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Old flicks put new face on history

By Steven Finacom
Saturday October 19, 2002

Local historical archives are enlivened with thousands of still pictures showing Berkeley's places, people, and events of past decades. But for a more animated glimpse into early local life, nothing beats old home movies, newsreels and other film footage. 

You have an opportunity to see moving images of Berkeley dating back nearly a century at a special screening, “Berkeley History on Film”, this weekend, Sunday, Oct. 20th, at 3:00 PM at the Pacific Film Archive theater on the UC Berkeley campus. The program is free. 

The Berkeley Historical Society (BHS) pioneered local film screenings under the guidance of Ellen Drori and others. In recent years, in cooperation with BHS, UC's Pacific Film Archive has taken up the torch and assembled a 90 minute program to delight local audiences. The mostly silent films are accompanied by a pianist and by live narration. 

The oldest short film in the program is “A Trip to Berkeley,” from 1906. Ride along on a streetcar as it travels past the UC campus and catch a glimpse of now vanished houses and even an early 20th century traffic hazard – a horse in the middle of Hearst Avenue. 

See “Interurban Railway” footage from 1941, and marvel at the transit options available to Berkeley commuters back in the “old days”. 

An episode of the “Officer 444” crime serial set in Berkeley in the mid-1920s includes a cameo appearance by Berkeley's famed police chief August Vollmer, pioneer of “scientific policing.” 

Student spirit is also on display in nostalgic footage showing senior class activities at Cal in 1912, including the traditional “Senior Pilgrimage” through campus. 

An unforgettable part of the program is the newsreel footage of the 1923 Berkeley fire, which destroyed some 600 buildings north of campus in a period of hours. See dramatic images of wind-whipped flames spreading through entire blocks of houses and hundreds of students and others trying to fight the fire and salvage belongings. 

The “Hink's Shoplifting Training Film” is the highlight of the program. Produced for Hink's Department Store (once a fixture in Downtown Berkeley), the film showed employees how to spot and deter shoplifters. Although the producers didn't intend the film as a comedy, you'll be highly amused. Watch out for that grandmotherly lady browsing at the cosmetics counter! 


Steven Finacom is a local 

historian, active with BAHA and the Berkeley Historical Society.