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A Tribute to Ron Hutchinson

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The Archive is renowned for its pioneering efforts to rescue, preserve and showcase moving image media. It is dedicated to ensuring that film history is explored and enjoyed for generations to come.

On February 2, UCLA Film & Television Archive lost a longtime partner and friend, Ron Hutchinson, who died from cancer at the age of 67. A widely loved and respected media historian, Hutchinson's dedication to rescuing early talkies was so great that his name became synonymous with Vitaphone films in the archival community. In 1991, Hutchinson and several record enthusiasts created The Vitaphone Project, an effort to recover the long-lost 16-inch soundtrack discs that were made to accompany Warner Bros. films between 1926 and 1930. When a Vitaphone disc was located—in a private collection, in an attic, or as distant as Australia—Hutchinson partnered with the Library of Congress, UCLA, BFI and other archives to match the disc with a surviving Vitaphone picture. As a result of this 28-year-long endeavor, over 6,000 discs were located and more than 135 Vitaphone shorts and features were restored with picture and synchronized sound. The Archive recently restored and screened Ben Pollack and His Park Central Orchestra (1929), which was made possible when the accompanying Vitaphone disc turned up in Connecticut in 2018 and was acquired by The Vitaphone Project. These Vitaphone films represent not only a technical milestone in the transition from silent to sound cinema, they also offer some of the only glimpses of America's most beloved entertainers of the 1920s and ‘30s. "Vitaphone shorts restorations have rejuvenated interest in long forgotten vaudevillians whose acts still seem fresh today," wrote Hutchinson in 2017. In addition to his invaluable preservation work, Ron Hutchinson contributed to numerous books, documentaries and film festivals.

Ron Hutchinson (right) with Ben Mankiewicz on Turner Classic Movies

“Ron Hutchinson was a longtime friend of UCLA Film & Television Archive. The Archive would not have been able to complete any of its Vitaphone restorations or even a film like Mamba (1930) without Ron's tireless effort to search out and secure the original Vitaphone discs that had been lost to time. We have lost an important partner.”—Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Televison Archive

“Back in the mid-1980s, over 2,000 rare 16-inch diameter Vitaphone sound discs were discovered in storage at Warner Bros. These contained previously missing audio for early 1926-1930 features and shorts, and when the studio agreed to deposit these at UCLA Film & Television Archive, we immediately launched a program to restore the missing audio for early Warner Bros. sound films previously thought to survive in picture-only form. As soon as Ron Hutchinson heard about our early efforts, he called from New York and offered his full support. The incomparable Vitaphone Project group not only found new sources for much-needed funding, but doggedly searched for—and found—countless previously missing discs for early sound productions, representing virtually all of the 1920s Hollywood studios. Ron’s genuine enthusiasm for these historically important early sound films and his determination to overcome all obstacles to get them properly restored was truly invigorating, and anyone who knew him or worked with him has been deeply saddened by his untimely passing.”—Robert Gitt, former UCLA preservation officer

“Ron Hutchinson was one of the kindest and most generous of our preservation colleagues and friends. Despite the myriad of technical issues involved with Vitaphone preservation, Ron’s patience and enthusiasm never wavered even as the process tended to move at a glacial pace. His ongoing preservation detective work over the last several decades was tireless and without ego—we are profoundly saddened by his sudden passing and deeply moved by his substantial contribution to the Archive’s preservation legacy and cinema history.”Todd Wiener, motion picture archivist, UCLA Film & Television Archive

A trove of Vitaphone discs that were acquired by The Vitaphone Project from a New Haven, CT estate in 2011

“I had the special good fortune of meeting Ron Hutchinson in the earliest days of the Vitaphone Project’s inception. It was my deepest pleasure and honor to be able to work with him to help him fulfill his passionate dedication and dauntless perseverance to see these rare films reunited with their sound discs. Most importantly, his success with The Vitaphone Project was only topped by his success at being one of the kindest, most selfless, and warmly generous people I have ever known. I will miss him terribly as a friend and colleague, but I will be forever grateful for the dreams he turned into reality for all of us who are dedicated to the preservation of classic cinema.”—George Feltenstein, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

“We mourn the passing of our friend and collaborator Ron Hutchinson. For the past 23 years, Ron’s Vitaphone compilations at Film Forum have been highlights of our quarterly repertory calendar. As co-founder of The Vitaphone Project, Ron turned a ‘hobby’ into a worldwide network of film and record collectors, resulting in the rediscovery, restoration, and preservation of scores of long-neglected vaudeville and music shorts. His eloquent presentations at Film Forum, delivered with a contagious passion, revealed an encyclopedic knowledge—peppered with his own charm and sly wit, and without a trace of the academic. He never lectured his audience; they were fans, just like him.”—Bruce Goldstein, repertory programming, Film Forum

Ron Hutchinson presenting a Vitaphone program at the 2016 TCM Film Festival

Read the New York Times obituary

Visit The Vitaphone Project website

Read his articles on the Classic Movie Hub Blog

Watch his interview on Turner Classic Movies

Watch his presentation at Princeton University

 

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