Laura Treat just struck gold. While on a house call to a DeSoto studio, the image preservation historian found programs, ticket stubs, photographs and promotional giveaways documenting Dallas’ 1960s Interstate Theater era. It was an elegant time for Dallas’ filmhouses, when Interstate’s three Elm Street beacons — The Tower, Majestic and The Palace — lit brightly every night, baiting crowds with their neon marquees. From these stacks, Treat has taken one box of photos and some promotional materials to scan and add to the UNT archive, which she helps manage. Those salvaged black-and-whites come back to life when contextualized by the story that binds them— a score for Treat, who’s been finding stories like this across North Texas.
This Saturday she hopes to add more to the trove. Treat and her librarian squad will gather home movies from total strangers at Top Ten Records for “Spotlight on North Texas: City of Dallas.” It’s an open invitation for area residents to bring in old home movies to be converted and then added to UNT Library’s cultural repository, Portal of Texas History.
The Interstate collection is owned and cherished by Lovita Irby. Her ties to Dallas’ film history run deeper than most. Irby served as Head Usherette at the Tower Theater when she was a teenager. A crown jewel of the Hoblitzelle chain designed by W. Scott Dunne, The Tower specialized in opening hot Hollywood tickets like Cleopatra, My Fair Lady, and, most famously, Ben-Hur.
For Irby, the theater district offered more than a paycheck. It’s where she fell in love. A meet-cute fit for celluloid, Irby encountered her husband, Kenneth, when they were both working on the strip. As Head Usher at the Majestic, where, when orphaned as a teen, he lived discreetly in the ushers’ changing room for about six months. After they turned 18, they married, left their movie jobs and launched a new stage of their lives. But when the beloved auditoriums began getting stripped and shuttered, Lovita Irby took action collecting these historical scraps, preserving both their own family memories and rare frames of Dallas as a place where people dressed up and lined up to spend time at the cinema.
As the archive grows in size, it provides little snapshots of pivotal Dallas moments and gives a compelling look at culture’s shift over generations. Plus, the transfer is a free service. All who participate will also wind up with a cloud-friendly copy of their family’s heirloom footage. Saturday’s program works like this: You dig through the dusty boxes of home movies you have stashed away in a closet. You can choose up to five VHS tapes or 1,000 feet of film. Treat and her team of trained librarians will inspect and catalog them onsite. Once all submissions are collected, hard copies will be taken away to a lab — video follows Treat to UNT, film goes to Austin with sister non-profit group, Texas Archive of the Moving Image — where they’ll be converted to digital files. When that’s all done, you’ll get your original materials back, along with a digital copy. Another archival copy will be placed in the community collection of Portal of Texas History, so it can be revisited for generations to come.
“There are things that are obviously super historic,” explains Treat, “like [film found of] the DFW Airport opening ceremony. But then there’s the stuff that at first appears a bit more mundane? Like home movies of holidays, that when combined as a sort of aggregate, tells you a little bit more about a certain group of people at a certain time and a certain place.”
From popular ‘50s Dallas Easter fashions to ‘60s family road trip films, the archives give you a feel for what people were wearing, where they were going, and more intimately, how each family puts its own spin on things —especially around the holidays.
“When you get a family collection that spans many years at Christmas, you get to see the rituals they develop, how they celebrate Christmas,” Treat explains. “Do they shoot the kids running down the stairs, straight to the presents? That sort of thing.”
The abundant holiday footage holds a special place in Treat’s heart. In part, because it’s like an early-version of unboxing videos. “I like seeing what people get for Christmas,” she laughs. “That’s always fun.”
Just like unearthing old film rolls and getting them developed, there’s an element of discovery to it all. Most people have no idea what’s in their old home movies, hidden away on inaccessible formats. Treat connected participants on the group’s social media feeds so they could share experiences of watching, after hosting a “Spotlight on North Texas” event in Denton. Soon, everyone was talking about their newfound treasures.
“There was this family — and they were just really excited to see their mom,” remembers Treat. “You have people [on these movies] who have passed away or it’s been a long time, and sometimes that is a really emotional time for people.”
Treat’s team is hoping folks stay and hang out, so they’ve made it a day-long event. “Spotlight on North Texas: The City of Dallas” will be packed full of area programming created throughout the years, like favorite home movies from the vaults, plus selections from UNT’s NBC archives and SMU’s recently digitized WFAA collection. They might even make a bingo game out of it, Treat says. “Spot a quinceañera or Big Tex,” she laughs, “prizes to be announced.”
From 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., catch a screening of two Blaine Dunlap films from the 1970s. First up, his ridearound short Sometimes I Run follows a Dallas street washer as he narrates his cosmic, philosophical approach to life. Next, Big D, where a magical hat transforms a young man into a bandleader, resulting in a parade through the streets of Oak Cliff. From 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., see old educational videos from the Dallas Municipal Archives.
And while not all found treasures will have a remarkable love story attached, like Lovita Irby’s, your own family story may surprise you, delight you or take you back to a moment you thought you’d lost forever. And that’s worth waiting, just a little longer, for those translated files.
“Spotlight on North Texas: The City of Dallas” runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Top Ten Records (338 W. Jefferson Blvd.) and is free. All who identify as “Texan” or who have materials featuring Texas are welcome to participate. Turnaround time for digitization will depend on volume of submissions. For more information on schedule, accepted formats or what you should bring, go here.