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Academy offers tours ‘Inside the Vaults’ of the Pickford Center

Heather Linville works on restoring a film at the academy¿s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood. The academy is offering tours of the facility, with screenings of restored works.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Stepping into the vast vaults of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood on a hot summer day can be a shock to the system.

About 77,000 titles are stored at the site located at 1313 N. Vine St. Motion picture materials don’t do well in the heat, so the film vaults are kept nicely chilled at temperatures varying between 40 and 60 degrees.

The Pickford Center is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and for the occasion the academy is giving movie fans a special behind-the-scenes look at the facility. The “Inside the Vaults” event will be held over two nights; on Monday, VIP guests get a tour, on Tuesday, the general public will get a peek. (The event quickly sold out for the public, but there will be a standby line that evening.)

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A recent preview of the tour gave a sense of the care and commitment that goes into preserving these films. The master vault is three stories high, with cans of films in every direction. The flooring is metal, said Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski, “so the air can circulate.”

The Pickford Center was originally built as a TV station. Designed by noted architect Claud Beelman, who did the Eastern Columbia building in downtown Los Angeles and MGM’s Thalberg building, it opened in 1948 as the Don Lee Mutual Broadcasting Building. The four large soundstages were home to productions including “Queen for a Day” and “My Friend Irma.” Because Lee was a Cadillac dealer, the large display windows in the front of the building were used to show the latest line of cars.

ABC eventually took it over, and later it was a home for AIDS Project Los Angeles. The academy purchased the building over a decade ago and spent millions restoring it and making it usable as a movie vault, said Randy Haberkamp, the academy’s managing director for programming, education and preservation.

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Pogorzelski said that the large TV studios “were perfect for converting to film and video tape vaults. They were built with 12-inch reinforced concrete walls, which makes them very stable.”

Sean Savage, one of the Pickford’s eight archivists, works in one of the vault areas filled with boxes of film material that have recently come into the building as well as donations and deposits or cans of film that the archive has lent out for theatrical screenings. (The academy lent out more than 500 titles last year to give audiences a chance to see movies in theaters on film, according to Pogorzelski.)

“My job is to take stuff that looks like this,” Savage said, pointing to the boxes, “and put them into new film cans and identify them and see what condition they are in.”

Besides the vaults, the tour will feature a look at the film preservation and restoration facilities — in the last year the archive tackled 386 restoration projects — and studio and lab facilities run by the Academy’s Science and Technology Council.

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“Inside the Vaults” will also give people a chance to preview items that would move to the planned academy museum at the old May Co. building on Wilshire Boulevard. Among the items that will be on display in the Pickford Center’s Linwood Dunn lobby are memorabilia from the legendary Harpo Marx recently donated by his son Bill Marx, including the comic’s long yellow coat, blond curly wig and hat.

After the tour, there’ll be screenings of the Academy Film Archive’s restoration of the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler “The Mark of Zorro” in the Linwood Dunn Theater along with the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s print of the 1912 Mary Pickford short “The New York Hat.” The program also spotlights the recent partnership between the academy and the Mary Pickford Foundation, which includes such initiatives as an annual silent film screening.

Because there is only one reel left of the original nitrate negative of “Zorro,” the archivists had to do extensive research to find the best surviving material. As it happened, that material was in their vaults.

“The primary source was a 35-millimeter safety print we had that was made off of the original negative when it existed,” said archivist Heather Linville. “It was in pretty good shape, considering the era. It is of its time, but it looks pretty good.”

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For more information, go to https://www.oscars.org.

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susan.king@latimes.com


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