Kids these days: they don’t remember education the way us thirty-somethings do. Back in our day, there wasn’t educational ‘software’ or ‘video’ — there were two multimedia formats: movies and filmstrips. Movies were a rare pleasure — there were fewer of them, and they prevented class interaction. ‘Sit and watch’ was the process; we once had one obviously bored teacher who, after watching a rather boring film in music class, let us watch the movie backwards rather than rewinding it the regular way. But, I digress…
While movies are a technology supplanted by a newer format — video — filmstrips have become an archaic format. Educational software somewhat resembles the filmstrip, but surpasses the filmstrip’s capability with alternate routes to the end. A filmstrip is essentially a slideshow accompanied by audio of some sort. If you’re of my age, you’re very familiar with the ‘when you hear this noise *beep* hit the advance button’ warning at the beginning of a strip’s audio. The more attentive or popular students were entrusted with the duty of controlling the filmstrip projector, although untrusting teachers may have chosen to run it themselves. Filmstrips, unlike movies, allowed the teacher to stop the process mid-stride and add comments, answer questions, and maybe discipline unruly audience-members. I admit, I never actually read A Wrinkle In Time, so my entire knowledge of the book comes from a 24-frame filmstrip we watched in the third grade. As you might guess, my understanding of the book is more hole-filled than had I read the Cliff’s Notes, and given the mind-bending qualities of the book I really had no idea what was going on. Still, I learned a lot — the Dewey Decimal system, the metric system, dialing with an area code — from filmstrips over the years.
Filmstrips are on my mind because of an amazing find today at a thrift shop: a DuKane Super Micromatic slide-film projector. When I was in school, filmstrips were projected out of small plastic projectors with a tape-player built into the back-end. This projector, when unpacked from its condensed case, has a full-sized record player attached. Filmstrips have been around a lot longer than the innovation of the compact cassette in the 1970s, so of course the media of the 1950s was distributed on record album. For example, my Esther Williams Swimming Pool filmstrip came as a filmstrip with a 45rpm record album (recorded only on one side). The salesman brought along his portable filmstrip viewer to the potential customer’s home, loaded the film, put on the record, and Esther Williams herself could present her pools’ virtues in her own voice.
Portable viewers were available when I was on school, too: they were available if you missed a day of school and – god forbid — missed an absolutely essential filmstrip. As with the plastic, cassette-enabled filmstrip projectors, these machines were plastic and flimsy. The Esther Williams Swimming Pool distributor carried around this behemoth — the DuKane Flip-Top Sound Slidefilm Projector. When I first picked it up at a flea market, I was certain it was a portable record player. It had all the hallmarks of a turntable: recessed knobs, heavy-duty hinges, a large cloth-covered speaker grill, ugly patterned leatherette outside. However, upon opening it, I was surprised to find a screen underneath.
The projectors are difficult to find in good working condition, as with any older media, but I’ve found filmstrips many places. Library sales are of course a good source for filmstrips, but I’ve found them at rummage sales of ex-teachers, religious films at church sales, and at flea markets. As most libraries and educational sources have long since moved on to video, much of the filmstrip libraries have already been liquidated.
The filmstrip media is essentially the same 35mm slide film you use to document your travels to Knott’s Berry Farm. As such, it’s subject to the same sort of fading and color-shift you find in all slides from the sixties. Finding a good-quality film will prove difficult, since exposure to heat accelerates the reaction, and if the filmstrip saw regular use in school it will have felt a lion’s share of heat every time it was shown. Also, if the filmstrip is from the 1940s or later, you will have to find the accompanying recording, or the ‘narration sheet.’ Some strips had the narration on the frames, like a silent movie, but when sound was added quite often the frames carry no information and require the narration to understand. If you’re at a sale, some well-meaning salesperson may have properly organized by placing the record or tape in the box with their KISS and Skid Row cast-offs; if you find a lone filmstrip, always ask if the recording is still around.
While I don’t endorse it, if you absolutely must project a found filmstrip and are without the equipment, any photolab that develops slide film should be able to cut the filmstrip and mount it in slide frames for a nominal fee. The tape cassette or album with the narration can be played on any compatible player. The simplicity and compatibility of filmstrips made them an excellent tool for teaching, but the advances of technology have made them obsolete. If you haven’t noticed, the wifey and I love the obsolete — now that we have a full-fledged working filmstrip projector, we hatched a plan: Using a regular 35mm camera loaded with slide film and our Recordio record-album recorder, we can make our own filmstrips. Our kids will think we’re the coolest parents ever, right?