Moving Images

Three archived film canisters are opened for the first time in at least 20 years, revealing historic scenes of campus life

Film reels.

By Ann Whitcher Gentzke

UB Archivist Amy Vilz sniffed the telltale odor of vinegar emanating from hundreds of film canisters stored in the stacks. These records of campus history hadn’t been seen in decades because of concerns over their fragile state; many were undated or labeled with sketchy titles like “Outtakes.” Vilz knew the pungent aroma could mean only one thing: Some films had degraded past redemption, a process that preservationists call the “vinegar syndrome.”

Unwilling to risk rolling the films through a projector, Vilz piloted a restoration program, sending three samples to a Philadelphia firm that digitizes vintage celluloid. When the films, all silent, came back earlier this year, Vilz was treated to a surprise screening of everything from 1930s’ automobiles darting by the downtown med school to a co-ed fashion show from the ’60s.

Spring Weekend (Moving Up Day), 1963

Various scenes of students celebrating Moving Up Day, including a parade of elaborate floats and a surprisingly sexy fashion show

Video courtesy University Archives 

Main Street campus and downtown buildings, 1930s

Campus scenes, including footage of legendary chancellor Samuel P. Capen

 Video courtesy University Archives 

Western New York Nuclear Research Center, c. 1964

Eerie footage of the recently decommissioned nuclear research center on the South Campus

Video courtesy University Archives

What's next?

Vilz hopes these digitized versions will engage alumni who might recognize moments or people from their past, and also attract donations to fund restoration of more films. Priority titles include “Cops on Campus” and “Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Ron Balter, BA '80

I read with interest how decaying films the featured UB were being preserved through digitalization. Apparently not found was a copy of the 1957 documentary "Decade for Decision" that starred both UB and then Chancellor of UB Clifford C. Furnas.

The film was a call to action for more science and math education to confront the threat from the Soviet Union after the launch of Sputnik.   UB was highlighted because of the science programs it was offering.