"Let me show you around," says Murray Glass, weaving among the crowded rows and cramped aisles of movies that make up his Em Gee Film Library -- 6,000 titles on 16-millimeter film housed in a small building in Reseda.
There are one-reel comedies, two-reel shorts and feature films. "We have them all," says Glass, amid the film cans. "If you like comedians, we have a number of films by Harry Langdon and Mabel Normand," and a huge Chaplin collection.
If you're looking for cinematic rarities, you've come to the right place. "I have a film called 'Kean' made in 1922 in France which is extremely rare and 'Love Never Dies' by King Vidor, which is an extremely rare lost classic from 1922."
Blockbuster it's not. There are no off-the-street customers, no DVDs or videos, and certainly no microwave popcorn.
Glass rents his films mainly to colleges. "My basic line of customers are teachers who teach film history classes, mostly professors at college level all over the country. It has expanded to film societies and theaters, and infrequently television and very infrequently to private individuals."
He acknowledges that over the years, video and DVD have eaten into his business. "It's not what it used to be because a number of schools have decided to go to videos and DVDs," says Glass, whose charge for films ranges from less than $10 to $45 or more. "But I am still in business here because [to] teachers who teach film classes, showing a film on the screen is superior to showing a video."
Glass refers to his films as his "children." But now, after 50 years in the business, he wants to retire. "I still love it, but the time has come," he says. "I would like to spend time traveling and spend time with my children and my grandchildren who are scattered all over."
The father of six (including two stepchildren) and grandfather of 11 can't retire until he finds a good home for his celluloid "children." And it's been difficult. "There are responsibilities to find somebody who will take the library over and operate it," Glass explains. "The natural heir to something like that would be my children, but they are not interested because they have their own careers. Another would be for someone else to take over. That is kind of a specialized thing and most of what goes on here is in here," he adds, pointing to his head.
Glass, whose wife, Rhoda, works with him at Em Gee, also has contemplated selling the titles piecemeal on EBay or even selling the lot at an auction house. "The next possibility is to find a school which would take it over because something like this would be a godsend to any place that has a film school," Glass says.
Even Bob Bassett, the dean of the film and television school at Chapman University in Orange, visited the library with hopes of perhaps purchasing it. "But when they found out how much it was going to be, they said how about donating it?" says Glass, who estimates the value of his collection at slightly more than $1 million. "So the answer to that would be to find an 'angel' who would buy the collection and donate it."
He started young
Glass' collection started out as a hobby. A native of New York, he graduated with a degree in chemistry from City College of New York before going into the Army during World War II. "When I got out of the Army in 1946, I took some refresher classes back at CCNY. I found I had a hole in my schedule and there was a class being offered in film history. I plugged it into my schedule."
When the professor arrived at the subject of Charlie Chaplin, Glass mentioned that he had some Chaplin films at home. "When I was a kid, like 13 or 14, my father had bought me a toy projector and these little toy films which are just basically clips of longer films."
The professor asked Glass to bring the films to class. "We ran them and about three weeks later I got a check in the mail [for the use of the clips], which was completely unexpected. It was my first film rental."
On the professor's advice, Glass began attending film programs at the Museum of Modern Art. "I became a film buff," Glass says. "When I first came out here, which was 1951, I went to work as a chemist and started earning some money. I started to collect 16-millimeter films."
Back in the '50s, he says, 16-millimeter films were available for sale at camera stores or film rental stores, which would sell off their surplus. He shortly found out that he'd picked a very expensive hobby. To make his hobby pay for itself, he made a list of the films he had and sent it to schools on the West Coast.
"All of a sudden, I was in the film rental business."
And for 20 years, Glass operated the film rental business while continuing to be a chemist. "I found I was spending as much time doing my hobby as I was working as a chemist. Since I was enjoying the film industry more, I decided to go into it full time."
Although Glass, 78, is retiring from the film rental business, he's not about to give up his hobby -- which includes teaching film history courses at UCLA Extension and the University of Judaism. He has traveled the world doing presentations on the giants of jazz in movies, as well as Jewish comedy and music in movies. "That's something I can continue to do," Glass says. "I really enjoy it."
A person never really retires from such a passionate pursuit, so he hopes to keep a few of the films for his personal collection at his house in Van Nuys.
"I have two projectors at home and I have a screen," Glass says. "I am not going to collect any more because of limited space, if nothing else. Once I am retired, I hope I would still have access to these films wherever they go."