Rock ‘n Roll’s Celluloid Heroes - 27 East

Arts & Living

Arts & Living / 2148857

Rock ‘n Roll’s Celluloid Heroes on May 19, 2010


By Annette Hinkle

At the tender age of 15, Joe Lauro’s older sister took him to the Fillmore East, Bill Graham’s concert venue in the East Village, thereby initiating him into the world of rock and roll.

“The first concert I saw was The Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish,” recalls Lauro. “The show started at eight and I didn’t get out until the sun came up.”

You could say Lauro’s been hooked every since.

“Everything’s involved with music in my life,” admits Lauro, a stand-up bass player who fills in for The Lone Sharks, and has his own seven piece band, The Who Dat Loungers, who play everything from old world zydeco to Kermit Ruffins.

As president of the Greenport based Historic Films Archive, Lauro, who lives in Sag Harbor, has managed to transfer his passion for music into his professional life as well. Twenty years ago, Lauro founded the company which is now keeper of some of the rarest video and film footage on the planet.

“We specialize in the licensing of classic American music on film,” explains Lauro. “If you’re A&E and doing a documentary on Elvis, we own the Ed Sullivan Show and the Steve Allen Show, so you come to us. We make our living licensing footage. We also have historic footage and we feed the documentary world with archival images.”

Historic Films has clips dating back as far as 1896, and while the firm offers footage of historic news events such as the Hindenburg disaster, Kennedy’s assassination or the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s music that Lauro really focuses on.

“The specialty is music and I’ve pushed it in that direction because of my love,” says Lauro. “American music is the greatest thing our country has to offer the world. Blues, jazz, country — without America it wouldn’t exist. My job is to preserve the shadows of the past — the people who made the music history.”

On Saturday, Lauro will be sharing that history with Sag Harbor when he kicks off the “Legends of Music” series at Bay Street Theatre. Lauro, a filmmaker, has put together four documentaries about American music using material from the archive. All four will be screened at Bay Street in coming weeks, beginning with “Legends of Rock” on May 22.

“I can deliver a documentary for half the price of someone who has to come to me,” grins Lauro.

So that leads to the inevitable question — where does Lauro find all this rare footage in the first place?

“Just this week we signed the old Jackie Gleason show,” says Lauro. “There are surprises every month. Something always turns up. We find the material everywhere — from people’s basements to crazy collectors who have original prints under their bed to rights holders, like family — Geri Chutak is Jackie’s daughter and she handles all the shows Jackie owned.”

Part of what makes these clips so rare is their fragile nature, and Lauro admits that there are often condition issues with the material he comes across, particularly the 2” video tape that was used to record TV shows in the medium’s early days.

“A year ago a guy called with some material in a basement. He had gotten it from a storage facility where someone didn’t pay their bill. He pulled it out of a dumpster,” explains Lauro. “It was 40 pound master tapes from a Saturday afternoon sports show. The owner was dead, the material not copyrighted, so we traded some stuff for it. The tapes on the bottom of the stack were unusable. We bake them first to get the humidity out of them. Sometimes you can get one play out of them and record them. We couldn’t salvage 15 percent of them.”

“With film it’s the same thing,” says Laura. “ With 16mm film you can get a vinegar smell. You can pass out from the smell — it’s a type of disintegration, and you need to transfer it quickly. The worst are the nitrate films. The stock can turn to dust or it can explode on you. I’ve had footage marked Hindenburg, you open up and its just goo.”

In addition to the “Legends” films, Lauro has made other documentaries too, including one on Motown in which he was given access to original master tapes. The recently completed “Rejoice and Shout,” a documentary about the history of gospel music in America, garnered a glowing review in Variety, and Lauro and his partner are now at work on a film about Fats Domino. Lauro just returned from New Orleans last week after spending several days interviewing Domino for the film.

But with the advent of the Internet, rare images aren’t as rare as they used to be, and when asked how the explosion of You Tube has affected his business, Lauro admits that at first he tried to get unauthorized uses of his material taken off-line. But his efforts were in vain.

“It’s like killing a cockroach — you can’t get rid of them,” he says. “And it lets people see this cool stuff. No one’s selling it, it looks crappy. But it does make it hard for me to show stuff that no one’s seen — though at Bay Street they will.”

Some of the gems in “Legends of Rock” include a rare performance by Janis Joplin, a never before seen clip of The Band at Woodstock singing “Tears of Rage,” a Bob Dylan outtake from 1965, and Led Zeppelin’s first television appearance, which was on Danish TV. But for Lauro, one of the film’s true highlights involves a Beatle in New York City.

“The Beatles were the gods when they broke up in 1970 at their peak,” says Lauro. “Lennon moved to New York, and at the time, Fillmore East was the place to go for music. For $5.50 you got three bands.

“Bill Graham closed Fillmore East in 1971, and one of the last shows was Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention who did three nights,” adds Lauro. “Who shows up one of the nights but John and Yoko. There was a girl, an NYU film student, who worked the light show. She got a tip Lennon would show up so she borrowed a 16 mm Bolex and bought two rolls of film and shot Lennon and Yoko on stage with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.”

And for those who never had a chance to see a concert at Fillmore East, let alone Lennon and Zappa, what could be better than that?

“This is a way for people to see these great people in their youth with good quality film, in a darkened theater with good projection,” says Lauro. “There’s no other way you’ll see it better — except in your memories.”

“Legends of Rock” is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. A live performance by The Who Dat Loungers follows. Tickets are $15 and available by calling 725-9500. The series continues with “The Legends of Jazz and Blues” on Monday, June 7, “The Fabulous Divas” on Monday, June 14 and “The Pioneers of Rock” on Monday, June 21.

Top: The Jackson Five in a TV film clip taken from Historic Films Archive.

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