.  Now, before you get all paranoid about a scary word like resolutions, let me explain.  It simply means how many pixels (little squares, like the ones you see in the image above) are used in the image.

Higher resolution = more pixels = smaller squares = sharper image.  In television, this is also measured in lines, which is the number of horizontal lines in the TV picture.  You know how people keep trying to sell you 1080p HDTV?  Well, standard definition was 525 lines, and HDTV is 1080.  Again, more lines = more pixels = sharper image.  See?  Simple!

Disney knew that they would have to output their computer graphics to 35mm film in some way.  There was no digital projection at the time.  They were very concerned about “stair-stepping.”  This is an effect also called aliasing.  Don’t be scared.  Look at the picture above.  You notice that it’s made of little squares?  Omar Sharif’s collar isn’t a collar, but it’s a jagged set of white lines.  You went to plot something that was supposed to be a line and you ended up with a jagged representation instead.  It’s aliased because the thing you tried to plot isn’t what you got!

Disney’s people discovered that they could see aliasing on most images until they put the resolution at 4000 lines.  This has been the “gold standard” of digital imaging for years.  Well, almost.  Tron had a limited color palette because of the software and hardware of the time.  This made jagged lines easier to spot.  As we were able to represent more colors and shades, we discovered that we could drop the resolution to 2000 lines, and it still looked pretty good… just a little blurry to some people. Remember, this is for material generated by the computer, not something scanned from an outside source.

In engineering parlance, 4000 lines = 4K, 2000 lines = 2K, and HDTV at 1080 lines makes almost exactly 1K.

I have to introduce one last concept.  It’s called the Nyquist Sampling Theorem.  I know, it’s an engineer thing.  Nyquist is a law of digital sampling.  It says that if you are scanning an analog signal (like a piece of film), the minimum rate you can use, so that you get no significant loss of data, is twice the number of the highest frequency in the source.

Oh, no.  The mathophobes are dying now.  Please don’t.  That simply means if you’re scanning a 4K image, you need to scan it at 8K or else you’re get a picture blurrier than it should be.  For a 2K image, you scan at 4K.

Now, we can tackle this article.  Take a deep breath.

Error 1:

“(Lawrence of Arabia was shot in 65 millimeter — nearly twice the width of a 35-millimeter frame — so its negative had to be scanned in 8K, creating 8,192 pixels across each line. But it is still referred to as a 4K scan because it has the same density of pixels, the same resolution across 65 millimeters that 4K has across 35 millimeters.)”

This is a very poor way of explaining the concept.  They’re saying that this means they’re scanning more lines because the negative is bigger, not because they’re scanning more lines per inch of film.

And, guess what?  What we’re seeing here, by Nyquist, through Disney’s research, shows that they’re undersampling (blurring) the negative.  Now, I don’t blame them, and it’s probably “good enough,” and very expensive to do more, but let’s start on the right playing field.

Errors 2-3:

“When Lawrence was last restored, in 1988, some of these flaws could be disguised by ‘wetgate printing,’ a process of dousing the print in a special solution. But the new restoration has no prints. The film’s digital data are stored on a hard drive, about the size of an old videocassette, which is inserted into a 4K digital projector. In short, the problems would now have to be fixed.”

Wetgate printing is still used.  It’s simple enough.  You take the negative (not the print), and soak it gently in a fluid (some archives use dry cleaning fluid), that fills in the scratches on the clear film base.  That fluid evaporates by the time the film hits the takeup reel.  Similar processes can be used in scanning.  If it wasn’t done that way in this case, then it means more work for the people retouching the images.

The new restoration has no prints.  SO WHAT?  That has nothing to do with what you’re talking about and is a diversion from the point.  Wetgate has to do with the scanning or printing the negative, not projection. Note to the sticklers out there: yes, we can use wetgate transfers on prints, if that’s all we have, but that is not what is happening here.

Error 4:

“Luckily, there have been dramatic advances in digital-restoration technology in just the last few years. New software can erase scratches, clean dirt and modify contrast and colors not just frame by frame but pixel by pixel. In the old days (circa 2006), if you wanted to brighten the desert sand in one scene because it was too dark, you’d have to brighten the sky too. Now you can brighten the sand — or even a few grains of the sand — while leaving everything else alone. And in those days there was a limited palette for restoring faded colors. Today’s digital palettes are much vaster.

“In one sense, this restored Lawrence might look better than the original. Because of the film stock’s exposure to the desert’s heat, some of its photochemical emulsion dried and cracked, resulting in vertical fissures. ‘Some were just a few pixels wide,’ Mr. Crisp said, ‘but some scenes had hundreds of them, filling as much as one-eighth of the frame.’”

The way this is written implies that there were shooting errors that caused exposure problems with things being too dark or too bright.  It further implied that Grover Crisp and his co-workers are going in and haplessly changing things to suit their own artistic eye, not that of director of photography Freddie Young or director David Lean.

I have a lot of respect for Grover Crisp, and I know he’s not doing that.

