KAIT celebrates 55th anniversary with film project

KAIT Archives: 1973 Jonesboro High School graduation after a devastating tornado

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Frame by frame, edit by edit and really, piece by piece, the history of Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri is being restored.

It's a colossal project underway by legendary filmmaker and freelance cinematographer Gary Jones in cooperation with KAIT, and Arkansas State University.

Jones' interest goes back to the station's earliest days. He was hired before KAIT went on-the-air.

"Well, I started July 1, 1963. A couple of weeks before the station went on-the-air," Jones explained. "Because I was the staff photographer at the Jonesboro High School newspaper, "The High Times." That was what it was called back then. I was qualified to be a darkroom technician. So I processed film."

Jones learned the job well and quickly climbed the ranks to assume other positions at the TV station.

"In small market television, you can move rather quickly.  So soon I was a photographer and a cinematographer," Jones explained.

He pointed to a camera we would consider "vintage," or at least an antique by today's standards.

"This is a 16-millimeter camera—similar to what KAIT used back in 1963. Which you could still use today!" Jones said with a smile.

The camera is in mint condition.

He and Dr. Brady Banta, Associate Director of Heritage Studies Ph.D. Program, Professor of History and archivist for the University accompanied Jones for an appearance on Region 8 News Mid-Day to talk about the project.

"It's quite pivotal in that there isn't that much local television news footage available anywhere," Dr. Banta explained. "Ronnie Weston, who is a long-time employee here at KAIT saw fit to bestow upon the ASU Museum about 200 rolls of KAIT news film that was destine for the dump and wisely gave it to ASU where it was taken care of in humidity-controlled conditions for about 20 years," Jones said. "It is in the process of being made available online. It's a long process. It's an expensive process. It's about 6,000 clips. So there's 6,000 versions of the material that you saw from Swifton and Corning."

To say the newsreels were fragile and difficult to work within the beginning is probably an understatement. The film editing process required splicing, or actually cutting the film, scrapped a bit of material off, then "splicing," or connecting the film together using a specially formulated substance like glue. After years and years, the glue broke down and breaks in the film were more pronounced.

So, Jones and Dr. Banta sought out a company that specializes in film restoration to repair these painstaking edits from yesteryear.

"One of the things that sets this collection apart is it is color news film and it was never converted to videotape," Dr. Banta explained. "So when we digitize it. We get a much better image, than you would from videotape. It's extremely valuable in that its kind of what we call, visual documentation of the history and culture of Northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel in the 1970's, which is a period of significant transformation or transition here. So, a lot of the places…that will be shown in this film no longer exist."

The project is time-consuming and costly. So far, $70,000 has been raised for the restoration. But, the real cost is closer to $90,000.

Arkansas State University welcomes contributions to complete the project. Anyone wishing to help, should contact Dr. Brady Banta at 870-972-3509. Jones has placed the reels that have been completed so far on his website: garyjonesvideo.com. At the top of his home page is a section called: A-State KAIT Research.

Jones hopes that the general public might be able to identify people captured on the restored film segments.

One features the Swifton Bicentennial. A street dance is underway on the film and people appear to be re-enacting pioneer life as they are dressed in costumes and acting out a scene. Another film vignette shows a Corning Fourth of July complete with a parade saluting the nation's bicentennial in 1976.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash can be seen disembarking from a train that carried them to Rison. Then-Arkansas Governor David Pryor can be seen accompanying them. The film even captures Johnny Cash introducing himself to the crowd and performing a concert. The clarity of the film is so pristine that many faces can be made out in the crowd and that is what Jones and Dr. Banta hope will inspire people to take a look at the footage.

The converted film cache also includes the 1973 class of Jonesboro High School marching on graduation day to receive their diplomas against the backdrop of destruction left by a tornado that rolled through the town on May 27, 1973.

Jonesboro High School took a direct hit. People attending graduation can be seen standing on the bricks that would later be bulldozed away.

Three people died in the tornado. But the class of '73 stood like "the phoenix rising from the ashes" to accept their diplomas and begin life after the storm. National news crews were on scene documenting the graduation that was marred by Mother Nature's fury.

Jones and Dr. Banta hope to eventually make all newsreel available online and available for public use. The pair knows that the task is enormous. But thanks to the existence of KAIT and its news department, lots of history was documented.

KAIT celebrates 55 years of serving Region 8 on Sunday, July 15. It remains in the same building with several additions to the facility made over the course of time.

The station's first call letters were AIT, which stood for "Arkansas Independent Television." AIT sounded like "eight." So early marketing campaigns referred to the area KAIT served as Region 8.

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