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A Rare Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library

July 19, 2014

You're a lucky group. No one gets to come back here except staff, VIPs, and potential donors.


Well, Warren Sherk, Manager of Special Collections at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Margaret Herrick Library, certainly knows how to make a tour group feel special!


On Saturday July 12, 2014, as part of the Beverly Hills Centennial, the Academy opened the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study to public tours for the first time in its history. Nine groups were treated to a free behind-the-scenes trip through the historic building for a small glimpse at the impressively substantial and varied cinematic riches the Margaret Herrick Library houses.

The Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study (Picture by Kim Luperi).

Jean Harlow (assumingly) in Beverly Hills, and my shadow, also in Beverly Hills (Picture by Kim Luperi).

The tours ran every 15 minutes from 2-4pm. While tickets were free, they were 'sold out' online early, and though I initially thought I missed out, closer to the date extra tickets were released, and I secured one for the 4pm tour. When I arrived at the Fairbanks Center, the 3:45 tour hadn't even been let in yet, but it was a nice day and the Academy was prepared: a flat screen playing clips of Beverly Hills in films, Beverly Hills related movie trailers, and home movies in and around town sufficiently kept our group, about 12 or 13 strong, occupied. When they let us in the building a few minutes after 4pm, it wasn't to begin the tour; we were a few steps closer but not there yet, though more home movies, cookies, and lemonade helped ride out the wait until we were escorted to the lobby and greeted by Library Director Linda Mehr.  


As we were on the brink of admiring just a small morsel of the priceless treasures (many several decades old) the Library holds, it was slightly ironic when at least a few in our group were visibly taken aback when Mehr clicked on a three panel TV screen to take us through the Library's history. Mehr began in the 1930s with none other than the Library's namesake, Margaret Herrick, who served as the Academy librarian from 1936-1943. Herrick, whose first husband worked for the Academy as well, took the first big strides to secure historical material from studios, directors, and the like during that first decade of the Academy's existence.


The Library has switched homes several times since the 1930s, from a facility on George Avenue in Hollywood, to Melrose Avenue, and then to the current Academy Headquarters on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills when it opened in 1975. At the time, it was believed that there would be enough room to accommodate the Library, and though that was the case for a decade or so, eventually the Library began to once again outgrow its britches, particularly when prominent collections from luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, and Fred Zinnemann, just to name a few, came rolling in during the 1980s. Consequently, some files had to be moved into a building across the street due to limited space. Sounds fine, right? Not really. In order to view certain files, researchers had to acquire the items, place them on a cart, and cross Wilshire Blvd. to view them in the Library. Not exactly the best way to handle archival materials, according to Mehr (and everyone else).  A new home was necessary.


Meanwhile, a building that looks suspiciously similar to the one we were standing in, which housed the City of Beverly Hills Water Treatment Plant No. 1 for decades, laid abandoned since 1976 and was voted to be demolished 3-2 by the City Council. However, citizens of Beverly Hills actually sued and saved the structure a mere 72 hours before it was scheduled to face the wrecking ball. Though the building was safe, the city didn't know what to do with it. 

Newspaper coverage of the Beverly Hills Water Treatment Plant project from the 1920s.

Luckily, in walked the Academy in 1988.  


Mehr and the staff toured the space and took pictures, several of which she shared with us. The architect and construction workers did a wonderful job cleaning up all the vandalism, restructuring the building's arch in the main research area, and of course covering half of the floor, which had previously held massive water tanks. Original architectural details such as the entrance doors and window above were beautifully refurbished. The Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study opened its doors in January 1991.

This window was clearly present in photos of the abandoned Water Treatment Plant. Here it is in the present day (Picture by Kim Luperi).

Curiously, the Library's current home is linked in more ways than one to the Academy, even prior to its establishment as the Library's current home.  Many people are aware that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established by several prominent industry names in 1927, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Sid Grauman, but what most probably don't know is that the Water Processing Plant was also constructed in 1927. Ironically, many of the same people involved in the Academy's founding most likely played a role in the establishment of the current structure as well.  Why? At that time, if Beverly Hills wanted to remain a separate incorporated city, it needed its own water source; thus, the separate water treatment plant. (That condition for incorporation is apparently no longer valid, as Beverly Hills currently sources its water from Los Angeles).


Though this is the first time the inner workings of the Margaret Herrick Library have been exposed to the public, our tour group was seamlessly passed off from one staff member to the next, each awaiting our arrival and ready to go. Of course, we were the last of nine tour groups to walk through; by then the staff had the entire routine down pat!


