Doug Moe: Class films stir warm fuzzies

IN SHANGHAI last week, a couple of former Madisonians met for lunch, a meeting prompted by the discovery of some old film long thought lost, film shot at a school that no longer exists.

"It's quite a story," Chris Cain was saying Friday.

Cain, 58, grew up in the Shorewood Hills neighborhood. He works in real estate today, but he spent decades working as an engineer for Madison radio and television stations. He knows his way around control rooms and film labs, and one day about five years ago, Cain saw a report on the local TV news about the outstanding film archive that exists within the Wisconsin Historical Society, located at the campus end of State Street.

"I'm a film hobbyist," Cain said, and after seeing the TV report, he visited the society to see if perhaps they could use some part-time help of any kind with the film archive.

Cain spoke with archivist Maxine Ducey, and while the society was not hiring, during their chat back in 2000 Cain asked whether the vast archive might possibly include film shot in the years 1959-60 in the old Wisconsin High School, which until its closing in 1964 was located on Henry Mall on the UW campus.

It was pretty primitive stuff, Cain recalled. He was an eighth-grader at Wisconsin High in 1960 and he remembered that some of his classes had been filmed by WHA-TV. "Our understanding was that the films would be used to train new teachers," Cain said.

Film was necessary because videotape was not yet invented. A WHA crew came to the school classrooms and sent the video picture and sound back to the WHA studios on Park Street. There, a film camera would be trained on a 12-inch TV set to film the video on the screen, a process called kinescope. The audio was recorded on magnetic tape that was the same size as the film.

Films were made in numerous classes at Wisconsin High. Presumably they were utilized in some kind of teacher training, and then pretty much forgotten. Like so much early film, they could have wound up in a trash can somewhere.

Instead, what seems to have happened is that the films were stored at WHA for many years, and then at some point in the 1970s they were moved from Vilas Hall to the archives in the Wisconsin Historical Society.

That day in 2000, Cain, not really expecting much, asked Ducey if any old WHA film was in the collection. Ducey went to a file cabinet, and found a sheet slugged "Wisconsin High School/WHA Remote; Math 7, Science 8."

Ducey cautioned that sometimes the printed record and the actual film on hand in the vault don't mesh. But a month or so later, she got back to Cain and said she had located some of the films. Cain went back, threaded the film, and watched four decades vanish as he saw his classmates and teachers and finally himself in those Wisconsin High classrooms in 1960.

"Talk about a warm and fuzzy feeling," Cain said.

That could have been that, but Cain got to thinking that with the advances in technology over 40 years, it might be possible to transfer the film and magnetic tape sound onto DVD. There were permission issues, which Ducey helped Cain facilitate, and eventually he got the go-ahead and recently transferred two films - a seventh-grade math class and an eighth-grade science class - to DVD.

Obviously riding a wave of enthusiasm, Cain tapped into a Web site,, and with the help of that and subsequent word of mouth among his old Wisconsin High mates, he came up with a mailing list and began to send DVDs to the kids and teachers featured in the films. Cain thought people would appreciate his efforts, but he was not prepared for the emotional outpouring that came from the DVD recipients.

"In e-mail after e-mail, you could practically see the tears," Cain said.

Cain was in the last graduating class of Wisconsin High - 1964. The DVD of the eighth-grade science class in 1960 is his class. The seventh-grade math class never really graduated as a class - when Wisconsin High closed the students scattered to West and Central, but somehow Cain has tracked most of them down. He is now at work transferring film of English, speech, art and history classes and is hoping the expense, which he has assumed until now, can be spread among the former students who want a DVD.

His labor of love has brought forth many interesting stories. One of his old classmates is with the British Consulate in Shanghai. Another is a fifth-grade teacher in the state of Washington. E-mails back and forth between them and Cain, during the sending of the DVDs, revealed that the teacher would be visiting Shanghai last week. Cain acted as the intermediary and the two old Madison classmates hooked up in Shanghai for lunch. Chris Cain wasn't there but he knows what they talked about. Wisconsin High School, of course. is operated by Capital Newspapers, publishers of the Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times, Agri-View and Apartment Showcase. All contents Copyright ©2005, Capital Newspapers. All rights reserved.