2015-02-04 / Features


Tommy José Stathes

This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian

Tommy José Stathes, a lifelong resident of Flushing, is an internationally recognized archivist, historian, distributor, and educator in the realm of early animated and silent films. A graduate of Queens College and the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, Stathes has been described as a “Cartoon Cryptozoologist” with a rare film print collection comprised of over 1,500 shorts. Stathes’ long term goal has been to acquire and preserve as many early animated films as possible and reintroduce them to the contemporary audiences through public screenings, broadcasts, and home video ventures. For more information, visit tommyjose.com and brayanimation.weebly.com.

QG: How old were you, and where did you first see vintage cartoons/animated shorts and what made you so fascinated with them?

Collector of vintage animated short films and cartoons Tommy José Stathes runs an animated film on a 16mm projector. 
Photo JoelEsquite Collector of vintage animated short films and cartoons Tommy José Stathes runs an animated film on a 16mm projector. Photo JoelEsquite TJS: I first began seeing old 1930s-1940s cartoons as an infant. This was thanks in part to the inexpensive VHS tapes of cartoons that were prevalent back in the early 1990s at drugstores and supermarkets, and the fact that I grew up mostly with adults and senior citizens who wanted to share these classics with me. Very early on, I loved the visual aesthetic and artistic styles in the films, as well as the types of stories and gags in the cartoons, and felt that they were much more interesting and charming than what was currently being made and shown on TV when I was growing up.

QG: How big is your collection of vintage cartoons today and how long have you been collecting and preserving them?

TJS: I began formally collecting them on VHS as a kid in the ‘90s. Today I’m known for my collection of vintage and antique 16mm film prints, which were made decades ago for home film rental use and television showings in the 1950s. I started collecting actual film prints as a pre-teen and now have well over a thousand of these cartoons, especially silent-era ones from the 1910s to 1920s, in the 16mm format. I have hundreds more here on videotape and DVD.

QG: How do you preserve and store vintage films?

TJS: I do the basics to maintain the film prints, such as cleaning and repairing them. Since I don’t have a photochemical film lab of my own at home, the films are simply stored at room temperature, checked often in case of any possible deterioration, and they get sent out to be copied back to new film stock or to HD digital video if they happen to be rare or unique. The Library of Congress has even preserved a few on my behalf, keeping copies for their own archives when they did not already have a copy of the film in question.

QG: Which cartoon characters or film titles are the most well known, in your opinion?

TJS: Of the cartoon films I work with, I’d say people (baby boomers and senior citizens) are still mostly familiar with Felix the Cat, Krazy Kat, Koko the Clown, and Farmer Alfalfa. Many people remember seeing Farmer Alfalfa cartoons on TV in the 1950s, when some kiddie show hosts in the tri-state area renamed the character “Farmer Gray” for their shows.

QG: Which are your favorite characters and/or film titles?

TJS: I have too many favorite characters and individual film favorites to name particulars, though I really like Bobby Bumps. Bumps was created by Earl Hurd in the 1910s, and it was the first cartoon series to use clear cels; layering characters and backgrounds on different levels. The Bumps character was a mischievous little boy and is often referred to as the “Bart Simpson of the Silent Era”.

QG: What are the most valuable, rare and sought-after cartoon films in your collection?

TJS: It’s really difficult to say which are the most valuable or rare. Historical intellectual properties like this often can’t have a proper dollar amount placed on them (they’re not bought and traded like individual old coins or paintings) and there are also very few collections of early cartoons like this out there. Collectors and historians are always asking me about a variety of characters and series in the collection, which are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere.

QG: Which film titles are you still seeking for your collection and to share?

TJS: I’m still searching for hundreds of silent-era cartoons I don’t yet have. I estimate something like 3,000 to 4,000 were produced between 1906 and 1929, and I only have material on about 800 here. However, that’s still a very impressive number for any silent films, because so many are considered forever lost. I would love to find many more Farmer Alfalfa, Felix the Cat, and Koko the Clown cartoons, to name a few.

QG: Just how popular in the US and internationally are these vintage cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s?

TJS: These ancient cartoons were wildly popular on 1950s television, where they enjoyed a second life. However, in the time since then, only a small fraction of these films have been circulated, and for that reason they haven’t been as popular. I’m working to try and change that through screenings, television exposure and home video releases.

QG: When and how did your work come to the attention of Turner Classic Movies? How many times have you appeared on TCM?

TJS: The programming team at Turner Classic Movies became aware of my work in 2011, thanks to some news coverage I received at the time. Since then, we’ve worked together to bring films from my collection to their viewers twice. The first time was in 2012, when we aired a program of early New York animation, which was cohosted by animation historian Jerry Beck. I appeared on TCM in person this past year, last October, when we aired our second animation program which was dedicated to cartoons from the Bray Studios. Bray was the first formal and successful animation studio, producing cartoons in New York City from 1913 to 1927.

QG: For which projects have you consulted with The Library of Congress? What was involved?

TJS: At the Library of Congress, I’ve dug through their collections of silent films to research and document early animated cartoons in their holdings. In some cases I’ve properly identified some unidentified films that they had and offered additional information about the films, and I’ve also inspected films that were deteriorated and recommended them for preservation, depending on the rarity or significance of a particular film.

QG: Do you have any upcoming festival dates and venues in Queens or anywhere else in the city?

TJS: Aside from the upcoming event at the Voelker-Orth Museum in Flushing, I’ll soon be having a Valentine’s Day-themed show as part of my 16mm “Cartoon Carnival” series. This will take place on Friday, February 13, 8 p.m., at Shoestring Press (663 Classon Ave., Brooklyn). I’ll also be curating a screening as part of the acclaimed Animation Block Party festival during the summer, at BAMcinematek, though details are TBA. Anyone who would like to follow my series and screening schedule should send an email through the Screenings page of my personal website, http://tommyjose.com.

QG: What have been the topics of lectures you’ve given at The School of Visual Arts?

TJS: At SVA, I’ve given some presentations (with lots of films to illustrate) about silent animation, early New York animation, the Bray Studios, and other topics as well. I’ve also done some substitute teaching in animation history classes there.

QG: What would you recommend to enthusiastic young fans of such films as formal courses of study and where could they be found?

TJS: The young fans I’ve come across are usually studying art, animation, or film history and production, and they learn about animation history on their own or through some limited courses at a few of the colleges. There are some animation history courses offered at art schools like the School of Visual Arts, and even, surprisingly, The Fashion Institute of Technology. Hopefully, more schools will include animation history courses in their curricula over time.

QG: You are a resident of Flushing. What are some of your favorite restaurants in the area?

TJS: I’m a lifelong resident of the Broadway section of Flushing, though sadly, my favorite restaurants in the immediate area are long gone. These included Café Italiano, Friends & Co., and Mezza Luna. Great food and good times were had in those establishments.

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