In Covington, saving the past one film strip at a time

COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The basement of the 150-year-old Ice House in Covington is about the closest you can get to time travel.

Images of the past 100 years flicker on screens.

Stacks of film fill rooms.

Staff scuttles between modern computers and decades-old reel-to-reel devices preserving historic footage – including every NASA space shuttle launch.

The basement of PPS Group in Covington contains the past as well as the future within its walls.

It also has the most incredible collection of ancient technology this side of the last century.

That’s because PPS CEO Bob Gerding owns large videotape machines the size of cars from the 1950s. He owns old video tapes and the equipment to play them on. He owns cassettes and reel-to-reels.

“We had all this old equipment left over, and everybody was saying take it out and get rid of it and dump it,” Gerding said. “Then all of a sudden a light bulb went on.”

He could use this.

When organizations like NASA have old tapes, film strips, Betamax and any other outdated recording media, they turn to Gerding’s PPS Group to digitize and archive it for posterity.

“There’s film sitting there on the first A-bomb test,” said Gerding. “They come in with pallets and pallets of stuff. Now you come along and got a small box, that’s your hard drive, and that’s got everything this room is filled up with.”

A magician both on stage and off

People from around the world know to go to PPS to save their old footage. He expects soon a shipment of film from The American University in Cairo to preserve.

The company began archiving the world’s films in 2003. Then the archiving business ramped up in 2009 when the company moved from Cincinnati to Covington, Gerding said. The company was growing and needed more space.

Video and audio archiving have since become a quarter of PPS’ video production business.

Gerding amassed the equipment from a 50-year career in television production. His career began at WCPO-TV in 1959 in the art department, building sets.

Television and show business always interested him. Posters of magicians line the walls of his office.

His passion for magic has taken him to local charities and Las Vegas every year where he performs as part of a magic act duo with a friend.

More recently, the acting bug bit him. He played bit parts in locally filmed movies, including “Carol” starring Cate Blanchett.

The fascination with the limelight began in childhood. He would sneak out to WLWT-TV studios and watch local shows being aired. A half-century later, it’s just part of his being.

“It’s always interested me,” Gerding said. “It’s the whole industry of filming and taping. It’s always been my livelihood. It’s always something I wanted to do. Luckily I will continue to do it for the rest of my life.”

After leaving WCPO, he learned to direct and started doing television commercials and local shows.

He founded a company in the 1970s, Bob Gerding Productions, that filmed commercials and the opening shots and any outside Cincinnati footage for the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” That evolved into Post Production Services, now known just as PPS.

He still does commercials for companies, such as Cub Cadet, True Value Hardware and Bush’s Beans. But his archiving business is growing.

They get tapes in from around the world from people and institutions that don’t have a way to save the material or even view them.

‘A race against time’

On a recent afternoon, some of Gerding’s 30 staffers were saving tapes from a Boston television station and footage of Yogi Bhajan for a yoga institute in New Mexico. Bhajan helped introduce a type of yoga to the United States. They are archiving all of Bhajan’s teachings, 5,000 tapes worth, 7,500 hours. It’s taken seven years, said Larry Thomas, project manager for PPS.

Digitizing NASA’s beta footage took six months.

“All of us were glued to the monitors just watching the stuff,” Thomas said. “All of us kids were watching the space shuttle go up. When you actually see the training goes into it, the prototypes, it’s really interesting.”

Other projects include archiving old commercials and old footage of the 1937 Ohio River flood. They also archive old family home movies.

It’s also a job where you have to overcome technical difficulties. VHS tapes and cassettes didn’t have a track record of longevity in their heyday, often going sour or getting eaten by the tape deck.

The scarcity makes keeping the machines running tricky. PPS employees say they scour the internet for parts and scavenge old equipment around the building.

“People look at it and say, God, I haven’t seen one of those in 50 years,” Gerding said.

So how do the folks at PPS prepare to play ancient tapes?

Industrial dehydrators, said editor Kees Henskens.

You bake tapes for two days at 125 degrees and that helps remove all moisture, Henskens said while riffling through tapes from the early 1980s.

“Most of the time they work after that,” Henskens said. “If not we get really frustrated and try something else.”

Gerding sees the business growing. Film archiving is a field that is shrinking as old equipment becomes rarer, said Laura Rooney, managing director of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.

“There’s still a demand for it, yet the equipment is diminishing,” Rooney said. “It’s a race against time.”


Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer,

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