'Saving Brinton' documentary captures intersection of 2 men from separate centuries

Michael Zahs of Haskins, near Ainsworth in rural Washington County, is the subject of “Saving Brinton,” a new documentary film detailing his efforts to save more than 130 of the world’s oldest films, made before 1908. Zahs stumbled upon the treasure trove stashed in boxes marked “Brinton crap” in a house in Washington that was being emptied for an estate sale in 1981.
Michael Zahs of Haskins, near Ainsworth in rural Washington County, is the subject of “Saving Brinton,” a new documentary film detailing his efforts to save more than 130 of the world’s oldest films, made before 1908. Zahs stumbled upon the treasure trove stashed in boxes marked “Brinton crap” in a house in Washington that was being emptied for an estate sale in 1981.

IOWA CITY — Frank Brinton of Washington, Iowa. Michael Zahs of rural Washington County. Both projected history, a hundred years apart.

The convergence of their stories is captured in the new documentary, “Saving Brinton.” And it’s returning to the places where their stories began.

In the spirit of Brinton, who brought movies to the masses from Texas to Minnesota in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “Saving Brinton” Barnstorming Tour will launch Sept. 17 and 18 at the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa. Certified by the Guinness World Records in 2016 as the “world’s oldest continually operating cinema theatre,” it was known as the Graham Opera House when Brinton turned on a projector there in 1897, opening a world of discoveries to a sold-out crowd of 800 audience members.

The documentary then will travel to FilmScene in Iowa City from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, and on to Okoboji, Des Moines, Osceola, Minneapolis, Grinnell, Davenport and Winterset — many of the same cities Brinton traveled with his collection of magic lantern slides and silent films predating 1908. After that, “Saving Brinton” is expected to hit the film festival circuit, and filmmakers are in discussions to have it air on state and national public television.

Four years in the making at a cost of $360,000, “it’s entirely produced in Iowa, it was entirely funded by Iowa organizations and individuals, and it’s not entirely shot in Iowa, because we had some adventures along the way,” said Andrew Sherburne, 38, of Iowa City, one of the project’s directors and FilmScene co-founder. “But through and through, it’s an Iowa film.”

Sound editing was done at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in San Francisco, thanks to connections from seven-time Academy Award-winning sound engineer Gary Rydstrom, whose sister lives in Iowa City and saw a Brinton film program at the Ains­worth Opera House.


Born to a wealthy landowner, William Franklin Brinton lived a life of adventure from 1857 to 1919, with too many fascinating facets to capture in one 87-minute film, Sherburne said.


While the focus is on the film aspect of Brinton’s life, the entrepreneur, inventor and world traveler regaled audiences with artifacts and tales from the equivalent of four years in Palestine, where his father had gone to seek land investments. Frank took his mother there many times to try to get the patriarch to return to the United States, but he didn’t budge, and eventually disappeared.

Back home, the younger Brinton began lecturing on the Holy Land in churches around 1878 or ’79, then joined the Chautauqua circuit, and with the advent of silent films in the 1890s, began purchasing and screening them in the Heartland.

Brinton married Indiana Putnam in 1898, and she joined in his film tours. Their entertainments drew capacity crowds, reeling in as much as $140 a night for the couple.

“Around 1900, they were the highest-paid people in Iowa,” putting on 250 to 300 programs per year, Zahs, 70, of Haskins, said in an earlier Gazette interview.

Before that, Brinton experimented with flying machines in 1893 — 10 years before the Wright brothers defied gravity in Kitty Hawk, N.C. He built a flat roof for airships to land on his solar-heated house, in essence, creating the world’s first airport in the 1890s in Washington, Iowa.

The couple, wildly popular on the film circuit, were oddities in their southeast Iowa community, where they were known for being nudists and having a mummy in their living room.

Indiana, 20 years younger than her husband, lived in their home until her death in 1955. With no heirs, their life was packed away in boxes and stored in their estate executor’s basement.

Shrouded in darkness for decades in cardboard cocoons marked “Brinton crap” lay a priceless collection of some of the world’s earliest silent films.



Zahs, a retired science and history teacher specializing in Iowa history, calls himself a “saver,” not a “collector.” But he couldn’t pass up acquiring three truckloads of Brinton memorabilia in 1981. The collection, estimated to include more than 8,000 pieces, features receipts, posters, catalogs, a daily log, magic lantern slides and more than five hours of cellulose nitrate films.

According to the “Saving Brinton” timeline, in 1981 Zahs entrusted most of the original cellulose nitrate films to the Library of Congress, where they’re stored in vaults in a Cold War bunker inside a mountain in Virginia, converted to house some of the world’s most important film collections. Other works are stored in Pittsburgh. In return, Zahs received black-and-white copies on safety film.

Now all of the surviving Brinton films have been digitally scanned in high resolution, stored at the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections and available to researchers. Some of the films have been put back onto 35 mm film, so they can be played on Brinton’s restored hand-cranked projector or a 35 mm projector.

Among the more than 130 films are works by Thomas Edison; the Lumiere Brothers, early filmmakers who helped develop moving picture technology; production company Pathe Films; and “The Triple Headed Lady” by special effects pioneer Georges Melies, whose story is the basis for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 feature film, “Hugo.” Serge Bromberg, an early-cinema expert and the world’s foremost authority on George Melies, appears in “Saving Brinton,” exclaiming his glee over the discovery of a new Melies film.

