Arts & Culture News

Founder of Alamo Drafthouse Launches Vintage Cinematic Letterpress Project Collection

A hand-cranked press using letterpresses plates to create a poster.
A hand-cranked press using letterpresses plates to create a poster. The Press Room Collection
This week, Austin-based movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse introduced The Press Room, a massive collection of vintage movie letterpress plates.

Letterpress plates were the main method used for advertising in newspapers from 1930s through the 1970s. Hollywood studios would send artwork to press setters, who would then create letterpresses for newspapers and movie theaters.

While out antiquing in the late 1990s, Marilyn Wagner and DJ Ginsberg stumbled upon 60,000 letterpress plates encompassing six decades of Hollywood filmmaking.

The story and discovery of these plates are chronicled in the film The Collection, which Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse, saw at SXSW in 2017. League literally walked out of the theater with phone in hand (of course, he wouldn’t get his phone out during a movie) to see about acquiring the collection, which was appraised at well over $10 million.

click to enlarge Old school printing. - THE PRESS ROOM
Old school printing.
The Press Room
According to a piece in the Omaha World-Herald, KB Typesetting in Omaha was the exclusive Hollywood typesetter for newspapers across America. “The majority of the major studios all used KB Typesetting to get their plates made,”  the publication wrote.

Online magazine Atlas Obscura reported that the owner of KB Typesetting, who is unnamed in the story, fell into the craft while stationed in California during a stint in the Navy. When he returned home to Nebraska, he opened up shop and continued his craft. Being centrally located had logistical perks. 

The craft of typesetting plates eventually died and KB Typesetting sold the entire collection to an antique dealer in the 1970s. The collection gathered dust and became seemingly useless until Ginsburg and Wagner happened to find the loot and bought the collection for $2,000. 

A video demonstrates how these letterpress plates are used.

Wagner says maintaining the collection was overwhelming, and it deserved a proper home, ideally with someone who would place the art in a museum. Enter League.

Coincidentally, in April, League stepped down as CEO at Alamo Drafthouse to focus on more creative ventures. 

click to enlarge The limited-edition kung fu-inspired poster curated by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. - THE PRESS ROOM
The limited-edition kung fu-inspired poster curated by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA.
The Press Room

The Press Room Collection launched just this week with one primary item up for grabs: A limited-edition kung fu poster curated and autographed by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, which was named after the 1983 kung fu movie Shaolin and Wu-Tang. The poster was hand-cranked on a 1940 Vandercook press and sold for $55. 

The prints are already all sold out. Naturally. Of course.

A spokesperson for the Alamo Drafthouse says the collection is ongoing and promises “there will definitely be additional products, including posters, released in the future.” 

Other collectibles on the site now include a few T-shirts, puzzles, coasters and a killer shower curtain. 

When we can have nice things again (like bars and social spaces), The Press Room will come alive in the form of a museum, letterpress print shop, bar and event space near Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in Manhattan and Orlando. A short video about the museum indicates visitors will be able to select their own plates to press.

click to enlarge Finished letterpressed prints - THE PRESS ROOM COLLECTION
Finished letterpressed prints
The Press Room Collection
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.