Michael Zahs
Michael Zahs
During the late 1890s Iowa world traveler W.F. (Frank) Brinton and wife, Indiana began touring the upper Midwest showing a mesmerizing collection of short films at opera houses, Chautauqua tent shows and town celebrations.

Documenting everything from scenes of the Battle of Manila and Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders to scenes in Jerusalem streets with beggars and peddlers, the films enthralled audiences everywhere they were seen.

Even several films by French film pioneer Georges Melies (whose mesmerizing turn-of-the century films of the fantastic were subject of the 2011 Scorcese film Hugo) were in the collection.

Free screening Nov. 17

The Oneota Film Festival is giving audiences the rare opportunity to see these historic films, probably last seen in Decorah between 1900 and 1908, in an hour-long screening plus commentary by noted collector and film historian Michael Zahs.

The event is at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, on the second floor of T-Bocks, who is helping sponsor the screening. All attendees will get free popcorn. There will be a cash bar. Admission is free.

Short films predating 1908, as well as "magic lantern slides" will be shown as Zahs shares anecdotes and history. Zahs bought the entire collection in 1981. He is now working with the University of Iowa on restoring and digitizing the films.

Decorah attendees will be the only people in the world watching these films, as these are the only copies in existence, according to Zahs.

"These films predate what most people think of as old films," said Zahs in a recent interview with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. "Some are as old as 1894."

'A wonder'

"Those who attend this showing will enjoy Michael's commentary and marvel at these films, not only because of their age and quality, but because they still grip our imaginations and allow us to witness actual events from over 100 years ago," said Nancy Sojka, Oneota Film Festival president. "This may be the most significant collection of pre-1900 movies in the world. That the Brinton collection survived is a wonder."


Frank Brinton died in 1917. The younger Indiana lived in Washington until her death in 1955. Three pickup truck loads from the couple's early touring days lay untouched and forgotten in the basement of the estate's executor in Washington. When the executor died, his son discovered the films, film catalogs, and trove of magic lantern slides, posters, photos and financial records detailing every engagement the couple had.

Membership drive

This event is part of an Oneota Film Festival membership drive and precursor to the full festival, Feb. 28-Mar. 2, 2014.

Membership in the 2014 Oneota Film Festival will be offered at the Nov.17 screening. All memberships are $25, though donations of greater amounts are welcome.

Members receive exclusive invitations to festival events, discounted meal tickets at the Festival, and more.Membership dollars help to bring working filmmakers and more new films to Decorah.

Oneota Film Festival (oneotafilmfestival.org) is a nonprofit corporation formed by local film enthusiasts. OFF is made possible by the support of sponsors and donors across the regional community, including Luther College, Oneota Food Co-op, Decorah Bank & Trust, and in-kind support from the Decorah Public Library.