Just in time for Thanksgiving, a long-forgotten piece of Walt Disney history that somehow made its way to Albany is now in the hands of film archivists in California for preservation.
Disney is best known as the creator of Mickey Mouse, but Mickey's predecessor was a different Disney creation, an animated rabbit named Oswald.
For unknown reasons, multiple decades ago, segments of a 1929 Oswald film that showed the character struggling to bring home a turkey dinner made it to the Greater Albany Public School District. Those segments have now been turned over to the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Members of the Albany School Board, most of whom were surprised to learn the district even had the film in its possession, heard of the return during a meeting Oct. 22.
Disney historians recount that as a young cartoonist, Walt Disney created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Universal Studios. He made 26 films starring the animated character, the first of which was released in 1927. He moved on to create Mickey Mouse after film producer Charles Mintz wouldn't agree to a higher budget for Oswald, instead signing a new deal with Universal that guaranteed more Oswald films but left Disney out of the process.
It was during that post-Disney period that Walter Lantz, who would later become famous for creating Woody Woodpecker, took over as Oswald's director. Albany's cartoon, which appears to be a working version of a finished product called "Cold Turkey," dates from the Lantz days.
Nobody knows how it came to be in Albany or why, but a film canister containing nine unfinished segments of the cartoon turned up as part of school district property in the late 1970s.
The segments consist of nine short, separate pieces of film (one piece a duplicate), without sound. They depict Oswald struggling to kill a turkey for dinner and being thwarted at every turn. The cartoon ends with Oswald sharing a turkey meal with his cat lady friend, a character historians identify as Ortensia — but doesn't show how Oswald manages to bring the meal about.
Bob Stalick was a district official in 1978-79, when Albany's elementary districts merged with what was then a single high school district.
"The elementary district in town, which was called District 5, had all the elementary schools, like Liberty and South Shore," he said. And that included Maple School, the building which is now the school district office."
At that time, Stalick said, he believes Maple was also the central media center for the elementary district, and the place to go when a teacher needed to check out a movie or a filmstrip.
The center might also have been at Madison School, which later became the Linn-Benton-Lincoln Educational Service District; Stalick isn't sure. Either way, however, neither building was still being used as an elementary school by the time of the merger, and both were cleaned out as a result. As he remembers it, that's when the film turned up.
The film came to Stalick, who turned it over to Rick Rogers. At the time, Rogers had a radio show on KRKT and owned a store called "Movies and Magic" that was devoted to selling very old films. He'd been one of Stalick's drama students in the 1960s and the two developed a longtime friendship.
"I didn't have a clue what this thing was, and I took it to him," Stalick said.
Rogers has a slightly different memory, saying Stalick told him at the time that the movie had come from Waverly Elementary School, not Madison or Maple. And he thought he remembered someone saying a custodian there had once worked for Disney, but where that story might have originated, he didn't know and couldn't verify.
Regardless of its origin, once the canister came to Rogers, he fished out a piece of the film and knew right away what he was seeing. He owns two Oswald cartoons himself on DVD, dating from about the same time period.
"I kinda held it up to the light and looked at some of the strips and I could see it was Oswald," he said. "Oswald looks a lot like Mickey Mouse."
But Rogers didn't want to keep the film and didn't know where it might be safe. He recognized it as nitrate film, highly combustible and prone to explosion as it decomposes. "It's very volatile stuff."
Rogers contacted the Oregon Historical Society but didn't get anywhere. So after a few years he returned it to the school district, where Duane Hedy had taken over for Stalick as assistant superintendent.
And there the canister stayed, and might have again faded into obscurity were it not for three school district summer employees who found it while cleaning the archive room at the district's facilities building on Grand Prairie Road.
Jacqueline Forrest picks up the story here. It was August 2017 and she, her sister Charlotte and a coworker, Sierra Armstrong, had just been transferred from a different summer project to work at the facilities building.
"As part of our new positions, we were relocating the physical plant archives to make room for more office space," Forrest wrote in an email to the Democrat-Herald. "During the moving process, we uncovered an old, metal Agfa film canister. It was on the very bottom of one of the shelving units.
