The Films

When I was first told about the films by my cousin Lindy, I had no idea what to expect. The usual trope (meme for you younger folks) is that home movies are boring. How many TV series and movies have people being forced to watch someone’s home movies?

As soon as I got a look at them, my expectations both rose and fell. The notes left with the film included lots of references to things in Bay Area and California history, but I also realized how old they were. And even if the film had survived, were they any good?

Herman taking his own photo in the reflection of a Chevrolet hubcap.

These films are home movies from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Most were shot by Herman Nelson, though some were probably shot by his brother-in-law Andrew “Andy” Anderson. Herman’s sister Alda Nelson married Andy in 1937, and the films start to focus (no pun intended) on Andy and Alda.

Some of the films are black and white, and some are color. The focus on the early color films tends to be fairly soft, and the exposure on many of the films is a bit off. But it’s all pretty remarkable when you consider that color film for home movies only became available in 1935, and there were no digital preview screens or automatic focus or exposure in those cameras.

Herman took a lot of footage. A few reels had deteriorated and couldn’t be scanned, and who knows what may have been lost over the years, but there’s still a lot footage. I estimate between 15 and 20 hours of film, broken into 5 to 30 minute chunks.

Andy and Alda lived on Thousand Oaks in Berkeley near Albany, and many of the films show life in the East Bay, with occasional visits to San Francisco. But Andy and Alda traveled a lot in their trusty 1936 Chevrolet, driving up and down California and the West Coast to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. They even journeyed to Banff, Alberta; Tijuana, Mexico; and to numerous states in the eastern U.S., though it’s not clear how they traveled to the more distant destinations.

I’ve managed to identify dates, locations, and people for some of the films. This is in large part thanks to Herman and a couple of nice habits he had: adding handwritten or typed title screens, and photographing place name signs. Some films weren’t so easy, and I had to search on text or descriptions, pieced together from the surrounding footage. But if you can ID something that I haven’t, let me know!

How the films got here

Herman never married, and died in 1973. The films then went (possibly via Alda) to Jim Anderson and his wife, Laura Lundegaard (Anderson), in Berkeley, where they sat for many years. Jim died in 2002, and Laura in 2013, and the films went to their daughter, Linda Anderson (Thompson).

After sorting through lots of stuff, Linda gave the films to me, figuring with my interest in Oakland history that I’d know what to do with them. I didn’t know right away, so they sat here in Oakland for a while longer. I knew I didn’t have the resources to view them safely, never mind scan them all.

Rick Prelinger examining the films

Finally, at the end of 2016, I contacted Rick Prelinger, founder of the Prelinger Archives, and arranged to take the films to San Francisco to donate them.

It took a while to scan them all, but at the end of 2017, Rick invited me to attend the showing of the latest “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco” film, because it had some footage added from Herman’s films. This included a scene of riding the Key System train onto the Bay Bridge and exploring Treasure Island as it was being built out for the World’s Fair. Fun stuff!

Now I’ve got digital copies of the films, and have begun the process of sorting through them all. While most of them are interesting in various ways, I plan to focus on sharing the ones with family and Oakland history.