A Bucksport organization will digitize more than 2,400 episodes of locally produced television from the 1970s, 80s and 90s from a Boston TV station, thanks to a $215,000 grant it was recently awarded.
Over the next two years, Northeast Historic Film, located at Bucksport’s Alamo Theatre, will digitize WCVB’s massive collection of videotapes and 16 millimeter film reels, showcasing the 18 programs that were part of its groundbreaking slate of original programming, one of the largest such collections in the country.
Northeast Historic Film, which since 1986 has worked to preserve the film and video records of northern New England, has actually been in possession of the WCVB tapes since 2015. Executive director David Weiss had long had a working relationship with Art Donohue, a former producer for WCVB, and on a visit to Boston, Donohue showed Weiss an old garage on the station’s lot that housed thousands of hours of old master tapes.
“They were in piles, shoved on shelves, in total disarray,” Weiss said. “I just thought, ‘Gee, this really is a treasure trove.’ Eventually, we convinced the station brass to put them on pallets and ship them up to Maine. And we’ve had them ever since.”
WCVB was an innovator in producing local non-news programming, including having the distinction of being one of the very few local TV stations in the country that produced a sitcom. That show, “Park Street Under,” which aired in 1979 and 1980, took place in a subterranean bar on Park Street in Boston. According to legend, that show, which included a main character who was a former Red Sox player-turned-bartender, was the direct inspiration for NBC’s “Cheers,” though “Cheers” producers have never publicly admitted to that being the case.
The station later produced another sitcom, “The Baxters,” which ran for two seasons. The show was later picked up by legendary television producer Norman Lear, who moved production to Hollywood and put it into nationwide syndication for two seasons. The show was innovative in that the first half of the 30 minute program featured a vignette in the lives of the fictional Baxter family, and the second half featured a live audience that took part in a discussion about the issues raised in the episode.
WCVB also created the country’s first legal affairs program, “Miller’s Court,” hosted by legal scholar Arthur Miller between 1979 and 1988, in which Miller took questions from viewers. The station also produced a popular children’s program, “Jabberwocky,” which featured puppets interacting with live actors and which ended up being nationally syndicated, and several other programs aimed at youth and at diverse audiences, including “Aqui” and “Rapmatazz.”
Digitizing those many hundreds of hours of tape is no small feat, however, and required significant funding. Northeast Historic Film staff last year applied for a grant from the Alexandria, Virginia-based Council of Library and Information Resources, and during the process of writing the grant application, archivist Karin Carlson digitized a small handful of tapes, randomly picked from the pile.
“The very first thing I grabbed was an episode of the program ‘Jabberwocky’ from 1974, that was all about the lack of Black representation in kids’ shows,” Carlson said. “If that’s what I found from randomly selecting one tape, imagine what else is out there.”
Northeast Historic Film previously received a $322,000 CLIR grant in 2016, for a project titled “The Woman Behind the Camera: Home Movies and Amateur Film by Women, 1925-1997.” That project, done in collaboration with the Lesbian Home Movie Project and Chicago Film Archives, digitized hundreds of hours of films made by female amateur filmmakers, documenting a rarely seen perspective on American home life in the 20th century.
Weiss said that it has been a challenge for archivists all over the country to digitize and preserve the archives from television stations, both for news and other original programming. He said some TV stations are reluctant to turn over their old tapes to organizations like Northeast Historic Film, citing concerns about copyright, while others may not have much of an archive at all.
“Things got taped over. Things were shot live and never taped at all. Things get destroyed,” Weiss said. “That’s why it’s really great to be able to archive the WCVB material. A lot of this stuff is sitting in limbo, or it has disappeared.”