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Wolper's Golden Years Now Archived: USC's New Center for the Study of Documentary Honors Producer

By Bob Fisher

David Wolper, whose Wolper Organization was a pioneering force in documentary production during the first three decades of American television.

"If this piece of film dies, a human thought dies with it. If I can do something to preserve that thought, isn't it worth doing?"

That observation was made by Kemp Niver, a former law enforcement officer and head of security for a Hollywood studio. Niver was explaining what motivated him to switch career paths and dedicate himself to the restoration and preservation of some 3,000 black-and-white films produced between 1894 and 1912. He was recognized with an Academy Award for technical achievement in 1954. For most of the history of the motion picture and television industries, the efficacy of the heritage created by filmmakers has been arbitrary, and has generally relied upon the initiatives of people like Niver.

The formation of the David L. Wolper Center for the Study of the Documentary as an extension of the University of Southern California (USC) Cinema-Television Library is a giant step in the right direction. Wolper has donated his personal archives documenting his entire body of work. It dates back to the dawn of the television industry in 1949, when he first began exploring the possibilities of the new medium and opening a frontier for nonfiction filmmakers.

The collection includes a pristine, 16mm print of every Wolper project, other film elements, tens of thousands of still pictures, scripts, production notes, contracts and other memorabilia. Among the films are such early, seminal documentaries as The Race for Space (1958), Hollywood: The Golden Years (1960), The Making of the President (1963) and Trial at Nuremberg (1964). It also contains such history-based narrative programs as the historic mini-series Roots (1977) and such telefilms as Murder in Mississippi (1989) and Dillinger (1990).

"These are the stories of our times," says Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC School of Cinema-Television. "David Wolper is a landmark figure in the history of both documentaries and television. He came into the television industry early and made a seminal impact on the fabric of our society with the stories he told in both fiction and nonfiction forms. His work has helped us understand how the election process works with the Making of the President series, and he also taught us vital lessons about our history with the miniseries Roots. His contributions will provide the cornerstone for building a center for the study of documentaries on our campus. It will be an invaluable and incomparable resource for students, faculty and researchers around the world."

Wolper was born and raised in New York City. He recalls seeing his first television set in 1939, when his parents took him to the World's Fair on Long Island. The 11-year old boy was mesmerized by the flickering black-and-white images. Wolper enrolled at Drake University in Iowa in 1946. After a year, he transferred to USC, which offered the only film studies program in the country. He played baseball for the USC Trojans and took still photos for the school's newspaper.

In 1949, Wolper teamed with Jimmy Harris, a high school chum, whose father owned a collection of 16mm educational documentaries. They found a ready syndication market in the fledgling television industry, which had a vociferous appetite for content. In 1956, Wolper obtained the US rights to some 6,000 feet of film from the Russian space program. That provided the foundation for The Race for Space. He secured the cooperation of NASA and convinced CBS Television anchor Mike Wallace to narrate his documentary. The young entrepreneur's biggest challenge was that none of the three television networks were willing to air an independently produced public affairs film.

He found another way. Wolper distributed The Race to Space to more than 100 local stations around the country. It was the first time that primetime network programming was bumped off the air by an independent film. Following in the wake of that success, he began blazing other new paths, which ultimately led to two Oscars, 40 Emmys, seven Golden Globes and five Peabody Awards.

"It is impossible to calculate David Wolper's impact on our culture," says International Documentary Association Executive Director Sandra Ruch. "Above and beyond the impact of his own projects, he has motivated countless filmmakers to follow the paths he blazed. IDA traces its roots to an informal meeting in a lunchroom at Wolper Productions during the early 1980s. Participants were current and former Wolper employees. David Wolper has been a trustee and guiding force in IDA from the beginning. He also sponsors the annual IDA Student Documentary Achievement Award."

"The David L. Wolper library is a source of inspiration as well as information for students and faculty, other filmmakers, historians and other researchers," says Steve Hanson, head of the Cinema-Television Library. "He has begun the campaign to fund the chair of the documentary film program at USC. It's important to preserve the works he has created for future generations, in addition to making them accessible to our students and faculty as a way to enrich the curriculum and inspire talented young filmmakers. Truthfully, I have been surprised by the intensity of interest by scholars and researchers from around the world."

The David L. Wolper Center is located on the ground floor of the Doheny Memorial Library. Hanson says that there are plans for 10 viewing stations for documentaries and an archival reading room where individuals will have access to "raw materials," including photographs and original documents in a monitored, "white gloves" environment.

"[Wolper] had films stored in vaults at Warner Bros., others at 20th Century Fox and some in private storage," Hanson says. "The collection includes a pristine 16mm film copy of everything he has produced that has never been spooled. During the coming months, we'll start converting all those films to DVDs and videotape copies. We are storing the original films in environmentally controlled archives at the Center, so they will endure for posterity. The other elements are archived offsite."

Hanson says that the David L. Wolper Center has created an index cataloguing information about everything in the collection, which will be accessible at remote locations. Students, faculty and researchers will be able to look up such data as cast and crew names, production stills and notes and other information. Hanson estimates that approximately 95,000 still photographs will be scanned and stored in digital files.

 "It's our hope is that other documentarians who are storing their irreplaceable films in garages and attics will once again follow David Wolper's example," Ruch says. "We are thrilled that the films in the Wolper library are both safeguarded for posterity and accessible to the public. We urge other documentarians to follow his example."

For information about the Wolper collection, click here.


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.