Graphic Arts Collection

The first leg of our tour took place in the Graphic Arts Collection, where Graphic Arts Librarian Anne Coco and Conservator Dawn Jaros enthusiastically greeted us. Upon entering the room, I felt as if I were observing  a drawing room that was meant to be on display; a ramp hugged the left wall as you walked through, seemingly meant for viewing the few workstations situated throughout the area. The Graphic Arts Collection houses over 42,000 posters in addition to a vast array of production art materials, and posters naturally adorned the walls, ranging from The Bitter Tea of General Yen to a highly stylized Polish poster of an unknown (to me) movie.   


Coco began by introducing examples of posters from the library's several collections, including the Edward Mapp collection, which features over 1200 posters detailing the history of African-Americans in cinema from the 1920s-1990s, and the Richard Koszarski Polish poster collection. The library maintains strong relationships with several studios and receives many posters for new releases from automatic mailing lists, but that doesn't cover all the movies in theaters, so after the dust settles the staff reviews the films they don't have posters for and starts making phone calls.


Coco also showcased an array of examples from the library's Production Art Collection, including costume designs by Edith Head (though Coco said a member of her "studio" most likely completed the actual illustration), a set design sketch from Gone with the Wind, an animation cell from Pepe Le Pew, and storyboard drafts from Poltergeist.


Jaros then took over to explain a bit about her job and what steps she takes to carefully conserve some of items in the Graphic Art Collection. She first showed us a sheet poster that looked satisfactory on the surface, save for some yellowing from age, but once she turned it over we saw tape markings on the corners, which hasten the fading of the paper. The next example Jaros displayed was a bit more jarring: a decades old poster that clearly had not been handled kindly. There were obvious creases, several tears, and the entire sheet was glued to what looked like a thin brown paper bag, the worst type of paper to attach anything to, according to Jaros.


Part of Jaros' job requires her to identify what needs to be done to an item to conserve it, and in the case of the latter example, she would have to remove the brown backing paper, repair tears, and the like. Before she can start work, though, Jaros first discusses each case with one of her superiors to determine what avenue to take: essentially, to repair or not to repair? Ideally, the Library doesn't want imperfections to interfere with the viewer's perception of the item, so if there are smaller problems, the item may be left alone, but pieces with larger issues may be handled as to restore the object as close to the original form as possible. In either case, Jaros strongly stressed that the Library aims to remain honest in sharing the history of the piece, especially when it comes down to whether restorative work was performed or not.


Core Collections/Books and Pamphlets/Periodicals

The next stop looked more familiar: a circulation desk, rows and rows of books, and several tables and chairs; this is the section I remember well from my archival research in the Library's Production Code Files about seven years ago. Research Archivist Jenny Romero was on hand to introduce the different types of files housed in the Library’s core collection, reminding us that all of the items laid out before us were accessible by the public.


First up were the production files. Once a movie is announced, usually in trade magazines such as The Hollywood Reporter or Variety, a clipping file is started. As we all know, sometimes movies go through different cycles or take years to make (or are announced and never made at all!): case in point, Argo. Romero showed the group press clippings from Argo’s announcement…way back in 1980. That film of course never came to fruition, and a separate file exists for the Best Picture winning movie of the same title from 2012. 

The Argo that never was...

Detailed records are also kept for individuals, from actors to writers to costume designers - basically, anyone ever written about in the trades. Romero had taken Ingrid Bergman’s bulky file out to view, which included several microfilm sheets, explaining that many of the larger files oftentimes have been transferred onto microfilm for easier viewing. However, even considering Bergman passed away over three decades ago, her file includes recent clippings that have not been put on microfilm yet - that's how in-depth these records are!


Next up was the script collection, which boasts published scripts such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and over 15,000 unpublished screenplays donated by studios, directors, and the like.


The Library also houses an extensive oral history collection from behind-the-scenes players who may not have been household names but were still very much a part of the day to day life on studio lots and sets, such as costume designer Adele Balkan, who worked in Hollywood from the 1930s-1960s.


One look around the Library also made clear the substantial number of books housed in the core collection, including works published before the medium's inception and books written in various languages as well. Romero shared one of her favorites with us, 1931’s The Plot Genie,  meant for writers who have run out of ideas, complete with a wheel to spin to uncover fresh concepts for scripts! 

Who wouldn't want to use The Plot Genie?

Finally, we were treated to a glimpse of the vast periodical collection, which features everything from trade journals (The Hollywood Reporter) to fan magazines (Movie Mirror) to exhibitor manuals. Romero shared some fun facts regarding several items that fall into the last two types of publications in particular; for instance, some of the fan magazines have - astonishingly - been catalogued by librarians since the 1930s, which makes articles easy to find, much to the delight of researchers. As for exhibitor manuals, Romero explained that the Library's possessions range from lavish and elaborate, such as one MGM book from the 1940s, to simple, like one of Edison’s Kinetoscope pamphlets published during the first decade of the 1900s. In the latter case, many of the films listed are now lost, which means the manual oftentimes stands as the sole surviving record of these works. Wow! 


