The annual AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) conference is a highly-anticipated event at PRO-TEK. Every year we send several people for networking, learning and staying current on film archiving trends, techniques and technologies. This year, the team also enjoyed the special film-related tour of Pittsburgh, AMIA 2016’s host city, because it featured a building once owned and used by Paramount, which recently chose PRO-TEK to create a new state-of-the-art storage facility, implementing a sub-zero environment to preserve Paramount’s film library well into the future.
A long-forgotten piece of motion picture history
The 1926 Paramount Film Exchange is a rare surviving example of a now forgotten part of the early movie business. Exchanges were common throughout most of the 20th century, until the advent of VHS tapes. As PRO-TEK film history expert Danny Kuchuck explains,
“The studios would ship their prints to film exchanges around the country that served all the movie theaters in that region. The exchanges would have screening rooms and editing benches, so theater operators could determine if a movie was suitable for their community, and edit scenes out if needed. Regional sensibilities prevailed in those days, so a scene that was fine in Pittsburgh, for example, might have been deemed unsuitable in Denver. That’s why, to this day, we sometimes struggle to determine what makes a particular silent film or early talkie the ‘definitive’ version.”
Julia Devine, a Photo Archivist for PRO-TEK, wrote this special report about the Paramount Film Exchange building in Pittsburgh:
One of the most enjoyable parts of the AMIA conference is how the organizers and presenters manage to intertwine the history of the hosting city (both film-oriented and cultural in general) into the format and program. Starting with home base in the stunningly opulent 1916 Omni William Penn (with the dazzling 1929 art deco addition of the Urban Room, by Joseph Urban, set designer for the Ziegfeld Follies), the schedule also gave attendees the option of a few local tours offsite.
One of these was a tour of the building which originally housed the 1926 Paramount Film Exchange. Now renovated and leased to start-ups, a news agency, and a photography studio, it still has a few touches of the original format and décor. Situated a 20-minute walk from the hotel, it also provided a brisk scenic walk past historic buildings and Duquesne University. With a breathtaking view of the river (even with a recently-built 4-lane highway directly in front of the building), it was part of an area that included other studio film exchanges, including Warner Brothers and Universal. This particular building ended operations in 1980 and had fallen into disrepair by 2009, when it was slated for demolition. Thankfully, with the support of local preservationists, it was awarded a designation as a city landmark in 2010 and has now been repurposed.
The vaults housing the film are now incorporated into a photography studio, but they are still intact and recognizable as their original utility. Now serving as an office, the original screening room still retains the ornate facade around the small screen where theaters would preview the films they wished to rent.
Although decorated with contemporary posters, and projecting a Columbia (!) film above the doorway, they also have framed the only paper artifact that was found on the premises: a promotional poster for Paramount News.
Lastly, there is still the beautifully tiled Paramount doorway at the front of the building. Seeing the original buildings, and how their locations relate to the city and its past, is a very powerful way for archivists and historians to relate stories and inspire the need to educate the public to the ongoing urgency to preserve our cultural history.