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Old Home Movies – Reel 1


I realize you have to be of a certain age to recognize one of these. Before the age of cam recorders, video cameras, digital video media, and even personal computers, there were home movie cameras. And once the film, typically a 50-foot roll (about 3 minutes of film) was sent off for developing and returned, you would watch the movie with one of these projectors on a white screen in the dark.

In the early 1980s, my in-laws gave us for Christmas one-year, a Bell & Howell Super-8 movie camera and projector—Super-8 being the modern advancement over regular 8-mm film with a larger film image. And up through the late 1980s, we used this to film significant events—Christmas, birthdays, and vacations.

I can’t recall the last time I got the projector down out of the closet to watch some of these old movies (I have no idea where the camera is). It might have been one Christmas when our kids came home from college for the holidays to show them in action when they were just toddlers. But even that would have been over 10 years ago.

Last fall, I was out in California visiting my son after the birth of his first child. We were sitting around talking and he asked me if I had ever considered transferring the movies to a digital media. I have to admit that I had not even thought of those old movies in many years. I had been actively scanning in old photographs of our kids growing up but it never crossed my mind to transfer the movies. He mentioned it wasn’t cheap but it would be worth exploring.

Soon after I got home, I decided to get the projector out to see if it even still worked. I figured if the transfer process was expensive, I might want to screen the movies to see which ones were worthy of being transferred.


I was amazed at how many films we had, some of which I had spliced onto big 400 foot reels. With a little trepidation, I plugged in the projector and turned it on. I was immediately pleased to see that the bulb still worked, the cooling fan came on, and the drive began to take up the film from the small reel I had placed on the projector. Then all of a sudden, it made the most horrible, gut-retching sound I cannot even describe, the film stopped advancing and the light no longer projected through the lens.


I removed the easy access panel from the front where I could see the remains of a black rubber belt that had literally disintegrated flinging little pieces everywhere inside the projector. It was very sticky, almost like tar and the small pieces I got on my fingers wouldn’t easily come off.


I braved to take off the back panel—the one normally labeled today “warning: no user serviceable parts inside” to discourage inquisitive minds—and could see that there was a chain drive still intact but the motor that drove the entire projector was where the mutilated belt had been stretched. I found more sticky bits of the belt that I had to try to clean out.


I wondered why the projector would have been engineered with both a chain drive for one function and a rubber belt for the main drive. But wishing it had been designed differently was not going to get over the fact that I needed to replace this belt. I knew from previous experience with trying to get an old turntable to work that finding a replacement belt was going to be quite a challenge.


I first tried using one of my wife’s hair scrunchies; it seemed just about the right diameter. I fed it over the pulleys and turned on the projector. It seemed to work—temporarily that is—until the little metal clasp that connected the two ends caught on the lower pulley and then got lodged there. Now covered with sticky black rubber from the destroyed belt, I couldn’t even give it back to my wife as she would be most displeased to get that sticky black rubber in her hair.

Intermission – to be continued…

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