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  • The Huntingdon’s Hero Story
  • Nathan Wagoner (bio)

During the bicentennial celebration of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in 1966, the manager of the Clifton movie theater showed a film that had been made in Huntingdon in 1934 but that had not been shown in thirty-two years. Those who remembered it were excited at the chance to see it again. Those who had only heard of it looked forward to seeing what they had heard so many of their friends and neighbors talk about. Many of the local cast who starred in the film were still alive and living in the area. People who were there remember that the theater was full and the audience seemed to enjoy the movie very much, laughing all the way through, pointing out their friends, family, and familiar landmarks. After the showings, the film was put away and again forgotten.

In the early 1970s, a professor at Juniata College named Bruce Davis heard about the film and was curious enough to make inquiries. Although hired to teach English, Davis was very interested in film. He taught courses on film history and criticism and had volunteered to be the assistant manager of the Clifton, hoping to save it from the doom and destruction threatening most small-town movie theaters at that time. Naturally, Davis asked the manager of the Clifton, the same manager who had arranged to show the film a few years before, about the movie.

The manager claimed to have no knowledge of the film’s whereabouts. Davis approached the local historical society, but they also knew nothing about the movie. Articles were written in the local newspaper, employees and former employees of the theater were interrogated, but the movie never turned up. Huntingdon’s Hero became mythic—the lost film of Huntingdon. There were rumors that particular people might have hidden the film away. The hypothetical reasons varied: family feuds, small-town class warfare, dreams of making a fortune with the movie. Davis eventually gave up his management of the Clifton and left Juniata, moving to Los Angeles to become the executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As time passed, and those who remembered Huntingdon’s Hero died or forgot the film, the movie faded into local legend.

In December 2000, I was hired by the Teaching Learning Technology Center (TLT) at Juniata. The TLT was charged with a broad mission, which included being a testing ground for new educational technologies. One of these was the newly emerging technology of digital video, which quickly became my area of expertise. Although there were no courses and no formal structure to its study, a number of students took on the task of producing quality video for the campus and for various faculty projects. I supported and guided that work as best I could. As the students worked longer with the technology, they began to have more creative ideas and decided, eventually, to begin an independent project of their own.

The students chose to make a documentary on the history of the Clifton Theater. The Clifton had stood since the 1920s and would serve not only as an interesting subject in its own right but also as a lens through which to look at the history of the community. Obviously, an interview with the retired manager was a good place to start. I spoke with him and arranged for him to come to campus. He was then in his eighties but had a good memory of his time at the theater and was eager to talk about it. I helped the students set up the lights and microphones, but I was not in the room while the students taped their interview.

I watched the footage with the students a few days later, taking notes and looking for areas that might be fruitful for further investigation. We left with a few questions, and because I often saw our interview subject at his part-time retirement job, I offered to go over the questions with him. The next morning I caught up with him and we chatted about the interview and our follow-up questions. When we were finished, I was about to leave...


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pp. 144-149
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