You never think it will happen to you, but tragedy struck Jim Appleton’s family last September, Friday the 13th. Jim’s sister’s home survived the horrific Idaho wildfires with only singed fences and burned trees, the flames coming within four feet of the main house. Disaster averted! Then came the monstrous rains, turning the deforested slopes into surging rivers of mud. This angry, churning mud, as thick as potters clay, burst into the home, filling it with ONE MILLION GALLONS of nasty, thick, stinking muck. This second assault destroyed more than just a home…it almost wiped out the Appleton family’s primary collection of memorabilia from their mother’s movie career with RKO and Universal Studios.
Martha O’Driscoll made 43 movies in her brief career, lying about her age and making her first picture at 13. She was a rising, talented actress, receiving billing above Barbara Stanwick and Ingrid Bergman. Co-stars included William Holden, Mickey Rooney, Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara, Susan Hayward, and John Wayne. Martha was the first Daisy Mae opposite Buster Keaton and the young ingénue pursued by Dracula in House of Dracula. Featured on covers and in magazine ads, her career was taking off when she met a handsome young man from Chicago and turned her back on Hollywood forever in 1947.
Jim and his siblings got a kick out of the continued requests for their mother’s autographs well into her 70’s. “Having a beautiful, celebrated mother was fun. Continuing to keep her memory alive was a shared passion,” says Jim. When the damage to Martha’s archives was assessed, the family knew where to go to salvage anything possible. Only 4 years earlier, Jim and his wife Mary had branched into media preservation when asked by the 7-11 Corporation to digitize their entire history from the first days of the original ice house. The 654 packing boxes included over 50,000 pieces of material…..negatives, slides, photos, cassettes, tapes, audio reels, 35mm. film, and printed documents. After 29 years in the video production business through Showcase Productions, the Appletons already had the staff and expertise to handle such massive digitizing projects in their spin off, Media Asset Preservation, or MAP. The software they use stores the information from a project for future retrieval in just minutes. Because Jim is a dedicated pack rat, he still owns the obsolete machines needed to play tapes and film. If you can’t play the media, you can’t preserve it.
With their second client, Southwest Airlines, Jim added extensive color correction. Films just digitized for one of Yale University’s Heisman winners in the 30’s look as fresh as the day they were shot 85 years ago. Original films for the Boy Scouts have been brought back to life and the true greens have replaced the red tint that comes with aging.
A hard lesson was learned by the Appletons by not taking their own advice. Putting off preserving their own memories, they never dreamed that something precious to them could be wiped out by nature in the blink of an eye. Most of us feel the same way. We think film and slides and negatives will last forever. They don’t. “All media deteriorates if it is not preserved. Digitizing is the advanced, secure way to preserve history. Beyond digitizing and preserving historical media, it should be put into a searchable data base, making media more accessible for sharing,” Jim says. “Don’t be fooled by ads urging you to convert your video tape and film into dvd’s. These ads are designed to sell software and aren’t concerned with the preservation of your history,” Jim warns. The average person doesn’t know that a dvd is a compressed format and cannot give you the same quality as professionally digitized video tape or film. What’s the point in converting to another format that will become obsolete?
When asked if Jim had any final words to add, he said, “Don’t wait until it’s too late to preserve your family’s history for the next generation. Crawl through your garages and attics. Have your media digitized, then get the whole family in on the fun in identifying people….before you forget who they are!”