When I was a kid I was lucky enough to have a few friends who shared many of my interests– in movies, music, movie monsters, comic books, drama, and other sorts of things that ensured we were forever categorized as “nerds.” (Whatever the modern equivalent of “Nerd” classification is, it doesn’t seem to be quite the albatross around the neck of a kid that it used to be, thankfully.) But among my friends, I was the only one who loved to collect newspaper movie ads, and the bi-monthly movie schedules, or “show calendars,” that my hometown movie theater published to let us know what movies would be rolling into town, usually a year or more after their initial release. I would scour the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian—we lived in Southern Oregon, but my grandma was a subscriber—in search of splashy ads for the latest films, and smaller ads for second-run and art houses. It was a great way to indulge not only my love for the graphic design of the original posters, and how they would often be altered and rejiggered to fit the space requirements of the movie page, but also to indulge my thirsty imagination for what life where so many movie options were available daily might be like, to say nothing of the places where these pictures played.
What I’m sure I didn’t know at the time was that these newspaper ads, and the calendars for my hometown theater, were made with letterpress plate blocks, meticulous designs carved specifically for use by companies devoted to their creation and distribution. Which begs the question, what happened to these blocks when they’d served their purpose? Undoubtedly many of them were thought disposable and destroyed, either by the companies that made them or by the newspapers that used them.
But as D.J. Ginsberg and Marilyn Wagner discovered a couple decades ago, some of them were saved. While rummaging through an antique store in Omaha, Nebraska, the couple discovered dozens of boxes filled with over 60,000 letterpress plates and blocks made for movie ads that essentially chronicled over 50 years of movie history, reaching all the way back to the silent era. As they later found out, the artist who created the blocks Ginsberg and Wagner discovered began working in the craft while stationed in California with the US Navy. After his service, he returned home to Nebraska, opened a letterpress shop, and movie industry customers from California whom he’d encountered while in the military began sending him work. Omaha being a natural, central location for shipping such work to all parts of the country, the man and his company kept busy for decades creating the plates and blocks until sometime in the 1970s, when he sold his collection to the antiques dealer where Ginsberg and Wagner made their find. They purchased the entire collection for $2,000. It has since been assessed at a value somewhere between eight and $12 million.
Massachusetts filmmaker Adam Roffman, himself a collector of letterplate block movie ads, got wind of the Ginsberg-Wagner treasure and has chronicled its discovery in a short film that has been making its way around the festival circuit. It’s called The Collection (you can see it right here, and the 11 minutes it takes up will be a tantalizing morsel for fellow collectors and movie nerds, like myself, who will find its dip into film history arcana and commercial graphic design fascinating enough to hope that someday Roffman can find the resources to expand it into a feature.
“Their collection has every famous movie you can think of,” Roffman told a Medford, Massachusetts paper, “as well as thousands of movies you’ve never heard of, including a number of movies that aren’t listed in IMDB, for which there is no existing film print [and] no existing poster. This is in some cases the only existing record of some of these films.” And Roffman’s film communicates well the appreciation he has for what Ginsberg and Wagner have on their hands, what they are attempting to preserve. Watching Ginsberg ink up a printing press and hand-crank pages of ads using these meticulously restored plates– he uses vinegar to gently brush away decades of desiccated ink—there’s an almost artisanal quality bestowed upon a process which was likely never considered anything more than the churning out of crass, disposable advertising, which itself has been long abandoned in favor of more expedient digital methods. (In the ‘80s studios and theaters stopped using letterpresses for their ads, and the Omaha-based company that toiled on their craft for so many years went out of business.)
Whether or not someone will actually pony up to buy the collection is, for Ginsberg and Wagner, the $8-12 million question. Experts have confirmed to the couple that what they’ve spent so many years scrupulously cataloguing and restoring is likely the only collection of its kind—a spectacular graphic/textural/visual history of Hollywood ranging from the 1930s to the 1980s. They hope to sell it to a museum in order to display the blocks, as well as use the 1938 Vandercook letterpress, which is included in the collection, to print new versions of the come-hither vintage ads that always served as such a rich enticement to indulge in the promise of the movies.
For now, I will enjoy Roffman’s film, which sparks so many memories of my own personal collections, and hope not only that some museum will see the value in what Ginsberg and Wagner have on their hands, but also for a traveling exhibit someday.