100 years later, new audiences discover legendary outsider

Historian Mike Zahs
Historian Mike Zahs stands outside the historic opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa. — photo courtesy of Andrew Sherburne

In 1981, then-junior high history teacher Michael Zahs lucked into a treasure trove of relics from a Washington, Iowa basement. He took a chance on what might have been so many boxes of junk, because of their source — they had originally been owned by W. Frank Brinton, a man who had been known locally as something of a sensationalist showman, but who also had a reputation as a world traveler and collector of oddities. Brinton had died in 1919, but many of his possessions had never been fully explored, just dumped into a box labeled “Brinton crap” and left in limbo, waiting for the right person to come into possession of them.

Fast forward to 2013. Zahs had been touring with some of that “crap” — rare artifacts from a little-explored period in Iowa history — using it in lectures for several years. He’d started to gain attention for the deep importance of what he had found, and for his passion in exhibiting it. It was at this time that the team at Northland Films heard about Zahs, noting from the start that there was more to this compelling tale than the historicity of the find. “The first time we met [Zahs],” says Northland Films’ Andrew Sherburne, “we knew that his story was just as interesting as Frank Brinton’s.” Sherburne, along with his collaborators Tommy Haines and John Richard, working together as Barn Owl Films, decided that this story needed to be told. “Mike has a warmth and a magnetism that instantly draws you in, and we knew he would be compelling on screen.”

This was the kernel that grew into Northland’s upcoming documentary feature Saving Brinton, currently in production.

A still from the 1907 film by Segundo de Chomón. -- photo courtesy of Andrew Sherburne
A still from the 1907 film by Segundo de Chomón. — photo courtesy of Andrew Sherburne

Billed as a project that “follows the stories of two men, separated by 100 years, and the film collection that connects them,” Saving Brinton traces Zahs’ discovery and exploration of Brinton’s treasures, and the life and legacy of both subjects. As of this winter, the film got a bit of a budget bump: a $10,000 grant from the Iowa Arts Council that, according to Sherburne, “provides critical support to the post-production process, in particular editing.”

In the alluringly mysterious boxes that drew so many to Zahs and, through him, to Brinton, were historical programs, local memorabilia, amazing photographs and a large collection of magic lantern slides. An early precursor to moving pictures, predating even photography, magic lanterns were used often by magicians and entertainers. These slides offer a glimpse into our history that is seldom possible. On their own, they would have been an incredible historical find. However, Zahs’ Brinton collection soon grew, and the real excitement began.

A few months after he purchased the boxes, the executor of the Brinton estate came back to Zahs with films that had recently been returned from the Library of Congress, where some of them had been copied. Specifically, they were films from the late 1800s and early 1900s — films that represented an era in the genre that previously had, to a large extent, been lost to time. All told in this collection, Zahs says, there are about 150 films.

It’s no wonder people have taken notice. There’s a film by Thomas Edison in there, and another by George Méliès (the filmmaker who rocketed back into the public’s consciousness with Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret).

Brinton’s preservation and restoration project has proceeded with help from the University of Iowa Special Collections (where the films are currently housed), MediaPreserve and the Library of Congress. Also involved, at varying levels, have been Humanities Iowa, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Washington County Riverboat Foundation and, now, the Iowa Arts Council. Zahs speaks gratefully of Greg Prickman, head of UI Special Collections, pleased that he can “see the value in keeping the collection together,” because, he says, “Keeping the collection together and geographically near has been very important to me.”

Again, it’s the men behind the films whose stories spark the most interest.

W. Frank Brinton was, in all things, an entertainer. He was toying with ideas of powered flight 10 years before the Wright Brothers took off. He was a world traveler and a consummate showman, never simply exploring life for his own amusement, but always to draw a crowd. Sherburne calls Brinton “a tinkerer, an inventor, very much an eccentric.” A passage from a contemporary newspaper, the Keota Eagle, quoted in the Washington County Historical Society’s profile of one of his early (unsuccessful) attempts at flight, beautifully distills public reaction to him in his time:

Brinton! What magic word is that! What mighty spell it cast. Brinton! Brinton! At the name multitudes sway and are led, yea, even as lambs unto the slaughter! ‘Neath its powerful spell great host rise up and gather together like onto the crowd at a county pumpkin show or distant fair. Brinton!! Prince of Fishermen!! He dippeth his net and lo! he hauleth in a couple of thousand at 25c a head and waxeth rich …

Among his other escapades and passions, he and his wife Indiana made a steady living showing magic lantern slides and films in opera houses, theaters and, when nothing else was available, pop-up tents. As a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, notes Sherburne, he used the “magic lantern slides in his talks and moved to films when the technology became available.” He understood the power of the medium, and its importance in bringing the outside world to the small town that he called home, and others like it. While his eccentricities might sometimes have tested his public’s love, he gave them a great gift in introducing film to the rural masses.

Michael Zahs, the former history teacher, approached the power of film from the opposite direction. Where Brinton was always looking forward, careening towards the future on the back of whatever new technology he could find or create, Zahs saw backwards, to the wonder inherent in the past that was preserved by the films. He knew the value of what he had lucked into, and once the first several had been preserved, he began traveling and lecturing with them, much as Brinton once had. He set up regular showings of films and magic lantern slides at the historic Ainsworth Opera House, a venue Brinton also once used.

It took time for the world to catch up to Zahs in realizing the films’ importance. Sherburne says that what he finds most compelling about Zahs’ dedication to his project is “his ceaseless energy and dedication to sharing that history, keeping it alive for the rest of us and ensuring it is properly recognized for generations to come.” He persevered for decades in bringing these films to light. In March of this year, he took a huge step towards that goal when he hosted a gala celebration for the Ainsworth Opera House’s centennial. The event consisted of two different programs, featuring a total of about 25 films, all only recently digitized by UI Special Collections, and thus all new to modern audiences. They were accompanied by live music — some adapted for the films, some newly composed — by the Red Cedar Trio.

At this point, 34 years on from his initial discovery, the 68-year-old Zahs has spent half his life dedicated to this project. It’s hardly, however, all that keeps him busy: “My family, teaching for most of my life, preserving historic buildings and materials, starting a nature trail, beginning graduate classes about Iowa, cemetery work, etc.” When asked what this project adds to his legacy, he quips, “A legacy is maybe more for Presidents.” Zahs is especially excited about the next step for the Brinton films, though — this spring, he’s looking forward to premiering films that he just got back from the Library of Congress, restored to be “as they originally were, in hand-painted color.” He hopes this will coincide with a formal recognition of the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa as the longest-running movie theatre in the world.

Brinton and Zahs may have had diverging goals, but their shared loves are what make this narrative so compelling. Says Sherburne, “Brinton was a man obsessed with the future, Mike is a man devoted to the past. Their lives and their interests intersect in this collection. What they both wanted was to connect Iowans to the world, Brinton looking outward, and Mike drawing attention inward. Hopefully the film will take that story to an even broader audience.”

Saving Brinton is still in production; since the story is “ever-changing,” Sherburne says, they “won’t really know when it’s done filming until it’s done filming.” Still, the goal is for a 2017 festival premiere. In the meantime, several clips from the restored and digitized films are available to view through the UI Special Collections website. Even more than 100 years later, they continue to evoke a sense of wonder.

Genevieve Heinrich is a writer, an editor, a malcontent and a ne’er-do-well. Occasionally, she acts and sings. This article was originally published in Little Village 190.

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