Lawrence of Arabia was shot on Eastman color stock that was very unstable (it was especially bad from 1958-63.)  The colors fade unevenly, and brightness fades unevenly.  What they are actually doing, despite the way the article is written, is to match the colors with the way some of the old Technicolor reference prints look (Technicolor prints don’t fade, but they are 35mm and 2-3 generations down from the negative).  This is restoration, not willy-nilly artistry.  There are certain colors that will be almost entirely gone (especially blues and greens).

Error 5:

“Sony went to so much trouble to create not just this release but also a new archive for the ages. Film degrades; digital files of 0’s and 1’s do not. In the coming years, new software might allow still better restorations. But the technicians making them can work from the 4K scan. They won’t have to go back to the negative.”

This is just crazy on a lot of levels:

  1. Robert Harris made a nice duplicate negative in 65mm, on color-stable stock, for the 1980s restoration.   At the time he made it, there were already a number of unrecoverable scenes and missing bits.  This article makes it seem that Harris’ work is now outdated and rather trivial.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Harris and director David Lean worked together to save Lawrence of Arabia, and without them, Lawrence would be less than it is today.
  2. Ones and zeroes don’t degrade.  Hard drives do.  These are spinning media that are subject to magnetic fields, ball bearing problems, heat, cold, and probably the most fatal problem, sticktion.  A hard drive with sticktion has had the spinning magnetic rotor stick to the read head (much like a sticky record album sticking to the needle).  If it sticks too hard, then the drive can’t spin, and the disk is ruined.
  3. Ones and zeroes don’t degrade, but file formats aren’t forever.  Neither are disk drive formats.  Had Lawrence of Arabia been restored digitally in 1989, the results could have been saved on 5.25” floppy disks, and no one could read them today.
  4. Scanners are wonderful and they get better every day.  I’d bet that if the film is stored well, it will hang together well enough to survive until better scanners come along so that it can be scanned and improved again.

This same thing happens often with other “restorations.”  Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were shot in 3-strip Technicolor, which produces three extremely stable black-and-white negatives.  These are a pain to reproduce, so they got “restored” in the 60s to “modern” Eastman color stock.

Whoops, the restoration faded in a few years.  No trouble.  They reprinted it again, with better technology, in the 1970s.  They went back to the black-and-white negatives, which were still around.

Whoops, that restoration faded too.  No trouble.  Another restoration was done in the 1980s.  Guess how?  From the black-and-white negatives.

Oh, wait, they got a better way to reproduce the film and make the alignment sharper?  Back to the negatives.

And they needed to re-scan to make a Blu-ray (well, this time, they did an 8K transfer, which is what the Nyquist sampling theorem says we should do for such a film).  Gee, they went back to the negatives.

The moral of the story: save the negatives for as long as you can because they seem to get used a lot for restorations.

Error 6:

“Between the detective work and lots of video improvement (before the days of digital), it took Mr. Harris 26 months to restore the movie — 10 months longer than it took David Lean to make it.”

The preservation work Harris did on Lawrence of Arabia was on film.  He didn’t use video improvement.  There was no video that would do the work.

Error 7-8:

“Its life in home video has been spotty as well. The first DVD, in 2001, was made from a badly done HD transfer: colors were way off, contrasts too bright or dim. A redo, two years later, was much better, but the dirt and scratches were cleaned up by a ham-fisted process called ‘digital noise resolution’ — the easiest and, for some problems, the only technique available at the time, but it softened the focus and dulled detail.”

I am not sure, and it’s not really worth looking up, but I doubt that the DVD was made from an HD (High Definition) transfer in 2001.  It’s technically possible, but it’s unlikely.  It was probably done from a standard definition transfer, which would also account for the color drift, since the color gamut on standard definition television is pretty limited.

I have no idea what “digital noise resolution” is.  I suspect that what he means is “digital video noise reduction” (also DVNR), which is an automated process to remove scratches and other imperfections from films.  Cartoon aficionados have been bemoaning this for years.  DVNR is still used, fairly often in fact, but it can be done gently or in a ham-fisted way that the author describes.

“A forthcoming Blu-ray Disc of the film, out Nov. 13, fixes all those problems, in part because it’s Blu-ray but more because it’s mastered from the same 4K restoration as the theatrical release.”

Is the mere fact that something is Blu-ray some way of saying it’s anointed with a perfection not yet seen?  Blu-rays, DVDs, films, and videos can all look great or terrible depending on how they are handled technically.

The overarching thing that the author misses (and that others are not missing) is that this digital restoration is not archival no matter how much we would like it to be.  I’m on mailing list after mailing list from archives in a panic about how to store things so that they will last.

I was at the Library of Congress recently seeing the process of the entire run of Laugh-In being copied from 2” tape, a format now long obsolete, to something now (we hope) more permanent.

At the same visit, I saw a roll of film made in 1893 by the Edison people.

Which of these is archival?

The Library of Congress still uses, and intends to use, 35mm film for archival storage.  They haven’t found anything to beat it yet.  They are keeping Kodak and Fuji from shutting down the manufacturing lines.  Other archives demand film, too.  It just holds up better.

That doesn’t mean digital doesn’t have its place.  It’s just that digital isn’t the magic panacea that cured the world’s ills.

It’s a tool, just like anything else.