The State Archives in Raleigh will host this year's Triangle Home Movie Day Saturday October 20 from 1pm to 4pm.
Starting in 2002, Home Movie Day gives families a chance to view and share their home movies and to learn how best to care for them. Local film archivists will be on hand to discuss the long-term benefits of film versus video and digital media and the role that home movies play in preserving our cultural history.
In the days before recording moving images was as easy as whipping out your cell phone, communities across North Carolina were excited by the arrival of the Camera Man, Lexington's Herbert Lee Waters. Waters, who died in 1997, made a few extra dollars during the Depression by filming local communities and then showing the films in local movie houses with an admission fee of five or ten cents. Many of these films still exist and housed in the H. Lee Waters Film Collection at Duke. Some are housed at the State Archives and are viewable online.
In 1986, The Charlotte Observer's David Perlmutt profiled Mr. Waters.
They called him the Camera Man, a one-man, traveling movie studio who wanted to put every man, woman and child in the Carolinas on the silver screen. He went from one dusty town to the next, on the road sometimes six days a week, his Pontiac loaded with clothes and camera equipment, maneuvering thousands of miles of mostly dirt stretches full of bends and ruts. In small-town theaters, his films had to compete with the likes of Bogey, Gable or Myrna Loy and Will Rogers.
But Herbert Lee Waters perhaps had a bigger draw. He filmed local people, doing local things, like working in the cotton mills and factories or marching in a Veterans Day parade in Salisbury, gabbing at the Feed Well Cafe in Roxboro and dancing outside a Great Falls, S.C., school. Then there was the local football team butting heads with the cross-county rival in York, S.C. Things that die, but never grow old.
Now, at 83, Waters - who still runs the second-floor H. Lee Waters Studio in downtown Lexington that he bought 60 years ago - is considered something of an important documentarian, at least of his day and region. His films, shot from 1936 to 1942, were simple, with no sound or story line. But they showed life as it was and the sensitivity, vibrancy and neighborly ways of Carolinas towns in the last days of the Depression.
"All of his photos and films were documents, " said Tom Whiteside, himself a filmmaker and visiting artist at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro who has taken a recent interest in Waters's work. "His films give a very faithful document of what small towns in the Carolinas looked like 50 years ago. And they're all very personal, because one guy made them."
Waters is a wiry, gentle man who stands about 5 feet 2, still climbs the 28 stairs to his studio two at a time and often rides a Honda 400 motorcycle to get around town. Nearly a half-century later, his films are popular. And the smaller the town the better, H. Lee Waters always says. Everybody knows each other in small towns, he says. The big cities are full of strangers.
Waters seems delighted with all the attention, but humbled by the notion his films possess importance.
"I saw it as a business and I had a lot of fun doing it, met a lot of wonderful people, " he said. "I was like everybody else during the Depression looking for business. But I never gave it too much thought that my films would be valuable or important.
"I not only made a little money to make ends meet, but it seems like it has turned out to be a service to these towns."
Earlier this month, Waters's films of Great Falls were shown at the town's branch of the Chester County Public Library. People left reminiscing - many crying, said librarian Kay Evans.
"We must have had over 200 people show up, some from as far away as Spartanburg and Columbia, " Evans said. "We're a small branch library, and I had to show it four times so everyone could see it. The film has brought life back to Great Falls.
"The film is a part of history that needs to be preserved. It's got everybody talking."
It is that way everywhere in the 100 or so towns that Waters put on film. He was - and still is - primarily a still photographer, snapping portraits, group shots and wedding photos. But his studio was seeing hard times in the midst of the Depression, and a photography friend suggested he take still photos of babies and flash them on the screen between features at the local theater. Waters liked the suggestion, but thought motion pictures of local people would be a novel idea.
It was. He tried it first in the mill village of Cooleemee near Mocksville, and it worked. The local folks flocked to the theater. After that, it was just sheer hustling that brought him regional fame. He turned the studio over to his wife, Mabel, and hit the road. By 1942, Waters had shot more than 100,000 feet of film in towns like Cliffside, Concord, Kannapolis, Forest City, Mebane, Chapel Hill, Rutherfordton, Monroe and Kings Mountain in North Carolina and Chester, Rock Hill, York, Lancaster and Gaffney in South Carolina.
The early films were black and white, the last two years shot mostly in color.
Waters was born near Shelby. His parents, Tom and Gertrude Waters, were millworkers. In 1912, the family moved to Lexington, and soon he was hanging around J.J. Hitchcock's photography studio. In 1925, Hitchcock sold him the studio and thus began Waters's cinematic romance with Lexington and the Carolinas. The studio cost him $2,000, but it was ill-equipped, with no artificial lighting, not even an enlarger. For years, Waters used the light from a skylight in the back of the three-room studio and bought a monstrous enlarger that he still uses. Now he has a good set of strobes. For movies, he bought the best 16mm camera Eastman made.
Waters has built a reputation as a restorer of old, faded photographs. His studio is a clutter, dimly lit and full of street scenes, portraits and work orders and records everywhere - on the walls, taped to an antique cash register and stacked on shelves.
Waters is a meticulous record keeper. He kept a detailed ledger of all the dates and ticket sales in the towns that he filmed. For instance, at the Majestic Theater in Fort Mill, he grossed $163.85 in ticket sales and $55 in advertising on May 7, 1942. Filming was prearranged by the local theater manager, days before Waters would arrive. On site, he normally spent two days filming, staying in local boarding homes to keep down costs. He sent his film to New York for processing. And a week or so later - after he'd passed out handbills, hung up posters and urged attendance using a loudspeaker bolted to his car - the film was shown at the local theater as an added attraction. Called "Movies of Local People, " they were advertised on the glittery theater marquee alongside the Hollywood pictures.
He left the road for good when his daughter Mary Elizabeth was born in 1942.
"After Pearl Harbor, everybody had money and weren't shy about spending it, " he said. "They needed me at the studio."
Waters refuses to quit working, climbing the stairs to his studio 30 times a week. In a hallway last week, he set up the same Bell & Howell projector he used to show his films decades ago. He threaded a color film taken of a Veterans Day parade in Salisbury in 1940. As the silent movie rolled and the projector clattered, he reminisced: "The color is beautiful; it's amazing how well it's held up, " he said. "This is a grand projector. When I was on the road, I didn't see any reason to be slipshod. I wanted to have the best there was, and I wanted to make the pictures look as sharp and vivid as the boys in Hollywood did it." -- The Charlotte Observer 5/11/1986