“It’s been a great deal of fun,” he said last week while reminiscing about his accidental career path that has helped preserve the celluloid history of the region. “It’s been a lot of years, and it’s been a long haul.”
Weiss, 59, originally came to Maine from Boston in the 1980s with his then-wife, Karan Sheldon. The two television producers came north to see if they could make it in Maine with their own company, but after a year, they found it tough going and figured they’d have to go back to Boston.
“There just wasn’t a lot of money to underbid TV stations doing commercials,” he said. “We thought we’ll just wind the year up with this cool, fun project.”
That project was “From Stump to Ship,” a 1929 silent film from Washington County that depicted the lumber industry. The two worked to preserve and exhibit it, expecting only a few people to come see the showings. But more than 1,100 people showed up for the premiere at Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine — a venue with just 600 seats. Eight hundred people attended the showing in Machias, and 600 people were on hand in Farmington.
“We just showed it until we were sick of showing it,” Weiss said. “During that time, it naturally occurred to me, this one worked. Let’s do another one — I wonder who has all the old films? An innocent question, which led to all this.”
They soon learned that just about everyone seemed to have a few boxes of film tucked away in their basements or attics and no real plan to do anything with them. Weiss and Sheldon knew what to do with film, but first they had to learn how to run a film archive. They drove to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the closest archive they could think of, and asked for advice.
“They were super nice,” Weiss recalled.
Eventually, he and Sheldon got advice on how to make a basement vault on a tight budget, complete with climate controls and a fire suppression system.
“We sent out a press release and got a lawyer,” he said.
They were in business as Northeast Historic Film and began to get calls from people looking to clean out their collections. The film archive grew, thanks to such gifts as the Bangor Historical Society’s WABI collection. The organization also received a series of silent adventure films that featured Maine guides as heroes who rescued lumber barons and their heiress daughters.
“It really is exciting to get a new batch of films,” Weiss said, adding that they never knew what surprises might lurk in a new reel. “People’s experiences in life are so different — you just have no idea. We’ve got film of some disturbing things, like harpooning whales, but they could be moving a house on a barge. Whenever there was a big storm or a big event, people would get their cameras out. It’s a whole chronicle of the 20th century, really, and it’s all unlabeled and jumbled around. Every piece is part of the jigsaw puzzle. You never know what the next one is going to be.”
Eventually, their collections outgrew their basement, and then a second home at the Henhouse — singer Noel Paul Stookey’s converted chicken house in Blue Hill.
In 1992, the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport was abandoned and for sale at a foreclosure auction, and Weiss bought it for $37,500.
“It was the end of the hangover after the savings and loan crisis,” he said. “Everybody was broke. I was the only bidder.”
Thanks to grant funding, the duo was able to renovate and reopen the movie theater. The film archive also had to weather a big challenge when technology shifted in a major way.
“I don’t think our mission will change — to preserve and keep the moving image history of our region,” Weiss said. “If that’s going to be delivered to people, it’s got to not be on VHS tape anymore. We switched to DVDs, and now people want a digital file to put on their computers.”
In the late 1990s, they worked hard to raise funds to build a big vault building — now a three-story silver cube right behind the Alamo. The organization has diversified its funding stream by selling space in the vault, and it has about 40 clients up and down the East Coast who pay to keep their films there.
The nonprofit also gets income from the Alamo Theatre, from selling DVDs, from individual donations and from grants. Northeast Historic Film supports the equivalent of five-and-a-half full-time positions — collecting, preserving, cataloging, digitizing and providing public access to old films from northern New England — and has an annual operating budget of $524,000.
Richard Rosen, the president of the Northeast Historic Film board of directors, said that Weiss and Sheldon’s contributions to the region’s history are critical. Sheldon, the co-founder of the nonprofit, remains on the board of directors.
“David’s contribution really has been as a pioneer,” he said. “In terms of collecting and preserving the moving image history of the Northeast, and for having the vision to save it. There was no model. This was a creation formed out of necessity — having to invent the box.”
He said that transitioning to a new executive director will be a significant change, and to do so, the board has hired a consultant and is working to develop a “transition budget.” Weiss expects to stay long enough to help the next director, once hired, get rolling.
“The search will be a terrific opportunity to attract and secure the leadership for Northeast Film for the first next phase of the future,” Rosen said.
To contact the organization for more information about its resources or preserving films, call 469-0924.