In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart’s George Bailey required an angel to show him how much his life mattered to the people around him. I don’t think Ron Hutchinson needed evidence of the impact he made by cofounding The Vitaphone Project and resuscitating dozens of dormant films. He has done heroic work since the early 1990s and deserves all the accolades imaginable.
He didn’t do it for credit or glory; he did it because he cared. That’s one reason his untimely passing last weekend comes as such a blow to the film community.
For me it’s also personal. I counted him as a friend for more than 25 years, and I am devastated.
Some collectors hoard their goodies; Ron was the opposite, an unabashedly enthusiastic guy who couldn’t wait to share his discoveries. Whenever I found myself in New York on a Monday or Tuesday evening he would organize a gathering of like-minded folks to hear our favorite band, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. We would happily pass the night away reveling in the vintage music we loved, laughing and trading stories.
His now-famous calling began as an outgrowth of his hobby. An avid collector of 78rpm records, he came upon a number of rare 16 –inch discs that provided soundtracks for some of the first sound movies ever made. The majority of them were Vitaphone short subjects featuring Broadway and vaudeville stars, and hadn’t been seen since they were made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Several archives had the equally-rare 35mm film negatives for these shorts but were missing the audio to go with them. With no professional experience in this arena, Ron played matchmaker for major institutions like the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive and got them to cooperate in order to make the films whole again. Before Warner Bros. made a major (and welcome) commitment to its vintage talkies, he raised private funds from individuals who wanted to see these tantalizing shorts. He organized Vitaphone programs around the world and even tracked down relatives of old-time vaudevillians to give them the thrill of seeing their parents and grandparents in action. Over the course of time, news of his work yielded more “finds” and helped put feature films as well as shorts back into circulation.
He was proud of his family, all the more so when his son Jared had Vince’s band play at his wedding. I know Ron’s wife Judy must have been a patient soul to see her husband devote so much time and energy to his hobby—a hobby that ultimately became an international resource. My heartfelt condolences go out to his entire family.
This is not the time or place to talk about the history of The Vitaphone Project, although it and Ron have become synonymous. I encourage you to visit the official website http://www.vitaphoneproject.com/ to learn more.