8mm was expensive, both to buy and to process. Once the film was shot, my dad would take it over to Skrudlands Photo and drop it off. It usually took 2 weeks to process. Pick up days were Tuesday's and Thursday's, so 2 weeks after the drop off, we would meet my dad at the door after work, hoping he would be waving the small yellow box holding the processed film. Then we would have to wait
Movie night was an event! First, popcorn had to be popped (on the stove, in a stainless steel pan, with a dash of oil in the bottom and the lid placed on top.) Once the corn stopped popping, mom would take the lid off and we'd squeal with delight if a few reckless kernels of corn shot up through the air. Popcorn would be distributed into bowls, we'd each get a small glass of pop (RC) and we'd line up on the sofa in the frontroom, carefully balancing the popcorn bowls in our laps.
Meanwhile, dad would go down to the basement and lug up the large movie projector.
Then he'd go back downstairs and haul up the projection screen, open the legs, and pop up the screen.
It was a grand ceremony to open the box of film and carefully thread it through the projector. Dad would yell "Lights" and one of us would jump up to slap off the light switch on the wall. Dad pressed ON and the film would wind its way through the projector, onto the take-up reel and the fun would start.
Since it was expensive for the film, there was pretty much a set rhyme and rhythm to dads movie taking technique. Some filming was done at each of our birthdays, a few shots at Easter, then a long recess until summer vacation, which was usually a good deal of footage, then a few shots at Thanksgiving, a small amount of random things over the course of the year and the big event was always Christmas. Dad usually shot a couple of rolls of film throughout the year, having them processed as he finished them, and at the end of the year he'd splice them all together and make one grand film for that year. Then he'd apply a label to the film canister and add it to the ever growing lock box of movies. The first 19 years of my life are recorded on 19 rolls of film and stored in metal canisters of blue or brown.
Once the projector started flashing images on the screen, we would settle back in anticipation of what was to come. We never knew what to expect. Film then was black and white, and if you can imagine it, no sound. The only backdrop to the silent movie unfolding on the screen was the steady, pfttt, pfttt, pfttt of the film winding through the projector.
First was usually a shot of mom with her 3 little ducklings (us). We would all stare and grin like goofy idiots at dad filming us and wave wildly, which he hated for us to do because it didn't look natural. He was Cecil B. DeMille and we were ruining his shot. So of course we had to do it. Then he'd zero in on mom, who would spin around so the camera could capture her outfit and then give a shy smile before she'd usher us off to do something natural. Like pet an animal at the zoo, walk into an historic building, or run into the water at the beach.
We'd laugh hysterically at each other doing stuff, like Laurie trying to swim with one hand while holding her nose with the other, or Wendy batting her baby blue eyes at the camera, or me flying down the alley on my bike, a jump rope attached to the seat, dragging Laurie behind me on her roller skates. We'd watch movie's of our birthday parties where friends waltzed up the gangway bearing gifts, dancing with party hats perched atop our heads, blowing party favors at each other, or playing party games like "walk across the room with cotton balls on a spoon" or "pin the tail on the donkey."
We would ooohhhh and aawww over the puppy that grandma and grandpa bought us, watch dad sail off the big slide at Honey Hill Lake, see mom herd us around Independence Square in Philadelphia.
Occasionally the film would snap and dad would hiss "dammit" under his breath, mom would shoot him a dirty look and I would grin in the dark because I loved it when he said "dammit." He'd scream "lights," one of us would flip the switch and he'd quickly splice the film back together and we'd be back in business.
We'd watch our grandparents mouth a silent hello back at us, get a flush of excitement as we watched ourselves learning to water ski or snow ski, or fly down the hill on toboggans. There are countless shots of us standing on diving boards, waving at mom to look at us before doing a swan dive or cartwheeling off the end of the board. And there are lots of movies of us gathered around the table, surrounded by family, saying a prayer before our holiday meal.
Several years ago my parents gave us each one of the best gifts they could ever have given us. Dad transferred all the home movies to dvd's, one for each year, plus, my personal favorite, one special dvd where they compiled all the Christmases onto one dvd. He and mom added an audio commentary in the background and interjected fun things like "we had just bought this car and it cost $ 3000.00" or "bread was .25 and gas was .57." When they aren't speaking, there's Christmas music playing in the background - Old standards from that time, like Bing Crosby or Burl Ives.
It's my annual tradition to sit and watch the "Family Christmas" dvd the week before the holiday. I'll toss a bag of popcorn into the microwave (it doesn't taste as good as mom's home popped), grab a can of coke and plop down against the pillows on my bed. I'll start the dvd and slowly savor 19 years of Christmases as they flicker across the screen.
The dvd begins the first year after mom and dad had gotten married, and shows them setting up the Christmas tree, wrapping presents and hanging up cards on yarn draped across the walls. Later they are at my grandma's house and moms voice-over states that she thought she had the stomach flu, but it turned out that the "flu" was me and she just didn't know she was pregnant yet.
We have cute shots of my sisters and I tumbling out of our bedroom on Christmas mornings, in footie pajamas, brushing sleep from our eyes and then POW, hitting the frontroom where the flood lights are set up for the movie taking extravaganza. Cecil strikes again! We stumble around like deer in the headlights until we got our bearings.
19 years of opening gifts, eating Christmas Eve dinner at one grandparents house and then going to the other grandparents for Christmas day. I laugh out loud at Laurie and I modeling plastic wigs (why did we want those?) my heart melts at the dog ripping up wrapping paper, I smile at us jumping up and down in excitement over a book or a game, and watch as mom opens up her annual "nightie" from dad, and dad pretending that the eyeglass case I made him out of felt in kindergarten was the best gift he ever received.
The last Christmas on the dvd was when I was 19 and that was the Christmas after all 3 of my grandparents had passed away. Mom and I fumbled around the kitchen, trying to figure out how to make a turkey and how to celebrate Christmas without so many of the people we loved so much. Even today I can remember my heavy heart and how hard we tried to make that Christmas special for all of us.
I spend a little over an hour immersed in my Christmas memories, but when the dubbed-in Oak Ridge Boys start singing "Thank God for Kids" I always lose it. I melt into a sobbing mess.
When the movie ends, I point the remote at the dvd player and turn it off. Somehow it doesn't have the same effect as it did when we were kids and the movie ended. Back then, there would be a few minutes of bright light from the projector flashing on the screen, and my sisters and I would jump up and dance like nut jobs so our shadows bounced across the screen or we'd make hand puppets fly like birds or hop like bunnies. Dad would let us be silly for a few minutes, and then he'd yell "lights," and the movie magic was over until the next time. Mom summed it up best when she once remarked that it's nice to have the films but she just wishes they had sound. She would give anything to be able to hear her mothers voice again.
Still, those old black and white, silent home movies are priceless and I look forward to watching my Family Christmas every year. If part of your life in captured in 8mm, you know exactly what I mean.