Collectors of H’wood lore

Enthusiasts keep showbiz memories alive

HOLLYWOOD – In Hollywood, where the collective memory sometimes seems to date back no more than three or four days, a small coterie of collectors are preserving the popular culture of movies, music and theater.

Los Angeles residents Miles Kreuger, Michael Ochs, Marc Wanamaker and Forrest J. Ackerman have turned their passion for collecting and preserving Hollywood and Broadway’s heritage into important archives used by writers and documentarians looking to unlock Hollywood history.

Musical memories

In the Wilshire district, Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical, has amassed the world’s largest archival collection dedicated to the twin histories of musical theater and film.

Kreuger recalls that at the age of 4, in 1938, his grandmother took him to a matinee of “Knights of Song,” a short-lived biography of Gilbert & Sullivan that starred Nigel Bruce. He was so smitten by the experience that “at once I knew I wanted to become part of the magic called theater.”

By his teens, Kreuger had befriended a bevy of the most illustrious songwriters from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, including Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Arlen & Harburg and Irving Caesar.

Feeling a responsibility to pass on the great heritage to which he had been exposed, Kreuger founded the institute in 1972. Today, the collection includes around 100,000 recordings dating back to Edwin Booth in 1890, theater programs back to the 1880s, sheet music and scores back to 1836, around 250,000 movie stills back to 1905 and books on theater, film and New York history back to the 18th century.

Rocking history

On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Ochs’ extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll collection overflows three houses to accommodate his profession, passion and living.

“One house is for my photos which includes stills of musicians from the early 1930s to the present in every genre of music, one for my records and another for myself, my lady and my dog,” he laughs.

Ochs came of age during the 1950s, saw Buddy Holly perform live, went to the Allan Freed shows and after graduation from Ohio State U., worked as a disc jockey, managed the career of his brother, noted folk singer Phil Ochs, and eventually headed the publicity department of Columbia Records. It was a halcyon time for rock ‘n’ roll, and Ochs flourished as a “house hippie” at Columbia, where he continued to amass his then-already sizable collection.

During the early 1970s, one of his photos was credited as “Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives” as a joke. From that moment on, to keep the joke going, Ochs stipulated that future photos owned by him should say “Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives.” Shortly thereafter, Dick Clark was producing a rock ‘n’ roll TV special and gave Ochs a $1,000 check for the use of some of his photos.

Nowadays, Ochs supplies art to retrospective music collections including compact discs, videos, periodicals, books, TV and film. He’s published six books, including two on Elvis Presley and two on Marilyn Monroe.

Photo treasures

Need a rare Hollywood photograph of Wallach’s Music City (circa 1954) or an even rarer shot of Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler sharing a quiet moment together in a bistro? Marc Wanamaker has over 100,000 Hollywood-themed photographs ranging from early studios to rare photos such as an early aerial shot of Los Angeles.

He formed his company, Bison Archives, to legitimize his quest for information on the history of motion picture studios in the United States and the film industry in general. It all came about when he was researching an encyclopedia on the history of the movie studios.

His library, which consists of photos, books, written material and print, is used to supply research for documentaries, feature films, magazines, books and articles. He has had a hand in many literary projects and was a major contributor to author Jim Heimann’s “Out With the Stars” (Abbeville Press, 1985), which documented the history of Los Angeles night life. Wanamaker’s influence can also be seen in Heimann’s new tome, “Sins of the City” (Chronicle Books, 1999) which is about crime in the city of the angels.

Monstrous collection

Forest J. Ackerman, often said to be the greatest living authority on horror and science-fiction films, was the founder and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland and other magazines of the genre. He interviewed (and became friendly with) countless celebs, including Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.

Exuding an old-world charm, the Los Angeles native resides in an 18-room residence that he fondly refers to as the “Ackermansion” in the Los Feliz area of L.A. He conducts tours of his home and shows grateful guests the Dracula cape worn on the stage by Lugosi, a Lon Chaney Sr. room, a first edition “Dracula” signed by the book’s author, Bram Stoker.

Ackerman’s collection includes over 125,000 stills from nearly 100 years of horror and science-fiction films. The Ackermansion is open to professional and novice researchers alike. He currently has several projects in the works including “Sci-Fi & Fantasy Womanthology” and “Sci-Fi & Fantasy Lesbianology.”

When the music’s over, what will become of these massive, historically important collections? Ochs says that when he’s passed on to rock ‘n’ roll heaven, “My staff will keep the business going until a proper repository is found.”

Wanamaker has been a historical consultant to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for many years and notes, “The bulk of my motion picture-related archives will one day become a part of the Academy’s vast collection.”

Ackerman has tried to find a “final resting place” for his archives in Los Angeles but has been met with indifference from a wide range of potential suitors. On a brighter note, cities such as Monterey, Calif., Las Vegas and Berlin have shown keen interest in acquiring Ackerman’s collection.

As a nonprofit corporation, the Institute of the American Musical will continue beyond the lifetime of founder Miles Kreuger, but to continue serving researchers, writers and students from all over the world, the institute is seeking the support of the entertainment community with tax-deductible donations of historic memorabilia and funding.