Volume 12, Number 1, 2003

Hollywood museum amasses TV, movie memorabilia

On his way to work every morning, Jan-Christopher Horak passes Chris Rock, Kim Basinger, Ted Danson, Raquel Welch, David Bowie and Sigourney Weaver.

Not in person, but in cement on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their bronze stars are in front of Horak's office at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum.

Horak, AS '73, is curator of the museum, home to the bar from Cheers and a cache of A-list movie memorabilia.

He calls Martin Scorsese "Marty." He has six film books listed on Amazon.com. He has followed leads to more than 100,000 archival finds, including rare tickets to the grand opening of Universal City Studio in March 1915.

Horak wasn't interested in film when he came to UD in 1970. He went from Newark's College Avenue to Hollywood and Vine because of a spark from a single professor discussing the work of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.

"The middle of my sophomore year was the first year the Winterim program [now Winter Session] was offered, and I took a course with Jerry Barrett, [a member of the English department faculty from 1966-78]. It was a course on Eisenstein. I took his regular film course the following semester," he says. Horak soon began writing film criticism for the student newspaper, The Review.

He went on to earn a master's degree in film at Boston University and a doctorate from the University of Muenster in Germany.

He worked as a curator, or director, at museums in Germany and the United States and became the founding director of archives and collections at Universal Studios. He also is an adjunct professor of film at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which was created in hopes of revitalizing the economically sagging blocks around Grauman's Chinese Theatre, is becoming a serious film center under his tutelage.

The museum is home to the original Star Trek set, Fox Mulder's office set from The X Files and the barber chair Max Factor used when he did wigs in downtown Los Angeles in 1909. A room-sized scale model of Hollywood circa 1940 is embedded in the floor. It features 450 buildings and took 25 artisans five years to build.

"In a typical museum, 95 percent of the material owned by the museum or loaned to the museum is in the archive and 5 percent is on display," Horak says. "Here, it's the other way around."

Horak says he likes the more unusual objets de Hollywood such as Max Factor's "beauty calibrator," an instrument for measuring the symmetry of the face, an historic gem he is convinced was more publicity stunt than cosmetology tool. "I can't imagine any serious actress would have put that on her head," he says.

His academic bent is revealed in the museum's latest special exhibits. One focuses on the work of Saul Bass, who created the classic movie posters for Vertigo, Irma La Douce and The Man With the Golden Arm. The other tells the story of early African-American filmmaker Oscar Michaeux, whose movies featured all-black casts and were shown almost exclusively to audiences of color in segregated cinemas.

Prospecting for rare films before they are unwittingly destroyed has been a leitmotif in Horak's career. One of his most surprising finds was a Technicolor short from western Massachusetts. He says it shows Myrna Loy when she was "a cut above a chorus girl" acting in yellow-face in a faux-Chinese musical.

Horak found a lost sequence from a 1942 movie, with an assist from Scorsese.

Scorsese started making a list of his favorite films when he was 14. When Horak told him he was working on the restoration of the original negative of The Moon and Sixpence, Scorsese began describing the film.

"He is so passionate about films and film history. He started explaining in detail a scene from the film, just off the top of his head,'' Horak says. "He told me there was a color sequence in the film, but we didn't have a color sequence."

Scorsese's memory led Horak to keep looking, and he eventually found a copy with the color sequence, which he speculates might have been reproduced in black-and-white because that's all that was required for 1950s television screens.

Horak collected more than 100,000 objects in a giant, two-year treasure hunt at Universal Studios --from an original poster for the 1931 Frankenstein to extremely rare 19th-century pre-cinema optical devices.

He found the original glass mattes Alfred Hitchcock used to create the illusion of thousands of invading birds for his 1963 horror flick of the same name.

Horak's near-misses are heart stoppers: He found the location of the barn where the chariot from Spartacus had been stored for decades--but not until the building had been destroyed. He tracked legendary producer Irving Thalberg's papers to one of Universal's warehouses in New Jersey, but the warehouse had been recently sold and the papers lost.

"Just to think that material had survived so long and couldn't be saved," he says.

While at Universal, Horak built a 30,000-square-foot archive and cataloged the costumes and props from Erin Brockovich and The Mummy after the production wrapped, so items wouldn't be lost forever like the staples from movies starring W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and James Stewart.

"Much of that material had disappeared," he says. "Part of it disappeared through attrition; some was stolen. Some material disappeared because it was stored in places and the company decided that they needed the storage space more than the material and they just deep-sixed it.

"This country generates huge amounts of media, more and more every day," Horak says. "We've got 150 television channels, the Internet. The sheer amount of material being produced is increasing exponentially at a rate where we will never be able to preserve it."

But, still, Horak would like to preserve all films.

Although he considers the American Film Institute's Top 100 list nothing more than advertising for film companies, when Horak hears "movie list," he thinks of the National Film Registry.

The Library of Congress compiled the 350-film list. Each year, the National Film Preservation Board chooses 25 films to add to the registry--films that are at least 10 years old and culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.

The alphabetical list goes from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) to The Zapruder Film (1963).

It includes a range of films that have significance to Americans. A sampling: Adam's Rib (1949), All the King's Men (1949), The Endless Summer (1966), Freaks (1932), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather, Part II (1974), Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage (1937), King Kong (1933), The Lady Eve (1941), Little Miss Marker (1934), Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939), Marty (1955), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), This is Cinerama (1952), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Woodstock (1970).

Horak says he might quibble about some of the films that made the National Film Registry, but he thinks all films should be on the list. His favorite list film is Sam Peckinpah's hard-edged 1969 western The Wild Bunch.

Another favorite is a film he helped restore--the classic 1920 silent version of The Last of the Mohicans.

Horak says UD was an important part of his career because he arrived on campus as a history major but left committed to a future in film study.

"I think that was really important for me. I was not a film buff or anything like that when I went to Delaware, but I found something that became my passion, and my passion is my work. I feel very, very privileged, because not many people can say that about the thing that they spend 40 percent of their lives doing. If you really want to be successful at something, you have to be obsessed, at least for a while."

Horak says he now spends more time with his wife, Mindy, and daughter, Gianna. They live in Pasadena.

--Kathy Canavan