I’m looking at old WFAA news clips with Jeremy Spracklen, moving image curator of SMU’s G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, and the kid on screen has an awful lot of ventriloquy dummies.
This footage is from the mid-'70s, and shows a 14-year-old Richardson boy with his right hand stuffed in the back of his puppet’s jacket — both boy and dummy are being interviewed on a local news program.
The reporter seems reluctant about the exchange, as his questions continually get lobbed over to the wooden sidekick.
But that’s not just any puppeteer, and that’s not just any newscaster, explains Spracklen. It’s a young Jeff Dunham, and he’s being questioned on breath control by Bill O’Reilly, who worked as on-air talent for WFAA about 40 years ago.
“To think at 14 he’d have that many different puppets...” Spracklen says.
The mesmerizing clip is just one moment in the WFAA archives, a fascinating 17-year stretch of 16mm footage, protected in a climate-controlled film vault at SMU. The tins fill several floor-to-ceiling shelves and are the only copies in existence. Each one contains a mystery; the tins are labeled simply with an airdate.
Spracklen does more than serve as caretaker. He’s going through the splices, cleaning, hand-winding and digitizing the entire collection so that it can become a searchable, usable database, a vibrant, moving archive of what Spracklen lovingly calls the “2,000-hour documentary of Dallas history.”
Imagine the useful end-benefits of such an undertaking.
Currently, if you’d like to search back a generation for local coverage, you’d be limited to The Dallas Morning News archives. But reading an article gives only one angle, and it lacks the nuances attached to other sensory experiences. This old footage lets you see a frustrated brow fold upon itself, or reveals a genuine moment of delight, just as it was lived on the day it aired.
“We’ve got one clip of this land commissioner, and he’s menacing and he’s threatening and he’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Spracklen. “If you just read the story on that, it doesn’t tell you everything. It’s seeing the mannerisms and everything else for yourself.”
Besides, if The Dallas Morning News "didn’t cover the story that day — you’re out,” he notes.
In addition to academic and personal research, this collection’s agreement allows its use for anything but political or commercial gain. That makes it an especially useful tool for documentary purposes. So someday, if NFL Films comes knocking for old Tom Landry interviews, they’ll be able to access them.
Our current print archives are more limiting for filmmakers, Spracklen explains. “Sometimes [filmmakers will] use the shot of a headline or talk about it — but to actually have that footage of those people…” Priceless.
On a good day — a really good day — Spracklen can get through roughly a week’s worth of content. Newsrooms, it seems, have always lived in the moment. WFAA is no exception, especially back when life was captured on film, quickly edited and then projected live.
“They would go out and they would shoot 16mm in the field. And they would do the story, do the interview, bring it back in the studio, process it on reversal stock [so what’s in the camera becomes the positive]," explains Spracklen. “Then they would edit it together, air it and throw it in the can.”
Those cans of yesterday piled up, stacking upon one another, gathering dust in boxes as the newsroom moved on to the next big thing. That is, until now.
In his journey through the collection, Spracklen has discovered all kinds of fascinations, little treasures and points of interest. This Saturday, as part of Dallas VideoFest, he’ll present a collection of his favorite finds in the appropriately named program: "How the News Got Made: A Rare Look at SMU’s WFAA Newsfilm and a Conversation with the People Who Created It."
In addition to clips of political figures, social commentary and bizarre puppet shows, former WFAA news staff will share stories about what it was like to make and deliver the news during those eras. You’ll hear added context from John Jenkins (editor/photographer), John Sparks (producer/director) and Jim Green (news reporter).
Given our current political climate, you have to wonder: What’s changed since the '70s? How have the tone of coverage and points of interest shifted since those early reports? By revisiting miles of old newsfilm, what really stands out?
“That nothing has changed,” says Spracklen.
“There are stories on race relations. On abortion. On police brutality. And it’s the same stories there are now, and the same fight — and nothing’s changed.” He says it all with a tone of removal, with that “big picture” context that comes from panning out on the past.
“They look at [a] topic as though: ‘It’s today. This is the battleground day. Then everything will change from today.’ And it didn’t.”
Join film historian Jeremy Spracklen and former WFAA news staff at 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Angelika Film Center (5321 E. Mockingbird Lane). Tickets are $10. Visit videofest.org.