Siobhan Hagan digs Elvis and Polaroid photos. She has a metal Scooby-Doo lunch box. She wears 1950s dresses and vintage sweaters, and when the 33-year-old’s grandmother passed away, “I moved everything from her house into mine,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. The confessed “old stuff nerd” was born in the city and earned a graduate degree in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her thesis there was built around the archives of WJZ-TV, which proved a fortuitous decision. The station hit the airwaves in 1948, and 70 years is a long time, enough for film to deteriorate and oxide particles to fall off magnetic television tape.
Hagan had grown up watching WJZ—“My mom turned on Rise and Shine every morning, it was my alarm clock as a kid”—and founded the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Regional Moving Image Archive (MARMIA) two years ago. In the process, she acquired WJZ’s archives, then being stored, but without a plan to preserve the collection, at the University of Baltimore. Hagan is in the process of digitizing as much of the 25,000-piece acquisition as she can before the early footage and videotapes disintegrate.
On a recent night in Hampden, Hagan screened some WJZ throwback tapes as part of a fundraising effort. Highlights included Eyewitness News coverage of Hurricane Agnes in 1972, Richard Sher and Oprah Winfrey hosting People Are Talking, Chuck Thompson recapping the O’s stunning World Series sweep in 1966, irrepressible weatherman Marty Bass ditching his hairpiece, behind-the-scenes clips of The Buddy Deane Show—the inspiration for John Waters’ Hairspray—and Romper Room with Nancy Rogers Claster. Plus, Jerry Turner burying his head into the anchor desk in uncontrollable laughter after a rabbi’s son made funny faces, unbeknownst to his father, to the camera throughout an entire Hanukkah segment.
Beside the time-capsule clips of life in Charm City, which also include WJZ’s disco-era Evening Magazine, is footage from the ’68 riots, investigative pieces on racial issues and public housing, and, of course, coverage of the colorful 44th mayor of Baltimore, one William Donald Schaefer.
“People’s memories are sensitive to time, and these [tapes and films] are, too. They don’t last forever. They’re endangered,” says Rob Schoeberlein, who oversees the cavernous Baltimore City Archives in Better Waverly, which houses MARMIA’s office and the WJZ collection. “Normally, when we think of archiving material, it’s manuscripts, letters, legal documents, and photographs. This is now important material, too.”
Beyond MARMIA’s WJZ-TV collection, the nonprofit gathers other local films, found VHS tapes, recorded sound and mixtapes, and home movies in an effort to document the arts, history, and culture of the Mid-Atlantic region. Hagan will even digitize old wedding films—as long as MARMIA gets to keep a copy.
One couple, in their 80s, Hagan recalls, had never seen their wedding film—shot by the bride’s father and essentially lost for six decades—until their daughter rediscovered it and asked Hagan to digitize it. They all watched it for the first time last fall on a pop-up screen at the City Archives building.
“My parents had been bickering during the ride down. Over what, who knows? Just the way old couples do,” Susan Hebble says. “They were married in 1956, and the reception had been at the Casablanca, a jazz club in Liberty Heights that later became the Sportsman’s Lounge when former Colt Lenny Moore bought it. Zim Zemarel’s swing band played—you could see the name on the drum kit.”
Hebble says her family watched the film again over Christmas, and then again during her mother’s funeral this spring. “My mother had begun having some memory issues by the time we went [to the City Archives], but she had none while looking at their wedding. Everything came back, and she became her normal, bubbly self again. The whole way home, my parents were very romantic toward each other. My dad told my mother he had forgotten how beautiful she was.”