One of my radio listeners sent me an astonishing piece of video recently. I posted it on my Facebook page (go to Facebook, search “Big Chuck”) and it has been viewed by well over 1,000 people in just a week.
It is all of 11 seconds long.
It was shot in 1927 and shows a scene of downtown Oneonta.
So what can you see in this priceless black-and-white snippet?
The stores are all right out of an old MGM movie set. Big windows, overhanging awnings, each business with a large sign sticking out giving the establishment’s name. One store proclaims “Bakers” while another boasts a tall, free-standing barber pole.
The little 11-second “moviette” opens with a clear panning shot of Bresee’s Oneonta Department Store, standing confidently at its longtime Main Street location. Eighty-six years ago. Amazing.
The cars are big and black with large round drum headlights, huge curved fenders and tiny windows. Cars not unlike those from one of my favorite television shows, “The Untouchables.”
Everyone seen in the video is dressed up. It has all the appearances of a normal shopping day in downtown Oneonta,1927.
We can see two women bustle across Main Street. Each is dressed in a formal long heavy coat, stylish hat and high heels. We also see a couple of men in the scene, one of them up close.
He is in a hurry as he walks away from the camera. He is obviously a man with a purpose. Maybe a banker. Or a lawyer. He is wearing glasses and a long coat as well as a bowler hat. In fact every one of the few people seen in this little video is wearing a hat: man, woman and child.
“Mr. Important,” is in a hurry but not in such a hurry that he doesn’t pause oh-so-briefly in his stride to cast a glance over his left shoulder right at the camera. Right at us. One can only guess what the distraction was that caused him to look back. We will, of course, never know. I’d like to think that he was just curious at the sight of somebody standing in the middle of the sidewalk holding up one of those “new-fangled movie machines.”
“Mr. Important” marches quickly by the most interesting cast members of this nostalgic pageant. They appear to be a well-dressed mother and her two daughters. The mother wears a “flapper style” hat pulled low over her eyes. Her coat is trimmed with an elegant fur collar. They are all carrying parcels. Perhaps they have just come from Bresees and are hurrying in the cold to put the packages into a waiting car. “Dad” is nowhere to be seen, so we assume he has been avoiding the shopping excursion back at the car, like men have been doing since, well, at least 1927.
It is at this point in this brief film a mystery presents itself. Is this just a family of three, a mother and two daughters? I think not. Because just before the screen goes dark, we see the littlest child stop and look back down the sidewalks clearly waiting for someone. And then another cast member emerges from the background.
We haven’t noticed her as yet because her presence has been obscured by the hurrying Mr. Important. But now all eyes are drawn to her. I believe it is a nanny. Perhaps a grandmother. This woman is bringing up the rear of the little feminine procession. She is determinedly pushing a wicker baby carriage along the sidewalk. She is dressed in full winter finery. Yes, including a hat. The little girl pauses and waits patiently for “Nanny” or “Granny” to catch up.
And then it is over.
A sunny but obviously cold day in Oneonta, 1927. It must be a busy shopping day because every parking spot along Main Street is taken. There is just so much to see and to imagine in this tiny little time capsule.
What did “Bakers” sell? Who was the barber on Main Street (an Italian, I bet). Who was Mr. Important? Who were the two substantial women crossing the middle of the street (perhaps illegally)?
And who are the stars of this photoplay? Obviously they are a family of means. Is that in fact a nanny? Certainly the baby in the wicker stroller could easily be alive today. Who are they?
It is amazing what you can tell from an 11-second movie clip, isn’t it? Check it out for yourself!
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.