Special Collections

From the main research area, we were escorted through a maze of rooms, halls, and one staircase to reach the Special Collections section of the building downstairs. The route to get there and the small space we arrived in, surrounded by rows and rows of retractable shelves, tipped us off that this was not an area accessed by many, a feeling confirmed by the Manager of Special Collections, Warren Sherk, who told us that the general public usually doesn't get to walk on these floors! I must say, I felt pretty special even before we received an up close and personal view of some of the phenomenal pieces in the collection (and to think there must be so many more back there that I don't even know exist simply makes my head spin).


So what did we get to see? Among the treasures: one of the mustaches from Shaft (which was sent with insufficient postage and almost didn’t make it) and storyboards and production photos from North by Northwest. For me, there was a three-way tie for the coolest items (out of about 10 we saw!): director Fred Zinnemann’s shooting script for From Here to Eternity, complete with annotations and even little storyboards; Eva Maria Saint’s matchbook from North by Northwest, inscription and all: “They’re on to you. I’m in your room;” and a fan-made scrapbook given to Mary Pickford that she kept in her personal belongings, featuring hand-colored black and white photographs and many more pieces of Pickford-related memorabilia. I wonder if the person who made that ever thought it would one day end up in a library for research purposes...


These riches and so many more come largely from donations, and Sherk said one thing that’s great about the Academy Library is the potential for overlap: in certain cases, such as with To Kill A Mockingbird for example, the Academy may possess collections from multiple people involved with the production, including actors, writers, directors, and more. Besides such an incredible breadth of objects, the Library also offers a convenient service to researchers: basically, they can process files ‘on demand’ if there's a particular record a researcher would like to see that hasn't been organized or processed yet.


When asked who is allowed access the Special Collections, Sherk answered mostly researchers but admits that’s a broad term that could cover anything from research for a book to genealogy searches; for instance, if someone came in knowing that a family member worked at MGM during the 1920s but they weren't sure what he or she did, Sherk could help them access MGM’s payroll during that time, which listed every single person who earned a salary from the studio.


The icing on the cake during this portion of the tour was the unveiling - literally with a sheet - of an item that will eventually be housed in the Academy Museum: the Lion's mane from The Wizard of Oz

You mean, part of me will be in a Museum?!

Photograph Archive

Emerging from the secret Special Collections lair downstairs, our tour group miraculously fit into one elevator for a short ride up to the Photography Archive. Before even entering the room, I spotted a deliciously guilty looking photo of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity (they were staring straight into the camera, perhaps from the train scene, and I have not been able to find the picture online for the life of me). I couldn't wait to find out what other unseen riches awaited us inside.


Upon walking into the large room, which looked like a cross between a library study section and a science lab (complete with photos of Marilyn Monroe and The Thin Man, of course), we were met by Photograph Curator Matt Severson. As we had now come to expect, Severson had everything beautifully set up for us, ready to dive in and explain the different types of photographs the Library holds, from portraits to on-set candids to wardrobe tests.


Some of the more interesting items came from recent movies: a daring shot taken during the filming of The Dark Knight atop a skyscraper in Hong Kong; a photo of James Cameron directing Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, the director in the water with the stars; and a wardrobe continuity binder from Thelma and Louise featuring photos of each character’s outfit during every scene so the looks could be recreated without any errors. A special treat in the last piece: photos of a pre-famous Brad Pitt that few have had the privilege of viewing.


With so many physical items laid out in front of us, I was reminded that I haven't printed pictures from my digital camera in a few years. That said, it was inevitable that someone would ask Severson how the Library is dealing with rapidly changing trends in the photography world, since press kits and such are no longer delivered in hard copy form but rather exist digitally. Severson said naturally it’s a pressing matter for the Photography Archive, one they’ve dubbed the "Digital Dilemma" and even hold meetings about; he shared that sometimes the staff are simply handed hard drives, and they're still figuring out how exactly to deal with the myriad of concerns that accompany the move towards all-digital technology and its delivery system. To that end, each Monday, Severson and his staff receive a list of movies opening across the country, and they choose which ones to save and download materials from for the collection. They don’t solely select movies they think will be Oscar worthy; rather, all types of films are considered when it comes to archiving the cultural landscape.


The Photograph Archive was the last stop on our tour. All in all, we were treated to about 45 minutes worth of wonderful glimpses into the vast assortment of film history the Library safeguards. The sheer amount of material they house is jaw dropping; I could easily spend a year just browsing through the stacks, (most likely) giddily reveling in cinematic riches I never knew existed.


Thank you to the entire Academy Library staff for hosting these public tours. Judging solely by the reaction of my group, the day seemed a rousing success!   


The Margaret Herrick Library is open to the public four days a week: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, from 10am-6pm, with extended hours on Tuesdays until 8pm. Special Collections holdings are available by appointment only. More info on the Library can be found here

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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