The Friday Five: Ira Gallen - Toy Tales

The Friday Five: Ira Gallen

As the go-to guy for late-night luminaries such as David Letterman and Jay Leno, Ira Gallen created a name for himself by preserving the classic television shows and commercials that were treated as disposable by many directors, editors, and writers. For five decades, Ira has worked to source, restore, and archive over 200,000 reels of film that may have otherwise been lost or destroyed. In this edition of The Friday Five, Ira talks about his collection, television history, and the one piece of film that continues to elude him.

There seems to be a concerted effort to preserve film history but not so much television history. Why do you think that is?

That’s a great question. I can’t really point to one factor that resulted in the lack of television preservation. Old television reels are treated as disposable items. Throughout my years of collecting, I’ve come across abandoned reels of footage in the garbage, in the middle of a warehouse, and in people’s basements. Many involved in the industry just don’t give the reels the reverence they deserve.

The problem is compounded by the lack of footage from early television. The shows were broadcast live and there was no way to record them. There was no such thing as repeats. Nowadays we can watch something a thousand times. It wasn’t always like that. Some of the early shows you wouldn’t really want to watch again. It’s interesting to watch them for their historical value but they are archaic and boring. As time went on and shows were taped for future broadcast, there was some effort to keep track of the recordings but nothing organized and well-archived. The exception would be the Paley Center for Media in California. They have great archives and really care about the medium. Grapevine Video also works tirelessly to preserve film and television history. I’ve partnered with them to release my DVDs because they really do care about preserving this stuff.         The Friday Five

Why do you think people gravitate towards classic television? Shows like I Love Lucy, The Odd Couple, Carol Burnett Show, The Honeymooners, etc.

For certain generations, it’s keeping in touch with the past. For younger people, there’s a retro appeal to classic television. While classic television still has an audience, it is a dying interest. As new generations come up, the interest just isn’t there. They were rarely exposed to it. Classic television for some people is Nickelodeon. It’s important to keep this history archived for people to access. It’s a rich source of social commentary and something worth preserving.

The Friday FiveHow do you approach archiving your collection?

It’s a varied approach. Some might call it a disaster. I have some of my collection in my home and other pieces are in storage. I own about 200 000 reels of film. I don’t really have a system but I do know where everything is. If you ask me for something I could find it in no time. In the 1970s, I had a show on a public-access network where I showed old television commercials and clips from various shows. I became well-known as a collector and late-night shows such as the Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show would call me for clips to support a topic they were talking about on the show. I found what they were looking for in my boxes of reels and licensed it to the show.

Along with buying film, I’m fortunate to be gifted collections that belong(ed) to other people. Because people know what I do, when the time comes to part with a collection, people call me. It’s not just television, I’ve been gifted television commercial, comic book, and autograph collections. I also trade for collections. I once filmed a wedding in exchange for recordings of over 200 shows.

The Friday Five

Tell me about one of your favourite finds.

That’s like asking something which of their children is the favourite.

I must say my Rootie Kazootie collection is my most prized find. I came across it in 1974. I was scouting locations in NYC for a film called Death Wish starring Charles Bronson. I was checking out a warehouse and in the middle of the floor was a huge pile of garbage and wood. In that pile, I found a 16mm print of Rootie Kazootie; an incredible find given its rarity.

A guy named Steve Carlan created Rootie Kazootie. I connected with him to let him know I had the film. He had a couple hundred reels and original puppets from the show. He gave me the collection. I passed some of the puppets on to another collector. They needed to be restored and that’s not my expertise.           

The Friday Five

Tell me about a piece of television history that you are currently trying to locate.

It’s my mission to possess every toy commercial ever made. I have a huge collection but there is one item that continues to elude me: the commercial for Remco’s Firebird 99 directed by Bernie Schiff. Commercials were sometimes better than the toys themselves; that’s the case here. I haven’t been able to find the commercial but I’m still looking. The longer the hunt for a piece, the sweeter it is when found.

The Friday Five

See the results of Ira’s never-ending quest to preserve television history on TVDAYS and his Facebook page.

Five questions, one fascinating person – look into the minds of movers and shakers in the nostalgia, game, play, or toy industry.