Carey Williams owns an old warehouse on the south side. There, on an upper floor, he maintains a vast collection of film equipment dating back to the 1890s. In addition to hundreds of cameras and projectors, the space is packed with posters, gigantic television cameras, studio lights, and a fleet of antique high-wheeled bicycles.
"Look here," says Williams, pointing to a small mahogany box. It's a hand-cranked movie camera that can also function as a projector. It was invented in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers, August and Louis, who pioneered the commercial exhibition of projected motion pictures. The earliest pictures the Lumieres made were extremely simple. "Teams using the camera would take pictures in the fields and the cities," says Williams. "They returned with shots of actual scenes of life at the time, full of hustle and bustle. We have footage that a team took in Chicago in 1896 of marching policemen on Michigan Avenue and of a Ferris wheel on Clark Street."
Williams admires the mechanical devices he collects for their precise engineering. "They were designed to last forever, with a little bit of care," he says. "You apply some oil is all. They provided entertainment to millions, but now they are forgotten relics of an industry." About a decade ago Williams established a museum to display his collection, but the venture closed after a year. This summer he's loaning the cream of his collection to Northwestern University's Block Museum of Art.
Williams, 45, comes from a family of collectors. His father was a bibliophile; his mother, Gigi, is an authority on dolls; his sister, Sherry Baloun, specializes in teddy bears. Together the latter two run Gigi's Dolls & Sherry's Teddy Bears, a store on Northwest Highway. As a boy, Williams collected model trains; in his teens he switched to jukeboxes and pinball machines. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago for three years before dropping out and going to work for UPS. In 1989 he left that job to work at the family store.
Williams became interested in old motion picture equipment via a prior enthusiasm for theater pipe organs. "In the 1970s, the old movie palaces were being gutted, and I would take away stuff," he says. He salvaged equipment from the State Lake, Roosevelt, and United Artists theaters, then began hunting assiduously for rarer and rarer artifacts. "You start making contacts, you put ads in trade magazines, you follow up leads," he says. "I've traveled through 49 of the 50 states and to Europe and Australia, searching."
In 1995 Williams converted a building he owned at Erie and Orleans into the International Cinema Museum. The first and second floors contained his collection; the third housed a 400-seat movie theater. "We were getting people through the door, but the taxes were bleeding me dry," says Williams. He closed the museum after a year, sold the building, and moved his collection back into storage.
In one corner of Williams's warehouse is an array of old speakers from drive-in movie theaters. "They're worthless," says the collector, "but then to me they're priceless. I just want the history of cinema to be told. If that's never appreciated, so what? There are worse ways to spend a life."
Will Schmenner, assistant curator of film at the Block Museum, first visited Williams's warehouse as a college student, six years ago. "I was agog," he says, "and the more that I got to see each individual item, the more impressed I was." Schmenner hatched the idea for the exhibit, called "Persistence of Vision: The Evolution of the Moving Image, 1895-1910." The showcase includes 30 pieces from Williams's cache, including the Lumiere camera. The exhibit is open daily, except Mondays, through Sunday, August 22, at the museum, 40 Arts Circle Dr. on the Northwestern campus in Evanston. On Thursday, July 22, the museum will host an all-ages Summer Block Party, at which adults and children can create their own optical toys. The free party starts at 5 PM; at 6 Williams will project some short period films using vintage projectors. For information on other related events, call 847-491-4000 or see www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.