Back in August of 2017, I wrote a story about a donation to the Archive from Marc LeRoux. (Read it here.) Marc sent some terrific material about Dr. William O’Brien and the Letterman Fencing Club that hadn’t seen the light of day for many, many years.
Along with that material, he sent me a videotape. Not a standard, pop into a VHS deck kind of videotape. No, this was a 1” tape format which used to be standard for broadcast television but with the advent of digital video in the 1980s pretty much went the way of the dinosaur. Finding someone today that has a 1” video deck that’s working? I think dinosaurs are easier to find. Still, there are folks out there that keep a deck handy for just such a client as myself and I found a transfer house out in Massachusetts that said they could handle it.
About the tape. The only labeling on the tape reel is the cryptic notation “71C” on a piece of masking tape. The outside of the box has a half-torn piece of masking tape with the notes “7/29” and “Sabre Comp DRIMBA” and nothing else. No other labeling of any kind. Ion Drimba, the Olympic Gold Medalist in foil at the 1968 Mexico City games, has been brought up here before. Peter Burchard speaks about his Drimba experiences here. Drimba competed internationally in both foil and sabre for a decade before defecting from his communist home country of Romanian to West Germany during the 1970 Challenge Martini in Paris. After time in Germany and Tuscon, Arizona, he landed in San Francisco and became the coach at the Pannonia Athletic Club.
Now, at no time of which I am aware was the 1” video format available in anything like a portable video rig, excluding high end sports productions that brought all the equipment they’d need in huge 18-wheel trucks. 1” decks were bulky, heavy and easily knocked silly. You didn’t want to haul them around willy-nilly and expect them to continue working.
Thus, my thoughts about the tape were that it must have been shot by some highly professional production company with access to broadcast quality equipment. And so, it must be from a major competition. What else could it be?
With high hopes and all good intentions, I packaged up the tape and sent it off. It was a nice summer day in June. Of 2017. I got the tape and transfer back. Yesterday. February 21, 2019.
Over a year and a half. Thank god nobody was waiting for it with money on the line.
When I first sent it out, I was in touch with the transfer place. About a week or so after they got it, they were able to put it up on a machine to take a look. It played! That was the good news. The more cryptic news was that the tape contained mostly some kind of modern dance and “some fencing at the end”. I asked them to go ahead and transfer everything, not knowing whether the dancers were fencers or what the heck it might be.
And then, nothing.
I called. I left messages. Sent emails. Called again. Emailed again. After about six months, I’d pretty much given up hope. Calls not returned, nothing by email. Just… nothing. About every couple of months, I’d send out another email, but really, I didn’t expect I’d ever hear anything. In January of 2019 – hey, it’s the New Year! A time of renewal! I sent another email. Not angry, just, you know, hoping I could someday get the tape back.
Lo! Not two weeks ago, my phone rings at around 7am (CA). I ignored it. When I finally listened to the message, it was the guy! The guy with my tape! It seems he’d been in and out of the hospital for most of the last year plus and apologized profusely, said he had a friend helping him with his backlog and he’d move my tape to the top of the list. Sure enough, yesterday the tape arrived back in my hands, safe & sound, along with a digital video copy and a DVD. You can bet I didn’t waste any time getting that DVD into my player.
What I found was… interesting. First, it’s in black & white. Now 1” decks were entirely capable of color. Why black & white? The only thing I can figure, based on what was shot and how it looks, is that the footage was all originally shot on the pre-VHS ½” reel-to-reel videotape systems that were prevalent in the mid-1970s – and were reasonably portable – then transferred to the 1” format tape. God knows why. But, not complaining. It survived to the Now.
The modern dance, almost 40 minutes of it, looks like a recital for a dance class after a semesters worth of practice. A fair number of performers. Not on a stage, but in a room. No applause or restless crowd noise, so no audience. All the dancers have Seventies hair and dance tights. The guys have Seventies mustaches. Trust me, that’s as much as you need to know.
And so, La! To the fencing!
It’s about six minutes long and filmed in the Letterman Gymnasium. I recognize quite a few fencers and spectators. The only fencers I recognize are Ion Drimba and Joe Shamash. And yes, it’s a sabre tournament. I very much wish it had been foil, as that was Drimba’s (and Joe’s) strongest weapon. There are a couple of other fencers, but I don’t know who they are. A couple of Santa Cruz-based side judges can be seen. Pretty sure we’ve got Bob Tripp and Rick Simpson in there. And among the spectators, Dr. William O’Brien of course. It was at Letterman, after all. I also spotted Joe Manzano and Eleanor Turney. There are probably half a dozen other folks who can be seen pretty clearly, but I don’t recognize anyone else.
Date? Early 70s? Mid-70s? Joe S. or Joe M. may recognize some folks and be able to put names to them, but anyone can play! If you see someone you know, raise your virtual hand!
To save your immortal soul I have removed the dance segment. Here is the fencing part: