- RKO’s Studio ArchiveThe Golden Years
What we consider to be the golden years at the RKO Studio Archive ran from 1960 to 1985. After the studio became inactive, the records were heaped together and deposited in an unused company property in West Hollywood. An unwavering dedication on the part of a veteran employee was largely responsible for the reconstruction of the archive. It was opened to general access in 1976. Scholarly research was fostered. As part of a general expansion into Hollywood product, Turner Broadcasting acquired major rights to the RKO film library in 1987 and split the archive into two parts, with the more substantial material moved to Atlanta and what remained donated to UCLA.
In the early 1970s, I worked at the American Film Institute (AFI) as associate film archivist, and once or twice a year I was sent out from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to discuss film preservation topics with various individuals. Among the most helpful was Vernon Harbin (1909–88), one of the few surviving employees of RKO, who presided over a warehouse containing the studio’s archives at RKO General’s radio station, KHJ, at 141 S. Vermont Avenue. Each visit was both awe inspiring and frustrating, as Vernon showed off one treasure after another, none of which could be borrowed or copied. The location was nothing more than a huge warehouse space, with no modern library shelving and, of course, no computerized cataloging. Yet it all seemed neat and well arranged, demonstrative of the orderly mind of the man who had single-handedly undertaken its storage and arrangement. Vernon knew where to locate any item, however obscure, without the aid of a card index and could answer just about any question that might be asked on RKO history
I once commented that the AFI wondered what had happened to a package of independently produced films that RKO had released and that seemed to have disappeared. Vernon took me over to a corner of the warehouse, pointed to various boxes sitting on the floor labeled “negative,” “master positive,” or “print,” and announced, “Here they are.”
Vernon won the job because, when Howard Hughes began firing most of RKO’s personnel, he let go of the person responsible for renewing the studio’s copyrights. It was Vernon who had the audacity to point out how foolish this was. Thus, from a lowly position in the early 1930s signing Richard Dix’s name to fan photographs, he ended up as studio archivist.
And he was a perfect archivist, as he was to prove later, when RKO laid him off as well and he joined the archival staff of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. He was always immensely helpful in identifying still photographs, a hard task when there is no indication as to either film title or player. Most importantly, Vernon was there to sort through the Paramount Script Collection, to put it into order ready for inventorying, and to remove duplicate scripts. It was a task that required a calm and ordered mind and the ability to work at a slow but steady pace.
Vernon loved to talk about Hollywood from firsthand knowledge, and his stories often surprised, such as the time when he and his wife shared a lunch table at the Farmers Market with Vilma Bánky. They had casually bumped into the reclusive star, and Vernon deduced from her comments that she had been a secretary at Goldwyn. His kindness won many friends, including Ginger Rogers, who visited the archive regularly to consult her records and appreciated his cordial manner and deferential attention. She said at his memorial service, [End Page 75] “Vernon Harbin deserves his own Academy Award for keeping movie history alive.”
It was claimed that KHJ’s call letters stood for Kindness, Happiness, and Joy. These are words that come to mind when remembering Vernon Harbin.
I first became interested in the history of RKO as a graduate student at the USC Film School. My advisor, Arthur Knight, told me about Vernon Harbin, who had become custodian of the company’s records...