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Down in the Dump : Archivist Searches Through Glendale Muck for Early Film

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood has produced its share of trashy movies, but archivistPaul Caruso was searching for films of a more enduring nature when he crawled into a hole teeming with debris and garbage at a Glendale dump Wednesday.

Taking hardly any notice of a nudie picture that had bobbed to the surface nearby, Caruso reached into the muck and pulled out a strip of film tape.

A dozen enthusiastic colleagues watched, along with the impassive driver of a backhoe vehicle, as Caruso scrutinized his find.

“Sixteen (millimeter film),” he called out, disappointment in his voice. “Looks like it was used for a hospital training film or something.” Soon the backhoe swung into action again and the hospital film--as well as the magazine photo--had been slung onto a nearby pile as a new, deeper layer of trash began to appear.

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What Caruso, operator of the Archival Research Co., was hoping to find was upwards of 200 canisters of early American and Asian films that he believes were accidentally discarded in the Scholl Canyon Landfill last week.

So strongly did he feel about the value of the films that he said he would donate them to the Hollywood Arts Council preservation group.

He had pinpointed the original location of the cache on Argyle Avenue with the help of a 1927 map of Hollywood. But when he pulled up, the building--a punk dance club in its most recent life--was being torn down.

An Empty Vault

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Caruso’s searchers found a film vault behind a false wall in the basement but it was empty. However, they managed to save 21 canisters that were in a dumpster, including three Charlie Chaplin shorts and some rare, pre-World War II Chinese films. (Most Chinese films of that era have been lost.)

The rest of the canisters had already been taken to Scholl Canyon, workers told Caruso. A check of the landfill’s records determined the approximate burial spot.

However, Caruso was told that the exhumation would cost at least $2,500 a day.

So Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich was contacted and he persuaded the county to supply the equipment, if Caruso would supply the trash-pickers.

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“This is the entertainment capital of the world,” said Antonovich, who dropped by the dump briefly, “and it’s important that these films be retained because of their historical value for the next generation.”

“In a way this is also symbolic,” said Robert Rosen of the American Film Institute’s National Center for Film and Video Preservation. “There are lost films all over Los Angeles in attics and basements and abandoned vaults and we want to remind people to contact us about them rather than throw them out.”

Alas, the film dig went slowly, only an occasional clue surfacing as the hole grew to about 8 feet deep.

“Look, old punk newspapers!” Caruso said at one point. “Can you give us a hit right here?” he asked the backhoe operator. The hit revealed nothing but more trash.

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Later, Caruso exclaimed, “That was a rock-and-roll T-shirt from the (punk) club!” as he examined a scoop of debris.

Then an old, empty film reel was found, followed by a smaller reel.

“It’s a typewriter ribbon,” searcher Bob Monette said of the latter with a shrug.

After five hours, with maybe one-tenth of the area covered, the archivists knocked off for the day. They vowed they would be back this morning to look for whatever treasures the dump holds.

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