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This Philadelphia woman recorded three decades of television on 70,000 VHS tapes

Marion Stokes mistrusted media but recorded it obsessively, created a close-knit surrogate family but led another to become estranged, and was a card-carrying communist who bought Apple stock at $7 and made a fortune.

Marion Stokes in Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Marion Stokes in Recorder: The Marion Stokes ProjectRead moreEileen Emond

She mistrusted media but recorded it obsessively for 30 years, created a close-knit surrogate family but led another to become estranged, and was a card-carrying communist who bought Apple stock at $7 and made a fortune.

How to explain the many contradictions of Marion Stokes, the Philadelphia woman who died in 2012 in a luxury apartment, surrounded by three decades of taped television and 40,000 books?

An excellent start is the documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, an engrossing look at her unusual life — an African American woman of humble Philly origins who ended up wealthy, reclusive, and living above Rittenhouse Square at a tony address, where she started recording TV round-the-clock in 1979 and didn’t stop until she died in 2012. According to a 2013 Inquirer story, she had filled roughly 70,000 videocassettes with about a million hours of programming.

On Friday, June 28, director Matt Wolf will host a screening of the film at the Lightbox Film Center. In attendance (and part of a post-screening discussion) will be some of the friends, family and associates featured in the documentary, which examines currents in Stokes’ life that converged in her desire to compile an unprecedented (and unmatched) stockpile of television content. Her recordings are in the hands of the Internet Archive in California, which is digitizing them to create a searchable database of incredible reach — incredible because the affiliates and networks often do not keep the tapes, so it is an invaluable, one-of-a-kind resource.>>

>> READ MORE: Marion Stokes’ obituary

A few years ago, Wolf read about the acquisition, and decided to poke around. As a documentary filmmaker who digs through archives for a living, he had a natural interest in Marion’s habits and her DIY video library, but what he found was something richer.

“What I knew was what I’d read, that there was a woman who’d recorded just about anything and everything for period of years,” said Wolf, who came to Philadelphia to see firsthand what she’d compiled in residence at the Barclay. He found more than a mountain of tapes. She also collected books, papers, magazines, and computers. “We certainly were not expecting to walk into a luxury apartment and find a large stockpile of Apple computers in their original boxes,”

Stokes was a former librarian who lost her job due to her political affiliations; she collected and organized everything. She also “collected” a surrogate family: a driver, a nurse, and a personal assistant. New Yorker Wolf met the latter while in Philadelphia.

“We went across the street to Parc, the restaurant where Marion would have a martini every day, and he started to cry, and I realized I had also come upon this intense family story, and this was not just a story about an archive, but a chance to use the archive to tell a story of the complicated person Marion was,” he said.

Recorder contains surprising details of Marion’s extraordinary personal history, and many of those are best left for the documentary to reveal. (Can’t see it on Friday? It will receive a wider release in the future.)

It is less focused on her second husband, John S. Stokes Jr., heir to a Philadelphia manufacturing fortune and a key figure in her life and in the accumulation of the television archive. (The documentary was already too dense, Wolf said.)

Stokes’ father was industrialist John Stogdell Stokes, who made his fortune in the machinery business. Stokes Sr. became a philanthropist and social fixture who served more than a decade as a president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — there is a portrait in the museum, painted by Diego Rivera, of his wife.

Stokes Jr. was born and raised a Quaker, was a conscientious objector during WWII, later converted to Catholicism, and became instrumental in re-popularizing Mary’s Gardens, formed of devotional flowers related to the Virgin Mary (he had a start-your-own Mary’s Garden seed business).

Stokes Jr. studied engineering at Lehigh, but did not take it up as a trade. He used his wealth to establish the Wellsprings Ecumenical Center in Germantown, devoted to interracial and interfaith progress, and produced a local TV show called Input for the CBS affiliate. One of the regular guests on the show was Marion, then Marion Metelits, an activist with a keen mind and ferocious advocate for the disenfranchised (on display in Recorder, which contains clips of the program).

They fell in love, were married after Stokes divorced his first wife, and remained so until his death in 2007. They had a shared interest in media — how news was collected and presented — but it was Marion who was the driving force in the recording and collection of the TV shows. Also the thousands books, papers, magazines, and hardware.

Was she a hoarder? A collector?

Recorder doesn’t draw an easy line. Marion had compulsions, but also insights, and well-reasoned motivations for her project, some of them expressed in the film (and in some of the old clips from the Input TV show).

“Going into the film I was very committed to not resorting to a pat psychological explanation as a means of understanding someone who lived an unconventional life, and who aren’t around to speak for themselves. I think that’s unfair,” Wolf said.

Stokes began recording with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, compiling a record of what she regarded as the questionable way mainstream media filtered news and presented facts. This grew from her lifelong attention to social justice, which led her to be recruited by the Communist Party, where she met her first husband, with whom she had her son Michael. Her political activism led to significant FBI surveillance and Marion’s understandable lifelong obsession with issues of power, privacy and media depictions of marginalized groups.

At the same time, her obsessions came at a great cost to personal relationships, and although some were repaired, others were not. She and husband John became insulated from others, and Stokes’ relationship with his family suffered.

The couple became increasingly reclusive, their several properties, including additional apartments in the Barclay, a place in New Hope, piled high with tapes. And Apple computers, though Wolf reports that Marion, despite her abiding interest in media and information, never used the internet. Never trusted it — she liked to record, not to be recorded. (Her Inquirer obituary mentions her love of Macintosh computers, but reports nothing on the tapes. Although her son, Michael Metelits, reported that she “enjoyed watching cable news shows and collecting dollhouses.”)

“She thought it would be used as a way to conduct surveillance on people, and she was right about that too,” Wolf said.

Recorder shows Marion as a person who could be exasperating and shrewd in equal measure. Not all of her habits were worth emulating, but she read 12 newspapers and drank one martini every day, and if more Americans followed that regimen, we’d unquestionably be a better nation.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, 7 p.m. Friday, June 28, Lightbox Film Center, 3701 Chestnut St., $10, 215-895-6590,