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Leith Johnson, co-curator of Cinema Archives, stands inside the Elia Kazan's "America America" exhibit in the Rick Nicita Gallery. The exhibit closes June 21 and is available for viewing by appointment.
 
Posted 06.15.05

Co-Curator of Cinema Archives has Interests in Film, History and Archives Management

Q: Leith, you’re co-curator of Cinema Archives. When did you come to Wesleyan and were you hired in as co-curator?

A: I came to Wesleyan in 1990 as the associate curator. I was promoted to co-curator in 1999.

Q: Where do you have degrees from, and in what?

A: I received my B.A. and M.A. in history, both from UConn.

Q: Before coming to Wesleyan, what were you doing, or what led to working in cinema archives?

A: I was a business archivist working for two of the insurance companies in Hartford. Also, as a freelancer, I was writing histories of companies and institutions celebrating milestone anniversaries. The work was interesting enough, but the unique opportunity to work at the Cinema Archives allowed me to combine my interests in film, history, and archives management.

Q: The Cinema Archives provide a home for Wesleyan’s growing collections related to motion picture, television and history. What about this fascinates you?

A: I think what is most fascinating about the collections, which you might think deal only with film and television history, is that they actually illuminate so many other areas and disciplines. For example, the Frank Capra Collection includes material on his World War II activities of great interest to political scientists and historians. In the Elia Kazan Collection, there is correspondence among James Baldwin, Alex Haley and Kazan that discusses Malcolm X. Our Omnibus television series papers have original source material relating to John F. Kennedy, Thomas Hart Benton, Albert Einstein, and many other mid-20th-century giants. The Cinema Archives really fits in with Wesleyan’s long liberal arts tradition.

Q: Who uses the Cinema Archives?

A: We serve a large array of users with many interests: biographers, documentary film and television producers, museum exhibition curators, students, genealogists, you name it. Several weeks ago, for instance, some of our photographs of James Dean on the set of East of Eden were featured on an American Masters documentary on PBS. Unlike a library, we do not permit casual browsing, but we welcome serious inquiries from all parties. The archives is open by appointment only.

Q: Who is featured in the Archives?

A: Among the more famous individuals, we have the collections of Ingrid Bergman, Frank Capra, Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood, Federico Fellini, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, and John Waters, plus a number of others.

Q: So, what would someone find, say if they want more information on Elia Kazan?

A: The Kazan Collection is an amazing resource. Let’s say you were doing a research topic on perhaps his most famous film, On the Waterfront. You could examine different drafts of the script as it evolved; Kazan’s personal, heavily annotated shooting script; his production notebook, in which he outlined his thoughts and feelings about the project as he developed it; correspondence from the scriptwriter, Budd Schulberg, and other key players; and other production materials. By the time you got done, you would have a tremendous insight into the finished work not to mention what was going on inside Kazan’s head.

Q: How does the Cinema Archives acquire its collections? Do you collect moving image materials, or mostly paper materials?

A: Mainly, through the personal contacts of Curator and Film Studies Dept. Chair Jeanine Basinger. We do not collect moving image materials as such. Although we do have some of that kind of thing within the collections, we are primarily a paper-based archive.

Q: Who do you ‘co-curate’ with?

A: That’s a funny question—I don’t think anyone has put that to me quite that way before. I work closely with Curator Jeanine Basinger on things like policy issues, donor relations and collection development. Our archivist, Joan Miller, is an indispensable member of our team and she and I collaborate on such matters as processing the materials, exhibitions, and reference and access topics.

Q: How do you exhibit materials and are there any upcoming events?

A: Sometimes, we lend materials to other institutions for exhibition. We also install shows in the Rick Nicita Gallery in the new Center for Film Studies. Through June 21, there’s an exhibition on Kazan’s film and novel, America America. After that, we’ll be hanging a show of classic movie posters and this fall, we’re planning an exhibition on Ingrid Bergman in Hollywood.

Q: Of all materials there, what’s your favorite and why?

A: I’ll make reference to the familiar saw that that’s like asking which is your favorite child—but I will say we have some things that really stand out for me, such as the Oscars that Ingrid Bergman won; a great self-caricature that Orson Welles sent to Kazan as a Christmas greeting; and the tremendous pink cockroach dress Ricki Lake wore in the John Waters film, Hairspray.

Q: Do you have an interest in cinema outside of work?

A: Sure, but I don’t go as often as perhaps I should. Working with such knowledgeable faculty and students—we talk about movies all the time over here—makes me constantly aware of so many movies that I ought to see, new and old, foreign and domestic, so that I spend a lot of time watching DVDs and old movie channels at home.

Q: What are your hobbies unrelated to cinema?

A: I’m interested in the magnet that Paris was for artists, writers, musicians, and other cultural figures in the 1920s. I play and compose music from time to time. On weekends, I take long bicycle rides with my wife through the New England countryside.

Q: Is there anything else I should know about you or the Cinema Archives?

A: Besides working for the Cinema Archives, I spend a great deal of time assisting with the running of the Center for Film Studies. I’m also an advisor to the Wesleyan Film Series. And one more thing I forgot to mention earlier: I collect scenes from movies in which archivists, archives, and historical records are depicted. So if you see one, please let me know.

By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor