In The Pipeline: Revelations on a reel

Jeff Vilencia and Debbie Martinez are self-described "motion picture film cultural archaeologists." What that means, exactly, is that they scour the world for forgotten vintage home movies at swap meets, auctions, storage units, estate sales — wherever an old reel of family film may exist.

For years, they have built an impossibly interesting film library, firm in the belief that the stories told and the histories preserved on home movies represent a unique angle on the American experience — telling, private glimpses into a wide-eyed United States that was just discovering things like Elvis, Kodacolor and, in many cases, Orange County.

Their collection features an inordinate amount of vintage color footage of the OC, with a marvelous emphasis on Huntington Beach. More on that later.

The two film buffs are preservationists and historians as well, taking care to digitize their collection while also, whenever appropriate, reaching out to families that might be interested in learning what happened to their long-gone footage.

Vilencia, 50-ish, is a filmmaker himself, so he has a deep appreciation for the rich, vibrant colors of these retro "classics," along with a craftsman's pride in gently dealing with the often-decaying celluloid. Many weekends find him and his partner Martinez at the weekly swap meet at Golden West College, searching carefully for the small, bright yellow boxes that often contain treasure: the antiquated reels of film.

Recently at the swap meet, one box, forgotten in a cluttered bin, jumped out at Martinez.

"It was labeled 'Led Zeppelin,'" she told me. "And that's what it was — incredibly rare and beautiful home movie footage of the band Led Zeppelin. It cost a dollar."

And so it enters their archive, along with hundreds of hours of other moving scrapbook images that, while sometimes blurry or abrupt, also represent some deeply personal and profound documentation.

One of the finest examples of this involves their footage of a remarkable gentleman named F.A. Dobson. A nuclear-age inventor who seemed to blend Buckminster Fuller's childlike sense of wonder with the practicality of the Cold War age, Dobson designed hovercrafts, strange and wondrous vehicles that could adapt from water to land instantly, along with a series of fascinating sci-fi toys for children.

The footage Vilencia and Martinez shared with me shows Dobson in his prime, testing his inventions at home in tabletop form, then in the field with full-on prototypes. We see him testing his bizarre-looking creations in open areas around Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach (seemingly near Boeing).

They're the types of vehicles that would have been right at home on the set of kitschy sci-fi classic films like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "The Day of the Triffids." You can almost hear the eerie strains of a theremin as a gleeful Dobson puts his creations to the test.

Then they showed me once-classified footage from the Submarine Classification and Tracking department of the military (SCAT). Included in the early 1960s internal production is Dobson, proud as several of his inventions are being used to track enemy subs around the world as a foreboding announcer explains the efficient beauty of his inventions.

But just who was F.A. Dobson?

The footage I saw compelled me to do some research. I learned that Franklin Alver Dobson was born in 1908 in Canada, and died in 1988 in the city of Orange. And he was an ardent inventor, with U.S. Patent References including air-cushion vehicles, a ground-cushion car, an earth-skimming air vehicle and a wingless aircraft. He also invented a manhole cover, a children's flying toy and much more.

I never would have known about Dobson were it not for the home movies found by Vilencia and Martinez. And getting back to their Huntington Beach footage, in the coming weeks I'll be viewing the couple's footage from our area and reviewing what it reveals. And maybe if I can talk them into it, we can post a video online with some samples. Because you really have to see this stuff to believe it.

Note: The response to last week's column about Machelle Murray's healthcare plight has been nothing short of remarkable. Thank you, on behalf of Machelle, for the advice, information and donations.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.

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