Bob DeFlores, who grew up salvaging discarded film reels from Hollywood studio back lots in the 1950s, is honored by Normandale Community College as the 2002 recipient of its "Community Connections" award as one of the world’s foremost film archivists.
The son of Hollywood show business parents and mesmerized by the movies, DeFlores saw early on that motion picture film – although treated as a disposable resource by film studios in the 1950s – represented a vital source of historical documentation of the 20th century. By high school, he had made it his business to retrieve, collect and later buy every scrap of film he could lay his hands on.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but his personal treasure trove of feature films, newsreels, movie shorts, film out-takes, candid clips, juke box “soundies” and early TV kinescopes was to grow to over 6,000 reels and become one of the largest and most useful archives in the world. Along the way, he has become regarded as the official film biographer of such headliners as Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong and one of the most trusted film resources for television network specials, film documentaries, major tributes, historically-based commercials and fund-raisers.
It was as a fund-raiser that DeFlores connected with Normandale Community College last fall, when he was asked to play host to a “Creative Arts Series” of film/entertainment events to raise scholarship funds for students in need. He responded by bringing his film resource – and show business contacts – to bear on a sell-out 100th Anniversary to Louis Armstrong’s life, and a film/live action tribute to tap dancing.
DeFlores, who regards himself as a collector, presenter and teacher of film history, remains forever connected with the college by the experience.
“I love doing things like this for students,” he said, “because you can see their eyes light up when they see real history reenacted for them up on the screen. Working with students is really what I enjoy most about my work as a film archivist.”
This is probably because Bob, himself, was such a great student of the motion picture industry he saw firsthand as a youngster. His father and mother – Joaquin and Olivia DeFlores – performed as entertainers on the screen, on radio and at the famed Coconut Grove during the Latin American film craze of the 1940s and ‘50s. In addition, his beautiful Aunt Iris was a singer, dancer and actress in “Tarzan” movies with Johnny Weismueller, and in “Cisco Kid” westerns with Gilbert Roland. Another aunt, Hilda Ulloa, was “the Hedda Hopper of the Latin American film press” and one of the founders of the Golden Globe awards. It was little wonder that Latin band leader Xavier Cugat and the famous Carman Miranda were close family friends.
“Aunt Hilda was really the one who encouraged my interest in film collecting,” the self-effacing film historian said. “She knew I had no interest in performing in front of the camera, but she shared my interest in preserving film history. She made some important connections for me, and got me started.”
Some of those valuable connections were people who were once film photographers, film editors, studio distributors or those who functioned as part of the once mammoth motion picture industry. Fortunately, much of the fragile film had been stored properly, in cans, dry and out of sunlight.
“Before acetate film was introduced in 1947,” Bob explained, “the old nitrate cellulose film decomposed in four stages and could only be saved if it was retrieved in the first or second stage. At that point – when it starts sticking and bonding – it can still be saved by soaking the reel of film in a solution until the layers let go of each other. Then the film is run through a special step printer and reproduced one frame at a time, otherwise, it will break or ignite from the friction.”
These diligent film preservation steps soon became second nature to highly focused teenager, who also began scouring the camera shops along Hollywood Boulevard to buy 16mm shorts of big band and comedy reels he loved.
“It took a lot of money,” he admitted, "but I’d save up what I earned working at a grocery store. When other kids were out having fun, I was saving for films of big bands, comedies, tap dancers and other things that interested me."
The DeFlores family lived just five houses down from the famed TV family of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in North Hollywood, and Bob took it upon himself to research some of their early pre-television show business days.
“That actually was their Cape Cod home that was shown on television,” he commented. “I went to school with David Nelson and thought it would be nice to find something for the family. I managed to turn up a band short Ozzie did in his early years, and it gave me a shot in the arm to continue my film searches.”
Even the divorce of his parents and Bob’s subsequent move to live with his mother in Kansas City, MO, did not dampen his passion for movie history. He continued collecting on his summer visits to his father, and while an art student at Kansas University. Upon graduation, he joined an advertising agency in Kansas City for a few years, and then – in 1969 – he accepted a job as art director and muralist for Ellerbe Architects in the Twin Cities.
“I stored my films in a vault near my mother’s home,” he said, “but I never really stopped collecting. Art direction and murals became my vocation, but film archiving was always an overwhelming avocation for me.”
On one of his architectural design projects at Notre Dame University, Bob was queried about the availability of any rare film footage of Knute Rockne, the school’s legendary football coach. He began a search in his spare time, and was able to resurrect some important film shorts and newsreels for the thankful Notre Dame alumni. This intensified his interest in collecting newsreel footage that was often overlooked by other collectors. At the same time, he found there was a wealth of sports reels and shorts in various nooks and crannies around the country.
Ironically, it was while filtering through some sports footage that DeFlores came upon perhaps his most important Hollywood film find.
