In 1966, while Bemidji Theater Manager Bud Woodard was cleaning out the building's attic in preparation for its sale as the Ben Franklin store, he struck treasure.
He found cans of 35mm film that he thought, because of their length, might be short-subject comedies such as "The Three Stooges."
When he and projectionist David Erickson screened the footage, he realized how valuable it was. The silent black-and-white films were semi-professional vignettes of Bemidji area events, people and places taken in the 1930s. Scenes of the 1937 Winter Carnival, complete with area towns' marching bands and Babe's statue mounted on a truck and breathing exhaust fumes, opened the sequence. Other sets feature lineups of Bemidji business people and employees outside their buildings, the Bemidji High School graduating class of 1937, summer shots of visitors to area resorts and a Bemidji versus Hibbing High School football game.
Woodard said the theater would run short snips of the films as a customer promotion prior to the regular feature.
"That's what they came to the movies to see, their picture on the screen," Woodard said.
The late Rosemary Given Amble knew about the footage and mentioned it to Gary Burger, a Turtle River video and audio producer. Burger has worked on various projects for Lakeland Public Television and suggested the Woodards' films as the core of a documentary about Bemidji in the 1920s and 1930s.
The result is the 57-minute documentary, "Bemidji Between the Wars: 1918-1941." The premiere will be screened at 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Chief Theatre, 314 Beltrami Ave. N.W. Tickets cost $10 and are available by calling Lakeland Public Television at 333-3018.
Lakeland also will air the documentary at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1; 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5; 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6; and 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10.
Click on the play button below to watch a promo for the movie.
Burger said he used the 1930s film footage as a starting place and worked in interviews with people who remember those years in Bemidji, re-enactments of events and still photos from private collections, the Beltrami County Historical Society and Minnesota Historical Society, all accompanied by period music. He said he worked on the documentary for about 18 months.
He and Lakeland Production Director Tom Wild edited the documentary in the Lakeland studio. The project was funded by a Neilson Foundation grant.
Burger said one of his interview sources was the late Charlie Naylor, who died about a year ago at age 94.
"His memory of those days - the '20s and '30s was phenomenal," Burger said.
He said one of Naylor's stories was about a time when he worked at the movie theaters. Saturday matinees were cowboy movies. Naylor told Burger kids had to check their cap pistols at the lobby to prevent them from adding their shots to the on-screen gun fights.
Another interview, Burger said, was with Frank Dickson, a Red Lake member who described coming to Bemidji shopping with his grandfather during the time between World War I and World War II.
Burger said one of the re-enactments involves a story Lillian McCormick told of grouse hunting with a girlfriend. She told him she would sit on the fender of a car armed with a shotgun and shoot birds as her friend drove slowly along woods roads and flushed birds.
"It's a major piece of work," Burger said. "It's like opening up a little treasure chest. You keep working your way to the bottom of the chest, and you never get to the bottom. Pretty soon, you've got 50 people to talk to."
"It's turned out great," said Jeff Hanks, Lakeland program manager. He added that it's a slice of living history the memory of which is fast disappearing.
"If I've learned anything on this project, it's that history is all around us, and it's being made each day," Burger said.
He said he encourages people to interview family member, keep journals, ask about great-grandparents lives and record events and impressions for posterity.