Sunday, March 1, 2015

History Matters!

                                                                    Milton C. Toby photograph
by Milton C. Toby

            A report that aired recently on the CBS news program Sunday Morning caught my attention. The subject was the fate of movie props and other memorabilia from the golden age of Hollywood, iconic items such as:

          ●Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Bart Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume from The Wizard of Oz;
          ●The piano that Dooley Wilson played in Casablanca;
          ●Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch;
          ●The statue from The Maltese Falcon.

            All are safe and sound, in part because of the renewed interest in preserving Hollywood’s past, but mostly because such relics can be worth a ton of money. Monroe's dress reportedly was sold for $5.5 million in 2011, The Maltese Falcon statute sold at auction for $4,085,000, and the Casablanca piano and the Cowardly Lion costume each drew final bids of more than $3 million. The question is not whether Hollywood’s past should be preserved. The answer to that one from most everyone is a resounding “yes.” The burning questions these days are different: How do we preserve history? Who is going to take the lead in the preservation effort? And what about those historically important items that lack any particular monetary value?

            Horse racing is facing a similar challenge. Hollywood Park, Atlantic City Race Course, and Suffolk Downs all shut their doors in recent months, leaving in jeopardy huge archives of historically important material from all three tracks--photographs, film, video, and written matter. There is no across-the-board exit strategy for preserving the archives at America’s race tracks. If the material is going to be saved for future generations—and that is a very big “if” given the current climate—the saviors will be dedicated individuals struggling against long odds. Digitizing images and text is a step in the right direction, but who decides what is worth saving and what can be tossed?

            One of the unsung heroes in the preservation war is Kip Hannah. Kip worked as supervisor of production operations for the television department at Hollywood Park when horses still were running at the Los Angeles track. Months after Hollywood Park closed, Kip is still on the job there. Assisted by veteran pari-mutual clerk Roberta Weiser, who is volunteering her time to the project, Kip is working to organize and preserve the massive print and image archives accumulated during the track’s 75 years of operation. Hollywood Park management is funding a project to digitize film and video from all the races at Hollywood Park, but so far, no individual or group seems willing to champion the entire preservation effort.

            I got to know Kip when I was researching Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky. An Irish import, Noor had a banner year in 1950 racing in California for Charles S. Howard (Seabiscuit’s owner). Howard was looking for a worthy successor to Seabiscuit, and Noor was his choice to fill that role. Noor lacked the longevity of Seabiscuit, but he was a very good horse nevertheless. He defeated Citation four times in 1950, set a batch of world records in the process, and was named champion handicap horse of the year.

I contacted Kip looking for photographs of Noor and his races at Hollywood Park. The horse did most of his West Coast racing across town at Santa Anita, but in the rich Hollywood Gold Cup he became the first horse to defeat two Triple Crown winners. Noor already had Citation’s number, and an aged Assault was an also-ran in the Gold Cup. (The only other horse to accomplish the feat was the ill-fated Exceller, who defeated Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the same race, the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup.)

Kip quickly sent a stack of black and white photographs, many of which I used in the book, and to my surprise, a bundle of medium-format negatives he located tucked away in a filing cabinet. Although there is no way to be certain, my best guess is that the negatives never were printed and that no one had handled them in more than 60 years. Unfortunately, the negatives had suffered mightily during their decades in storage. They probably got wet, or too hot, or both. The negatives were stored in individual glassine envelopes, and the emulsions were hopelessly stuck to the glassine.

An expert in photographic restoration confirmed what I already knew, that the negatives were unusable—all except one.

The image was a good one. It shows a long-striding Noor in the morning, galloping with legendary jockey John Longden crouched low over the horse’s withers. It was perfect for the book and after some discussion with my editor we used it on the cover. I’m still excited when I pick up a copy of Noor knowing that publication of the book almost certainly marked the first time that anyone had seen the image.

Thanks, Kip!


  1. Wow, that's a fascinating story, Milt. Especially when you see the image of Noor on the cover. As technology marches onward, we all struggle with how to preserve history. Especially pictures. My own family has debated the best way to preserve photos of older generations: even if preserved in the most modern method today - will it be useable in another generation or two? Although I don't know the answer, I'm glad that some, at least, believe that history is worth cherishing.

  2. Perhaps my prejudice is generational, the result of learning to write on an ancient manual typewriter, and still preferring a fountain pen for note taking, but a digital book--no matter how sophisticated--will never take the place of a book in my hand or on my shelf. With a Google search, which I admit is very good, you get exactly what you ask for, with little room to just browse through the pages of a book or magazine. Looking through a real book, I often stumble across something interesting that I wasn't looking for in the first place.

  3. Thanks to Kip, of course, but also huge thanks to you, Milt, for pushing to preserve these precious and irreplaceable images both in pictures and in WORDS.