It's unlikely that there are many Indianapolis residents -- especially those in their 30s, 40s and beyond -- who don't know who Sammy Terry is. Even if you never watched television personality Bob Carter on then-Channel 4 hosting Nightmare Theater, you still know his name. It's a moniker that film historian Eric Grayson is fully aware and in awe of.
"I was addicted to Sammy Terry. I watched him all the time. After the series was cancelled in the early- to mid-1980s, I got the films on video. Then I thought, "There's lots of stuff I can get on [35mm] film that I can't get on tape. I started projecting them and they were beautiful. They looked so much better than video. I was working as a forensics engineer and had money, so I would buy film equipment. I amassed a collection of stuff that interested me."
- Photo courtesy of Eric Grayson
Hauling around his reel-to-reel canisters is a labor of love for Grayson. One 35-millimeter feature film typically weighs 75 pounds.
A projectionist-for-hire who now works with local organizations such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art on its Winter Nights series, Grayson formerly used his skills on forensics work. "I would take pictures that were out of focus and focus them. I'd take objects used to measure forensic stuff, like skid marks on the road, and take pictures of the road so you could rotate them. I wrote the software to do all that stuff."
At the forensics company, Grayson worked as a research engineer. Over time, he saw his job morph from research to information technology, which he does not particularly enjoy. Simply, he says, "I like to find the answer and move on rather than repeatedly answering the same questions." Grayson would need to move away from Indy to get back into his field. He references a lack of jobs in the area due to a "glut of engineers" who found themselves out of work after Naval Avionics shut down. "I have friends who have master's and Ph.D.s in engineering who are grading ISTEP tests," he says.
Thankfully, Grayson's involvement in film, including restoration of vintage material and his presentations on the history of color in movies, keeps him fairly busy. "The guys at FedEx know me on a first-name basis," he says. "I'm always shipping film around the United States, but also to Finland, France, Germany ... you never know where it's going to go."
Grayson gives insight into some of the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into his work.
"Sixteen millimeter film weighs 15 pounds; 35mm looks nicer but weighs 75 pounds for a feature. "Gone with the Wind" is 250 pounds to ship. That's why you have to be sort of delusional to do this. It's on 14 reels, and you have to do a changeover every 20 minutes," he reveals. "But it looks really nice on the screen!"
Grayson takes his proverbial act on the road fairly often. Last fall, he gave his color theory talk at Lincoln Center, during which time he went through different color processes in movies, including Technicolor, Cinecolor, Kodachrome, and Eastman Color. He shows examples of the different types, really leaning into his interest in and expertise with film. "I like the way film looks and I understand the theory of why it works," he says, speaking the way every professor should about his or her specialty -- with ease and an interest that engages a student's curiosity.
- Photo by John Sherman
Projectionist, preservationist and movie historian, Eric Grayson shares is film knowledge with interested audiences.
Currently, Grayson runs the Garfield Park Arts Center's Vintage Movie Night, which got its start in 2006 and has taken place every month since. GPAC's personnel are "really about art and [decided] we're going to do this," Grayson says of the movie night's slow start. Four people showed up for the first show, but "they [the GPAC staff] held on." They got six people the next week, and 10 people the week after. The audience has grown to anywhere from 50 to 75 people now. They show up for films they can't see just anywhere, which are often preceded by a short cartoon. "I would love to get more places to do that [kind of program]," Grayson says.
One of Grayson's interests is in running a silent film with a live score, which he just got to do alongside the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. The IMA screened "Peter Pan" this past Friday in the Toby. It's the kind of opportunity that Grayson really cherishes, especially given how easy it is to stay at home, be pants-less, and just queue up something on Netflix to watch. In response to a lackadaisical attitude toward quality motion pictures, Grayson says, "I want to start 'Pants On Cinema.' It will give you a reason to put on pants and leave the house. Movies play better with an audience," he says, referencing a recent showing of "Young Frankenstein" at the Irving. "It's a completely different movie when it's seen with an audience. You realize they timed it ... jokes go a certain amount of time ... the film is cut so you don't miss the dialogue. This is an art form that's meant to be seen by dozens, hundreds of people, not intended to just be watched at home."
Grayson continues, "A lot of people don't regard what I do as art. I'm reinterpreting it. I'm kind of being a museum curator [and] that's a kind of art. I'm always fighting the provincial idea that I'm doing this for fun and that I have a day job doing something else."
Grayson aims to increase the audience for the work he puts into being a historian, projectionist, and preservationist. Several years ago, he came up with the idea for a television character called Dr. Film, a "campy and stupid but educational" program that paid homage to the way Sammy Terry engaged with his audience. Grayson spent several months working on the project, finally shooting a pilot in his living room and basement. Unfortunately, few people saw it. "No one understood what it was about," Grayson laments, but adds that he's attracted readers to his Dr. Film blog "for reasons that confuse me. People subscribe but don't realize it's plugging a TV show."
- Photo by John Sherman
Eric Grayson readies his reel-to-reel projector for a monthly Vintage Movie Night at the Garfield Park Arts Center.
In the future, Grayson might set up a Dr. Film audio podcast and bring the character back to life. In the meantime, the loud and obnoxious doctor, who is known to argue with his vault assistant, waits for his time to shine.
As Grayson continues to seek funding to promote side projects like Dr. Film, he continues to restore vintage movies, travel and give presentations, and screen films, including his self-described Holy Quintet of Classic Films -- Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and Singin' in the Rain.
"I run one of those every couple of months," he says. "There have been three showings of The Wizard of Oz just this year -- two of them on the same night, and it's only February. I enjoy it, but even Judy Garland made other films!"