That’s not the excitement Zahs experienced in the early years of screening parts of the Brinton collection at the Ainsworth Opera House, beginning in 1997.

“People came and enjoyed them,” he said, but their excitement didn’t match his. “I just said, ‘You know, some day, people are going to realize that what you’re watching is really special.’ Now we’re finding out that we have things that are unique on earth — films that are special, by some of the best-known filmmakers in the world, and we may have the only copy.”

The film and preservation worlds have taken notice.

“Saving Brinton” made its world premiere to sold-out audiences June 17 at the American Film Institute’s documentary film festival in Washington, D.C.


Beginning in 2013, the collection was transferred to the UI’s Special Collections division, and the “Saving Brinton” filmmaking began. The documentary is a collaboration between Iowa City filmmakers John Richard, 37, director of cinematography; and Sherburne and Tommy Haines, 41, partners in Northland Films. Richard was working with Red Cedar Chamber Music, which was creating a score for concert presentations of the films, and Sherburne and Haines heard about the collection through Humanities Iowa.

“We were all interested in the same thing,” Sherburne said. “We heard there was this marvelous collection of silent films — really old — century-old films that were found in a basement down in Washington, Iowa.”

That intrigued a bunch of “film nerds,” he said, who had to dig into that story.

“ ‘How did those get there, and how did they survive?’ ” he said. “We gotta go figure out what the story is down there. Once we met Mike, we knew there was a lot more to this story than just the films.” Including chickens, dogs, peaches and cemeteries.

“It’s a documentary where we’re mostly just following Mike over the course of four years,” Richard said, “as he tried to make sense of this film collection — figure out what the films were, why they were important, put music with the movies and tried to bring them to life again by putting on shows like the original owners of the material, like Frank and Indiana Brinton did 120 years ago.

“We also grew it into a film that’s about history and about collecting and about saving things for the future and bringing them to people that are alive today, even if (the films) haven’t really been used in a long time,” Richard said.

“And stylistically, we try to show what Mike’s Iowa looks like,” Haines said. “We really have a lot of beautiful shots from Washington County, and traveled around with Mike throughout Kalona and Washington and Haskins and Ainsworth. ... And then also, we intermixed a lot of the old films that Mike had — some old color films and lost films.

“We try to give people a sense of what films they would have seen 120 years ago, because these are literally the first motion pictures that have ever been shown in Iowa as far as we know,” Sherburne said. “That would have been a really incredible experience for people coming off the farm and seeing things for the first time.”

“Mike’s been talking about the Brinton family for decades,” Haines said, “so we’re late to the game. He’s been trying to get attention for a long time. He knew the importance of this family, not just to the city of Washington, but to the state of Iowa. It really put motion pictures on the map here.”

And now that Zahs has seen the finished film about five times, he’s ready to hit the road with the film tour.

“I think I can get through it now without crying,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com



l What: “Saving Brinton” Barnstorming Tour for 2017 documentary produced in Iowa by Barn Owl Pictures, a collaboration between Northland Films and Bocce Ball Films

l Tagline: Two men, born a century apart, bound together by 20,000 feet of film and the gently rolling hills of Washington County, Iowa.

l Subject: When eccentric collector Michael Zahs of rural Ainsworth discovers the show reels of Frank Brinton, the man who brought moving pictures to the Heartland, he begins a journey to restore the legacy of America’s greatest barnstorming movie man and save these irreplaceable cinematic treasures from turning to dust.

l Run time: 87 min.

l Features: Screening of “Saving Brinton,” followed by Q&A with Zahs and the filmmakers; select screenings will feature an additional presentation of restored silent films in the collection, from such famed filmmakers as Thomas Edison, the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies

l Information: Northlandfilms.com/films/the-brinton-film/


l Washington: 4 p.m. Sept. 17 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18, State Theatre, 123 E. Washington St.; $10, Fridleytheatres.com/location/7461/ State-Theatre-Showtimes

l Ames: evening of Sept. 27, Benton Auditorium, Scheman Building, Iowa State Center; details TBA

l Iowa City: Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, FilmScene, 118 E. College St.; Icfilmscene.org

l Okoboji: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 5, Pearson Lakes Art Center (Cinema at The Lakes Series), 2201 Highway 71; Lakesart.org

l Des Moines: Oct. 13 to 19, Fleur Cinema, 4545 Fleur Dr.; Fleurcinema.com/special_events

l Osceola: 4 p.m. Oct. 14, Lyric Theatre, 118 S. Fillmore St., No. 2; Lyrictheaterweekly.weebly.com

l Minneapolis: Oct. 19 to 26, MSP Film Society, 125 SE Main St., No. 341; $6 to $8.50, Mspfilm.org

l Grinnell: 7 p.m. Oct. 25, hosted by Grinnell College at the Strand Theatre, 921 Main St.; Fridleytheatres.com/location/7439/Strand-3-Showtimes

l Davenport: evening of Oct. 26, Putnam Museum, 1717 W. 12th St.; Putnam.org

l Winterset: 2 p.m. Oct. 28, Iowa Theatre, 121 N. John Wayne Dr.; The-iowa.com

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