Craft Culture: Preserving the magic of motion pictures with Bob DeFlores

Bob DeFlores // Photo by Tj Turner

When the lights in the room dim and the silver screen lights up, Bob DeFlores doesn’t watch the animated characters that spring to life. As the old film starts to run, he turns his attention toward the hundreds of people sitting in plush theater seats before him. He stares at each face in turn, gauging the audience members’ reactions to his selection of short- and feature-length films. Apathy is one response the 81-year-old film historian and archivist won’t accept.

“It’s got to mean something,” says Bob, a Richfield, Minnesota, transplant by way of Los Angeles and Kansas. “The enjoyment for me is entertaining people and showing them things I’ve found and restored over the years that they’ve probably never seen.”

He knows he got it right when he saw an Alzheimer’s patient perk up and start tapping out the drum beat to a Benny Goodman song, when the crowd stood and applauded at the end of Bing Crosby’s movie, “Holiday Inn,” and when a man from Duluth drove more than two hours in a snowstorm to watch a tap dancing legend light up the big screen.

Even as a kid, Bob had a knack for seeing value where others didn’t. When the studios in Hollywood started burning or throwing out their silent films, Bob started collecting them. Over 70 years, the movie junkie turned his hobby into one of the largest film archives in the country, amassing nearly 6,000 reels of footage. For the once-shy kid, going to the theater unleashed a passion that helped him break out of his shell. Now, he’s trying to bring a little bit of that old movie magic back to today’s generations.

“The theater is where you went to dream. Even if you were down in the dumps, you could go there, see a musical, and come out feeling good,” Bob says. “The movies are therapy. They cure you. By the time you leave the theater, you’re not sick anymore.”

A life led by film

DeFlores has nearly 6,000 reels of footage and film // Photo by Tj Turner

The motion picture buff sniffs the film canister for any indications of a vinegar-like aroma—a telltale sign that too much gas is collecting in the container and could destroy the film. Luckily, Bob doesn’t smell anything here. He winds the reel up, places it back into a ventilated can, and returns it to the stack in his porch.

Bob is in the business of memories. He collects them, restores them, and preserves them. As the keeper of thousands of films, he’ll go to whatever lengths he needs to protect every single reel that makes its way into his life. After all, these movies aren’t just for him. His archive of memories allows older generations to relive years gone by, and introduces younger generations to the legends of the past that he fell in love with as a kid.

Growing up, Hollywood ran in Bob’s blood. His parents were Latin musicians who toured and played at hotels around the country. One of his aunts acted, while another worked as Harold Lloyd’s secretary. But while Bob loved watching others perform, the shy boy with asthma felt more comfortable reading books about ancient Egypt and performers from the 1930s than being on stage. Still, that didn’t stop him going to the theater twice a week with his dad. There, he’d sit in his seat and imagine what it might feel like to dance or play piano like the stars in the movies.

Growing up, Bob went to the theater twice a week with his dad // Photo by Tj Turner

“The theaters are dream factories,” says Bob. “[Even] during the Depression, people went to the theater. Times were tough, but people saved up a nickel to go so they could fantasize and dream.”

Between his parents and living in a Hollywood neighborhood full of entertainers, Bob developed a love for film and the performers from the first half of the 20th century. As a teen, he started raiding the local camera stores for any reels of film he could find. His passion turned into a career a couple decades later when he quit his job as an art director at a Minneapolis architectural firm. At the time he was in his early 40s, divorced, and living in an efficiency apartment, but he designed a new business card and started calling ad agencies. He landed his first job supplying World War II footage for three Gold’n Plump chicken commercials that won an award for the Minneapolis ad agency, Fallon McElligott Rice.

Word of Bob’s collection spread. He owned one of the biggest jazz archives in the country and became known as the guy who could track down rare film reels others thought were lost. He didn’t have a website or email address, but he didn’t need one. Before long, local TV stations, the History Channel, and even stars like Bing Crosby came calling for help. Over the years, he’s restored nearly 1,000 films and supplied archival footage for more than 375 documentaries and television specials featuring stars like Shirley Temple, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fred Astaire.

“When someone says a film doesn’t exist, I’m out there like a detective hunting and looking,” says Bob.

Like the time a woman in Crystal, Minnesota, called him about some reels of film she stashed in her barn more than a decade before. They were covered in chicken feathers and straw, but when Bob looked at the containers and saw “Outside the Law” written on the side, he knew he had stumbled upon a rare Lon Chaney film. Outside of a partial clip in Europe, Bob found the only complete copy of the film known to exist.

Even now in his 80s, Bob still remembers every piece of footage in his 6,000-picture archive, and he dotes on each piece of film like an adoring father would fawn over his children. At night he sometimes spends hours checking on reels of big band performances or Laurel and Hardy comedies. He’ll spray the films with a special film cleaning solution, soak them, and clean them to make sure they don’t crack.

“We don’t want anything from long ago dying,” Bob says. “I try to preserve the past so future generations can know about it and share in it.”

Motion picture magic

Despite claiming he’s semi-retired these days, Bob still gets calls from the BBC and documentary filmmakers looking for footage to include in tributes or TV specials. He just wrapped up an eight-part film series for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, and he occasionally introduces classic movies like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Flying Down to Rio” to packed audiences at the Heights Theater in Minneapolis. In November, Chanhassen Theatres will host him for a special compilation of rare and never-before-seen footage of Bing Crosby, a performer whose baritone voice made him the best-selling artist during the first half the 20th century.

“You don’t see all this stuff anymore,” he says. “It’s important to me that the younger generation take an interest in some of these great musicians and actors because they were the innovators.”

Bob has restored nearly 1,000 films and supplied archival footage for more than 375 documentaries and television specials featuring stars like Shirley Temple, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fred Astaire // Photo by Tj Turner

In the height of his career, Bob traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to show a two-hour special filled with animated shorts and cartoons. After the show, he met a young boy who wanted to work as an animator. Bob pointed him toward a drawing class in Los Angeles that could help kickstart his passion. Nine years later, Bob was back in town to screen a jazz show when two surprise visitors showed up to thank him for his advice and encouragement nearly a decade before.

“Here is this 18-year-old kid all dressed up,” says Bob. “He looked at me and said, ‘I start working at Walt Disney next week.’”

That’s the kind of magic Bob sees old films inspire. Back in his living room, the 81-year-old hits play and the sights and sounds of old Hollywood blare from his TV set. To some, this may just look like another black and white movie. But for Bob, this is the stuff dreams are made of.

Correction: DeFlores sprays the film with a special cleaning solution, not water.