"If I hadn't been such a nerd about old photography and cinematography, I probably would have just put it into a new box and moved on. Instead, I read the note on the front of the canister. It said something about an 'Oswald film,' but I figured that, since I was working for a school district, it was probably an old Lee Harvey Oswald documentary."
Intrigued, Forrest showed the canister to her sister. A Disney fan who had written essays on the famous cartoonist in high school, Charlotte asked whether the film could be about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
"I said, who is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit? It is probably Lee Harvey Oswald," Forrest remembers. "To which she responded, 'Who's that?' It made the differences in our hobbies very obvious."
Knowing old films can be delicate, Forrest said the sisters decided not to open the canister, instead taking it to their coworker, Armstrong. Armstrong got the attention of one of the supervisors, Gary Dahlquist, and he opened the canister.
"Without touching the film we were able to see that it was indeed a film of cartoonish nature," Forrest said. "Charlotte was beyond ecstatic at this point."
With permission from Albany's facility manager, Doug Pigman, Forrest sent several emails to a couple branches of Disney operations, which started the district on a year-long effort "to figure out what we had our hands on," she said. She, Charlotte and Armstrong worked on the project, participating in conference calls with staff members from Universal and sending correspondence to Disney officials.
"While I acted as liaison for the school district, Charlotte had theorized that the film was the lost 'Cold Turkey' long before either Disney or Universal had even confirmed that it could be a lost film," Forrest said.
And, she noted, a Disney representative told her over the phone the archives office believed the film to be a later Oswald, produced for Universal Studios and possibly by Walter Lantz. That phone call came on Sept. 5, 2017 — 90 years to the day that Oswald made his on-screen debut, in a Disney-created cartoon called "Trolley Troubles."
"We all thought that was rather fortuitous," Forrest said.
'Piece of history'
Universal public relations officials declined comment to the Democrat-Herald directly for this story. However, according to the report Business Director Russ Allen gave to the school board Oct. 22, the movie studio was able to splice the segments together. The company then provided a copy for the district to view.
"There is no main title, no end credits, and the slates that exist only provide what appear to be scene numbers. The cartoon is not complete. It is possible these may be trims," the studio reported. "We believe the title of the film to be 'Cold Turkey,' 1929. If so, this is a lost cartoon and a rare find."
The studio said the strips might be sections from a work print — or possibly censored outtakes, as the content is on the grim side, even for 1929. "Given that this is nitrate film it should be stored in a dedicated nitrate facility," representatives added.
Universal "had an interest in taking possession of the film but was unable to offer the School District anything in exchange," according to Allen's board report.
With nowhere to store it and no particular use in mind, the district didn't want to keep the film, either. But it did want to make sure it went to a good home.
In his board report, Allen said the district explored donating the film to Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, but officials there didn't think they could restore or preserve the film, so it recommended the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
"They were contacted and are eager to have the donation," Allen told the board.
He provided an excerpt of a letter from Todd Wiener, motion picture archivist, who thanked the district and said his organization will work with agencies such as the Film Foundation, the National Film Preservation Foundation and the International Animated Film Society to keep it safe.
"Researchers and film students will benefit from your generosity for generations to come," Wiener wrote.
Rogers, who still loves and collects vintage movies, said the nation benefits from such a donation, too.
Much of the nation's moving pictures produced before 1950 have been lost because of the volatile qualities of nitrate film, Rogers said. Those that have been preserved were lucky enough to have been picked up for television viewing and thus had prints transferred to safety film.
Old films, Rogers said, are "worth preserving for future generations to look at and say, you know, that’s where we were at that time."
The wily turkey's attempts to evade becoming Thanksgiving dinner "would have probably been hilarious" to audiences of the late '20s, Rogers said. But even if they were cut from the finished product, they still say something about the world.
"It's a piece of history. It's a piece of our culture. It's where we were in 1929," he said. "I think we need to preserve all of our history."