“A golf short of Bing Crosby playing with some of his Hollywood pals in 1937 caught my attention,” he recalled. “I knew 3M Company in St. Paul was a big advertising sponsor of Crosby’s charity golf tournament in Pebble Beach each year, and I contacted their advertising agency to check their interest in the film. It turned out it was a lost copy of Bing’s first celebrity golf outing. The agency liked the film, but asked if I could shorten it for showing at a clambake party he was to have before the 1977 tournament. I edited it down to 10 minutes, but decided to leave in a little song Bing sang called ‘Little White Pill on the Hill’ just for kicks.”
When Crosby saw the film, he broke into tears. “That’s my father in the background,” he shouted. “This is the only film I’ve got of him! Where did you find this?”
The advertising agency put the crooner in touch with DeFlores, and within a few weeks the film collector was flown, loaded down with four hours of other rare film of possible interest, to Crosby’s home in San Francisco.
“My meeting with Bing was wonderful,” Bob remembered. “When I showed him some rare clips of his early career, he’d sing along with the music, and he told me some great stories about his friendships with W.C. Fields and Bob Hope. Fortunately, I was able to help him rebuild his film library that had been destroyed by a fire. Since I had some other films that he didn’t have in his collection at UCLA, and they had some films of his that I cherished, we bartered. Bing died just three months later, but I’ll never forget that afternoon. I still have a wonderful relationship with his family.”
The encounter not only established DeFlores as a prime film archivist and Crosby’s official film biographer, but also opened the doors for him with other movie stars, advertising agencies, TV producers and film institutes. “About that same time,” Bob said, “I began researching some rare footage of Bing’s friend, W. C. Fields. Among some rare out-takes and early shorts on him during his vaudeville days, I came across an extremely rare shot of him performing his famous cigar box juggling act. I contacted his grandson, Ron Fields, who had just completed a book on his famous grandfather. Ron and I hit it off immediately, and he asked me to join him on a tour of book signings and showings at college campuses.”
The college tour was such a success that DeFlores had to make a career decision to abandon his work as a talented designer/muralist for the architectural firm to become a full-time film archivist. It was a difficult decision to make, since he had a family to support and was leaving a secure, well-paying job to explore the still relatively unknown land of film procurement for hard-to-impress clients.
Bob immediately dove into his new career by intensifying his efforts to network with television networks, film institutes, advertising agencies, colleges in search of programs and just about anybody interested in film history.
Meanwhile, he uncovered the lost film debut of Ginger Rogers made in New York when she was 16. When it was shown to the delighted Rogers, her famous partner Fred Astaire couldn’t believe anyone could have had the ingenuity to trace the rare footage. The occasion developed into a long-lasting relationship between DeFlores and the famous duo.
The ensuring Astaire/Rogers collaboration whetted Bob’s thirst for more documentation of his interest in dance, which began with his own show business family. Further searches resulted in perhaps the richest storehouse known of tap dancing from early vaudeville shorts to the work of early masters like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Joe Frisco, Ruby Keeler, Eleanor Powell, Buddy Ebsen, Ray Bolger, Pegleg Bates and Hal Leroy.
Bob’s natural interest in music led him to research the foundations of jazz in New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago and New York, where he was able to piece together a rich film history of a truly American art form. Through his efforts, the innovative styles of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and others remain documented forever on film.
His footage of the famed Cotton Club was used by director Francis Ford Coppola to recreate the staging and atmosphere for his film The Cotton Club. “Jazz lovers are particularly appreciative of the old films,” he revealed. “Last year, for example, I was invited to New Orleans on three different occasions to participate in 100th anniversary tributes to Louis Armstrong.”
Among his many other tributes to giants of the musical world, Bob has provided key footage for salutes to Irving Berlin, Doris Day, Harry James, the Les Brown Orchestra, Richard Rodgers, Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, the Mills Brothers, Spike Jones, Cab Calloway, Sara Vaughn, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman and Hoagy Carmichael.
His on-going connections in Hollywood have resulted in contributions of key film footage for reviews on Loretta Young, Jackie Coogan, Bette Davis, Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Bob Hope, Buddy Rogers, George Burns, James Cagney, John Wayne, Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, W.C. Fields and, of course, Bing Crosby.
In the field of sports, he has salvaged valuable footage of golfer Bobby Jones (newsreel footage of his winning the Interlachen Club leg of his “Grand Slam” in 1930 plus seven lost shorts of his celebrity golf lesson series), baseball’s Babe Ruth (a rare Hollywood dream short of the Babe playing ball with school kids) and Joe DiMaggio (an unusual clip showing the laconic Yankee Clipper actually singing), boxing’s Joe Louis (a feature film of the champion playing the fictional “Joe Thomas” in a fight drama) and many other film clips, shorts and game newsreels.
“In the past four years alone,” he estimates, “I have contributed to more than 100 television documentaries, more film tributes than I can count and a bunch of commercials. I’m happy to say I’ve been very busy.”
Still, he finds time to help out on worthwhile fund-raising projects, such as the Normandale Community College scholarship efforts for students in need.
“Working with students is such a kick,” he says, “and this college is doing so much to support their dreams through fund-raisers like our Creative Arts series.”
Normandale Community College and film history lovers everywhere are fortunate to have been connected to a vital century of history through his tireless efforts.
This article was written in 2002 by Evelyn Cottle Raedler, and is reprinted by permission, courtesy of Normandale Community College.