Arts & Entertainment

City archives, a hidden Temple

Jon Kohl’s experience at Urban Archives earned him his position on the documentary “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.”

Some students go to work to find a lousy tip waiting for them on the table. Jon Kohl discovers seemingly forgotten 1964 footage of The Beatles when they toured Philadelphia.

In January 2011, the film and media arts and history double major started working at Urban Archives located in the basement of Paley Library, which led him to working as an assistant producer and researcher with “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” a 12-part documentary telling Philadelphia’s story through the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Urban Archives opened at Temple in 1967 and aims to document Philadephia and its growth through old film footage and 100 photographic collections. Urban Archives is also a smaller unit of the recently renamed Special Collections Research Center.

Kohl said the goal is to categorize and make the film accessible to the public.

“I am a film preservationist, so basically, either we have this kind of schedule where we’re very slowly chipping away at all this film that will eventually one day be transferred and fully restored and hopefully one day be put on a website,” he said.

Kohl, who plans to graduate in May, got the job by accident. He walked in looking for a picture and left with employment. His boss John Pettit, assistant archivist, hired him. A film and urban studies double major when he was an undergrad, Pettit said he saw a lot of himself in Kohl.

“His background made him a great candidate, and so far the work he’s done has really paid off,” Pettit said. “He’s an incredibly tireless worker.”

But meeting Pettit and getting the job at the Special Collections Research Center may be the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to Kohl.

Being at what he calls the “hub of all the Philadelphia journalism archives,” the producers of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” came to Urban Archives not only looking for footage, but a team member as well. With his experience in film preservation, film arts and history, Kohl was the perfect man for the job.

“First and foremost, I’m a history and film major, and I think it’s the best kind of marriage between those two things,” he said.

So far, he has assisted on the third part of the documentary and plans to continue until the 12th is released, which is expected in 2015.

The job has had its share of ups and downs, Kohl said. At times, Kohl digs through footage caked with 50 years of dust on its reel, and it is his job to make sure he is able to remove the debris without damaging its contents. But with struggle comes reward.

“The most fun part was the people who were brought in,” he said.

Kohl had the opportunity to meet the people brought in for the interviews, which varied greatly. One day, he met a North Philadelphia woman who lived during the 1964 Columbia Avenue Riots, which took place on what is now Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Another day, Kohl had the opportunity to meet Mayor Michael Nutter.

The film process itself is not difficult, Kohl said, because right now the documentary centers on piecing together interviews with old collected footage gathered from places like Philadelphia City Archives, City Planning Commission, the Library of Congress and, of course, the Special Collections Research Center and Urban Archives.

The Special Collections Research Center may be one of the biggest storage places of older film in the city, especially considering it tripled in size when the Philadelphia Inquirer gave its old footage to the center during the newspaper’s move this past summer, Kohl said.

“Actually, Temple has become a repository for the journalistic history of Philadelphia,” he said.

Uncovering dust was but one aspect that prepared Kohl for working for “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.”

“It’s a weird privilege, because this footage gets deported and thrown into a can, and no one sees it for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “You’re the first person to see this footage for a very long time. It’s a rediscovery process.”

And rediscovery it is – packed away on the shelves sits old, mundane footage in a neglected box labeled “BEATLES,” which holds footage of a concert held right here in Philadelphia, Kohl said.

Another part of Kohl’s job is to assist history making productions in finding footage. Recently, he worked with a woman looking for images of Temple alumnus Bill Cosby for an upcoming documentary.

“Urban Archives was my introduction to public history,” Kohl said. “‘Philadelphia: The Great Experiment’ introduced me to documentary, really. And just through these experiences I think [I] realized that’s what I like to do most – to make history public and easily accessible and to present history in ways that can really inform people.”

Kohl is not only using his current employment at Urban Archives to propel his career but his education as well. Finding footage categorized as the “atomic destruction of Philadelphia” inspired him to make his thesis and final film project about the Cold War as it happened in Philadelphia.

Temple has tools lurking all around its campus for students to take advantage of to pursue their career, but it seems Kohl may be one of the few that discovered Urban Archives, what Kohl thinks is as rare of a gem as the film it preserves.

“The whole digital age we live in, nobody really wants to be bothered with a roll of film, because we have iPads, iPhones. Urban Archives is a treasure chest of physical materials,” Kohl said. “I’m not too sure that people have really taken advantage of it and are willing to respect that.”

Nonetheless, Kohl is confident that Urban Archives will continue to grow, with hopes that it’ll help other students just like him. From helping companies with historical, non-fiction books to art events in the city, and now helping with “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” the growth is surely visible.

“It’s growing, it’s really growing,” he said. “And I think in 10 years it could be the Philadelphia Media Archive, or something like that.”

To watch “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” visit HistoryofPhilly.com.

Patricia Madej can be reached at patricia.madej@temple.edu.

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