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From A Brooklyn Basement to Yale University

From A Brooklyn Basement to Yale University

I can’t help but wonder what Herb Graff would think about
his 16mm film collection being donated to Yale University. He would certainly
be proud, and pleased that his children made this possible. I also think he’d
have a good laugh over the idea that dozens of odd, arcane, sometimes
fascinating, often appalling short subjects would now be part of a major
university archive. At one time, when the 16mm film market was thriving, these
oddities were so much flotsam and jetsam—widely sold by such companies as
Castle Films, Official Films, and the venerable Blackhawk, but I’m not sure
anyone has been consciously saving them and seeing what value they may offer to
our culture.

As a dedicated film collector, Herb not only sought out
favorite movies for his library, but acquired a wealth of “miscellany” along
the way. Decades ago, knowing that I was about to embark on a book about the
history of Our Gang, he purchased
eight giant cardboard boxes of silent comedy shorts that had once been used on
the Howdy Doody TV show. They were
unmarked, unidentified, and in some cases unwatchable. I agreed to log them all,
reporting on content and condition, in return for the occasional reward of a
rare Our Gang silent two-reeler. It
took months to accomplish, and only a masochist would have seen it through; I
stand guilty as charged.

I used to kid Herb about the staggering assortment of reels
that held his films and the varieties of tape that held down the ends of his
prints. We used to say that he could someday open a Museum of Tape.

Instead, much of his library, accumulated over many years’
time, is now in the good hands of the Yale Film Archive and its curator,
Michael Kerbel. An inaugural public program on April 25 featured heartfelt
speeches by Herb’s sons Bennett and Michael and a roster of titles that is
typical of the eclecticism of their father’s collection: Top of the World (1933), a travelogue exploring the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus School is Opened (1960), one
of a series of 3-minute newsreels provided to schools, the self-descriptive Maker of Walter Skis (1958), Robert
Youngson’s nostalgic look at baseball history Batter Up (1949), the famous Movietone interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1927), and a
promotional film for movie exhibitors offering a tour of the 20th
Century Fox studio in Hollywood.

There were also two examples of Snader Telescriptions
featuring Allan Jones and Tex Williams. Herb and I had a friendly competition
to find the best possible copies of the Soundies musical shorts of the 1940s
and the “Snaders,” which were produced a decade later in the earliest days of
television. The object was to sift through the boring songs by untalented
performers and get to “the good stuff” with people like Nat “King” Cole, Peggy
Lee, and Jack Teagarden.

Michael Kerbel tells me there was a healthy turnout for the
Saturday matinee, and the audience only became restless toward the end during
the Fox studio tour, since many attendees didn’t recognize or care about the
workings of “Movietone City.” Still, a number of people came to sample the Herb
Graff collection and were entertained by what they saw.

For most of
his adult life, Herb made a good living in the garment industry, but his heart
was in show business. Film collecting led him to meet a series of influential
people who welcomed him into their world and never questioned his background.
The fact that he was blunt seemed to make him all the more appealing.
Songwriter-playwright Adolph Green was an early and loyal friend, who in time
introduced Herb to the venerable New York
Times
drama critic Walter Kerr. Walter’s playwright-wife Jean (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) no longer
cared to sample every single play that opened in Manhattan, so Herb became
Walter’s “date” on opening nights for many, many years. A great raconteur, Herb
made friends easily in the world that meant so much to him—without ever letting
on that during the day he was selling Lucky Boy and Lucky Girl Shirts.

Herb even drew me into this circle from time to time.
Because I lived in New Jersey and had a car, he asked if I’d be willing to
drive two friends to his son Bennett’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn. I said I’d be
glad to—and had one of the great experiences of my life listening to Adolph
Green and Isaac Asimov trading anecdotes and singing excerpts from their
favorite operettas!

But Herb had a much more lasting impact on my life: he
introduced me to my wife Alice. He said we were a match made in heaven, and he
was right. We refer to him as our matchmaker and we will always be grateful.

It gives us great pleasure to know that his loving children
have placed so many of his films in the care of Yale—which also houses the
films of another of my mentors, the late John Griggs. God bless them and thank
goodness someone is looking after the collections they amassed with such love
and care.

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