NFPF Grant Project: Wayne State University Historic Films

(33929) Irene Day, Wayne State University, Alumni, Broadway and radio performer, Detroit, 1932

The Walter P. Reuther Library is pleased to announce the restoration, duplication, and digitization of two 16mm historic Wayne State University films. The Reuther’s Audiovisual department received a National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) grant that made all of the work possible. The historic films document the years 1925 and 1932 in Wayne’s history (before it was actually named Wayne State University) and are a part of a newly discovered series of silent films that span the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

The films give the viewer a glance into what college life was like for students nearly one hundred years ago. Featured prominently in the restored films are the “class games” that took place every fall that pitted the classes against each other in various physical contests like pushball or tug-o-war. Some of the competitions get extremely violent with the (male) students actually fighting and wrestling with each other to gain the advantage in the competitions. The films also show a Christmas festival, various dances, and athletic events. In the background of the films different Detroit landmarks are visible like the Sears & Roebuck store on the corner of Gratiot and Van Dyke, the Guardian Building downtown, and the 19th century Athletic Pavilion on Belle Isle. The 1932 reel shows the Freshman Frolic costume dance where most are wearing costumes but some of the students are dressed in formal wear. The viewer gets a peek into the forgotten formality of dancing couples as well the silly costumes that were popular at that time. One student even dresses up as the “The Forgotten Man,” a nod to Franklin Roosevelt’s speech in April of that year where he outlines his solution to the Great Depression that involved creating economic plans “that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Later in that film Broadway and radio performer Irene Day, who was a student at Wayne, appears reading her alma mater’s newspaper, The Detroit Collegian. Footage from the reels gives a glimpse into casual and athletic clothing from that time as well like women’s cloche hats and field hockey attire and men’s football uniforms and the fedoras, homburgs, and caps that all of the men seemed to wear back then.

The completion of a grant centering on the history of Wayne State University will coincide nicely with the University’s Sesquicentennial celebrations in 2018 and with the Athletic Department’s Centennial celebration in 2017. The preservation and accessibility of the WSU Historic Films is a great way to pay tribute to the university at such momentous milestones. As interest in the University piques because of the two anniversaries, the Walter P. Reuther Library will have at its fingertips historic footage that can be easily accessed by the public, the university community, and by any researcher or documentarian who is interested in the Wayne State, the city of Detroit, or even simply life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Wayne State University was founded in 1868 as the Detroit Medical College and has remained an important institution of higher learning within Detroit ever since. Wayne State is among the 50 largest public universities in the country, with over 28,000 students. Its main campus takes up over 200 acres of land within the city of Detroit. The University is the seventh largest Detroit employer and its’ research park and business incubator, TechTown, created more than a 1000 jobs between 2007 and 2013. Wayne State is playing a major role in Detroit’s comeback. It is at the heart of the explosive growth that is taking place north of downtown – in the Midtown area. The WSU Historic Films, unseen in many, many years, will contribute significantly to a better understanding of the rich history of Wayne State University and the city of Detroit as a whole.

The Walter P. Reuther Library is the home of the University Archives and has countless collections having to do with the school’s history. The Reuther not only has yearbooks, commencement and athletic programs, faculty newsletters, and course catalogs, but it also collects the papers of prominent faculty, administration, and alumni. University collections are open to the public. Audiovisual collections require an appointment for viewing, but the manuscript and publications can be viewed in the Reuther’s Reading Room during regular research hours. High Definition clips of the two restored films can be seen on the Walter P. Reuther Library’s YouTube Channel. Click on this link to view the clips: Reuther Film and Video YouTube Channel.

Mary Wallace is an Audiovisual Archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library.