A sign in the front window of the two-story barn off Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill advises visitors to "Go Away!"
Those who do gain entry to crusty Charlie Churchman's cluttered workplace must traverse the messy rows of antique TVs and radios, juke boxes, film reels, canisters and used electronic equipment that comprise this hoarder's musty reliquary.
Despite the American Pickers-style disorder, the 69-year-old Churchman is one of the nation's leading film and video restorers. Smithsonian magazine recently called him a "video savant … a self-taught engineer who can transform strips of moldy, decades-old videotape into crisp digital images."
And though his focus is so intense he typically can't remember the events captured in the footage he works on, much of what he's salvaged over the years has been sports-related.
"We've done a load of sports, "he said, "but don't ask me what any of it was."
Last week, Churchman sat mesmerized in front of a complex reel-to-reel device that looked to be a refugee from NASA's Mission Control and watched 16-millimeter film shot by a 22-year-old Steve Sabol in 1964.
"Very steady," he said of the images taken at a Haverford School-Malvern Prep football game by the future head of NFL Films. "Good picture-framing."
But even Sabol's youthful film making talents couldn't counter the effects time has had on the film he shot at what is now Haverford's Sabol Field.
"It's old, and it's been mishandled," Churchman said. "But with film there's lots I can do to make it look better. With videotape, you're kind of stuck with what's there."
Fingering knobs and dials as he sat at the German-made console, Churchman began to transform it all into clear digital images. The context in the scene he was working on – a sensational 50-yard touchdown burst by a Haverford School halfback – was irrelevant.
"People ask me if I watch this stuff," Churchman said. "I tell them I'm running it all day long. Do you really think watching it is my idea of fun? I have to be focusing on the monitor. It's like I'm driving this pretty Rolls-Royce. I've got to pay attention or I'm going to end up in a hole."
Ten reels of Sabol's film from that 1964 season, when coach Ed Baker's team went 7-1 and won the Inter-Ac League title, had long been in cold storage at the private Main Line school along with hundreds of other films.
Recognizing their potential use in promotional or alumni events, the school decided to have them restored and digitized. Doing all the films would have been extremely expensive, so Haverford decided to start with a few.
"All of it is part of Haverford's history," said Meg Yeaton, the school's archivist, "but since these were films done by Steve Sabol, we decided to start with them."
Several fellow archivists urged her to take them to Churchman, who has lived all his life in the farm house adjacent to the barn.
"He came highly recommended," said Yeaton.
Churchman has been obsessed with film – the process, not the subject matter — ever since he worked as a young projectionist at several now-shuttered Montgomery County movie theaters.
"And not just film but also electronics," he said. "It's an unusual marriage of two talents, but it's what keeps me going."
Business has boomed
For decades in the converted barn on property his parents bought in the 1940s, Churchman has been restoring and transferring damaged and fragile old images for archivists, film librarians, documentarians and individuals.
"Depending on the brand of stock, film starts to decompose as it ages," he said. "It wrinkles up, shrinks and gets to the point where it isn't playable."
Business has boomed ever since digital images began to make film and videotape obsolete. Institutions such as Haverford want these fragile images preserved on safer, cheaper computer discs.
"We've done a lot of work for the Prelinger Archives [a California institution with one of the world's largest film libraries]," he said. "We do mostly film to digital. There's not much call for videotape these days."
Until the Information Age, when any kind of moving image became a commercial asset, few cared about preservation or restoration. Once a TV station, say, aired some film, it would go into storage or a trash can or be erased and used again for station commercials.
"When the old Dumont TV Network shut down in 1956, it had a warehouse full of stuff," Churchman said. "Their lawyers said it was costing too much, so they put it all on a barge, took it out in the Hudson and dumped it."
Churchman has restored virtually everything — home movies, lost copies of the 1960s' "Joe Pyne Show," Buster Keaton's silent movies, footage of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, flickering films of long-ago sporting events.
If he can't now recall now what those events were, he does remember working several years ago to salvage several fading episodes of the popular sports-anthology series, "Wide World of Sports."
"It was from the early 1960s, something between Russia and Italy. It might have been track and field. I don't know," Churchman said. "I do know it was two-inch videotape and that the technical stuff was terrible. They probably microwaved it to New York. The sound came through a telephone line. For back then it was wonderful. But in comparison to today it was awful."
He performs his magic on old equipment purchased at auction or from defunct companies and TV stations. One device ultrasonically cleans film, another bakes videotape to 122 degrees to make it more flexible. But the used console where he worked on Haverford's film – a Telecine Spirit – is his pride and joy.
Capable of scanning and transferring 16- and 35-millimeter film, it sold for $1.2 million new. Even now, Churchman said, an annual service contract is $40,000.
"No way I could afford that," he said, "so I just fix it myself. I had stuff from TV stations, which was good stuff but nothing like this. It was either really roll the dice and buy this or go out of business."
Pale and bespectacled, Churchman gives the impression that he'd be thrilled if he could work on these films and tapes 24 hours a day, never having to leave a workplace that others might call a trash heap.
"I haven't been in a movie theater in 20 years," he said.
And, typically, he can't tell you the name of the film.
"I'm highly tuned to the quality of the projection," he said. "I might not remember what the movie was that last time, but I do know the presentation was horrible."