Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Mike Zahs is at the center of the new Iowa-based documentary “Saving Brinton.” (Barn Owl Pictures)

‘Saving Brinton’ Movie Connects Two Iowans Separated By a Century

It’s hard to picture what people felt when they saw the first movies 120 years ago.

“You can just imagine what it would’ve been like to come in from the fields, and you’ve never seen a motion picture (or) a movie screen before,” the Iowa City filmmaker Andrew Sherburne said. “You see images of the London Zoo, the Ottoman Empire and other places you’d never expect to see in your lifetime. It was completely revolutionary.”

Fortunately, Andrew and his partners at Barn Owl Pictures have captured the spirit of that time in “Saving Brinton,” a new documentary that will get its world premiere in June in Washington, D.C. It’s about two men born a century apart but connected by some of the world’s first and rarest films and movie artifacts.

The Brinton collection includes still photos as well as films. (Barn Owl Pictures)

On the front end, there’s W. Frank Brinton, a turn-of-the-20th-century impresario who purchased silent films and screened them in small-town theaters and tents throughout the Midwest and Texas during the late 1890s and early 1900s. He retired from the road in 1908 and returned to Washington, Iowa, where he boxed up the films and stored them in his basement. He managed the town’s Graham Opera house — known today as the Fridley State Theater — until he died in 1919 at age 62.

Mike Zahs at his home in Washington County. (Barn Owl Pictures)

On the back end, there’s Mike Zahs, a retired junior high history teacher who knew Brinton’s reputation as an eccentric inventor and collector. Known as the “Sage of Washington County,” Mike was twice named Iowa’s “Teacher of the Year.” He’s also the guy who will take your old junk, just in case it has historical value.

That’s why he purchased in 1981 what remained of the Brinton estate, including boxes that had been labeled as “Brinton’s C-R-A-P.” He hauled three pickup-truck loads to his home, opened up the boxes and discovered a treasure trove of America’s earliest film history.

One of Brinton’s posters from the early 1900s.

There were “magic lantern” slides, trinkets, accounting ledgers, movie posters, ticket stubs and 16 tins of dangerously decayed cellulose nitrate films marked “Explosive.” Purchased from various companies, the 130 hand-cranked films include early works produced by the Lumière Brothers, Thomas Edison, Siegmund Lubin, Pathé Films, and Georges Méliès, who regained fame through the 2011 Oscar-winning movie “Hugo by Martin Scorsese. The long-lost collection included comedies, early Westerns, fantasy films from Segundo de Chomon, plus rare footage of Niagara Falls, Theodore Roosevelt and Burma.

When Mike purchased the collection, some of the originals were missing — sent by a previous owner to the American Film Institute, where they were preserved and duplicated. The originals are now stored in the film vaults at the Library of Congress, and copies were sent back to Iowa.

Since then, Mike, ever the teacher, has shared the Brinton films and artifacts whenever and wherever he could, transforming theaters and other venues into his expanded “classroom” over the last 30 years. He presented the inaugural Brinton Film Festival in 1997 at the opera house in Ainsworth.

In an effort to preserve the fragile artifacts, in 2013, he teamed up with Greg Prickman of the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections — and that’s when the media, including Andrew’s filmmaking team, realized the importance of Mike’s mission.

“On the surface, this is an amazing collection that had been sitting in a basement in Iowa, and that instantly drew us in,” Andrew said. “But once we visited with Mike, we knew his story was just as important to tell as the Brinton story. So we’ve been working on this film in one form or another for the past four years.”

Mike Zahs with filmmakers John Richard, Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne. (Barn Owl Pictures)

And now their project is ready for the big-time. “Saving Brinton” has been selected for the American Film Institute’s prestigious AFI Docs film festival next month in Washington, D.C.

“The film is multi-layered and circular,” Andrew said. “It brings the Brinton story to Mike and to the community and back to the State Theater where Brinton worked after he retired from the road. So this is more than ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ This is a national treasure, and the world is better off and a bit richer thanks to this collection being preserved.”

Mike himself summed it up best in the film’s trailer: “I don’t think there’s anything we could do that would be as big of a leap as what it was for somebody to come in from the field and go and watch a movie. I don’t think we can wow people like that anymore. I’d sure like to give a try.”

In 2014, Mike Zahs donated the Brinton Collection to the University of Iowa where it is preserved and accessible to students, historians and film buffs for generations to come.

“Saving Brinton” is supported in part by a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, for the film’s production, and by Produce Iowa, for the film’s premieres.

— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov

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