Recently, Neil Remington Abramson came across the following New York Times obituary, which he forwarded to me:
New York Times, November 13, 2010
By Margalit Fox
Robbins Barstow, a Connecticut man who, movie camera whirring, documented every aspect of his family’s life for decades, yielding a vast body of work that formed the cornerstone of the recent home-movie revival and has lately garnered a huge following online, died on Nov. 7 at his home in Hartford. He was 91 and previously lived in Wethersfield, Conn.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Dan Barstow, his son and a frequent subject.
By day, Robbins Barstow was the director of professional development for the Connecticut Education Association, a state teachers’ union. By night and in retirement, he was the auteur of tenderly shot documentaries, many of them travelogues, chronicling the ordinary doings of ordinary people in mid-century America.
Mr. Barstow made more than a hundred films in the course of eight decades. In 2008, his best-known, “Disneyland Dream” (1956), a 30-minute account of a family vacation, was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Now comprising 525 films, the registry is heavy with Hollywood masterworks, earmarked for preservation for their cultural or artistic significance. Mr. Barstow’s picture is one of the few amateur works on the list; the others include the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In naming “Disneyland Dream” to the registry, the Library of Congress called it “a priceless and authentic record of time and place.” The movie is also noteworthy as the uncredited first screen appearance of a young Disneyland employee named Steve Martin, then 11, caught by Mr. Barstow’s camera as he hawked guidebooks.
Mr. Barstow discovered as much only recently, when Mr. Martin — yes, that Steve Martin — wrote to him after seeing the film. Mr. Martin, in a pink shirt and top hat, can be glimpsed fleetingly in the lower right-hand corner of the image about 20 minutes 20 seconds into the film.
Mr. Barstow, who got his first movie camera at 10, was an ardent public champion of home movie-making. He was also an ardent disseminator of his work, first through neighborhood screenings and later through public-access television. Several years ago, he posted his films on the Internet at archive.org, a digital repository of film, video and much else.
Sixteen of his movies can be seen on the site, including “Disneyland Dream,” which has been downloaded more than 76,000 times. Another, “Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge” (1936), a stirring jungle drama he made at 16 in the Connecticut woods, has been downloaded more than 150,000 times.
The mere thought of home movies is enough to send most people screaming into the street. But in the 1990s the films began to be rehabilitated, and today are prized by archivists, folklorists and historians as social documents.
Mr. Barstow’s films are noteworthy for straddling the line between home movies and independent films. They chronicle the stuff of daily life, but they do so artfully, with strong narrative elements. He sometimes “directed” his family, as in a dramatic scene from “Disneyland Dream” in which, on learning they have won a trip to Anaheim, they swoon with theatrical joy on the front lawn.
Though most of his films were silent, Mr. Barstow later added voice-over soundtracks. Before that, he recited live oral narration, carefully scripted and timed, whenever he showed a film.
“It’s not raw footage,” Dwight Swanson, a board member of the Center for Home Movies, said on Thursday. “He very self-consciously created it and edited it and added special effects.” The center sponsors Home Movie Day, an annual celebration of amateur filmmaking in cities around the world, in which Mr. Barstow was an active participant.
Mr. Barstow started out producing films for family consumption. But gradually, his son said, he realized he was putting posterity on celluloid. Though the family did not know it at the time, the entire Barstow household was inhabiting what may well have been the original reality show.
Robbins Wolcott Barstow Jr. was born on Oct. 24, 1919, in Woodstock, Vt., and reared in Hartford. His father, a third-generation Congregational minister, was president of what is now the Hartford Seminary.
The younger Mr. Barstow earned a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from Dartmouth, followed by a master’s in education and history from New York University and a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Connecticut.
“Disneyland Dream” was born of a nationwide contest. In 1956, the 3M Company offered free trips to Disneyland to the 25 families who best expressed why they loved its signature product, Scotch Tape.
All the Barstows — Mr. Barstow; his wife, Meg; and their three children, Mary, 11; David, 8; and Dan, 4 — entered. So confident were they of victory that Mr. Barstow filmed them composing their submissions round the dining-room table. Then he filmed the postman carrying them away.
Before long, a prize is awarded to little Dan. (His winning entry: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”) Swooning ensues. The film goes on to record the family’s departure amid confetti-throwing neighbors; Southern California attractions like Knott’s Berry Farm; and, finally, Disneyland, then just a year old.
Mr. Barstow was also an avid conservationist with a special interest in whales; he made several films about endangered species and helped found Cetacean Society International.
His other movies include “Family Camping Through 48 States,” Parts 1 and 2 (1957-61).
Mr. Barstow’s survivors include the original cast of “Disneyland Dream”: his wife, the former Margaret Vanderbeek, whom he married in 1942; his sons, David and Dan; and his daughter, now known as Cedar. He is also survived by both subjects of “Touring Paris With Two Grandchildren” (1992); and a great-grandchild.
Originally, the pleasure in Mr. Barstow’s films lay in their wide-eyed enjoyment of the larger world — a world that many mid-century Americans would not otherwise have had the chance to see.
Today, there is pleasure of a bittersweet kind. There is the tree-lined street and the white clapboard house. There is the happy family, dressed alike in Davy Crockett jackets. There are the neighbors, come to wish them godspeed.
As it unfolds in faded color on the computer screen, the Barstows’ world is as distant and enchanted for modern viewers as Disneyland was for them.
Exchange between Neil and Bruce:
Neil: When my father, William Walter Remington, is being grilled in Congress by William Rogers and Committee, the key witnesses are Elizabeth Bentley and Robbins Barstow Jr, his younger friend at Dartmouth, with notebooks and good memory. I wonder if this is him?
Bruce: The background fits. No mention in NY Times about his key witness role.
Neil: What strikes me is his long-established fame in home movie circles, recording everyday life. This was the same person who could say exactly what my father, William Remington, said, because Robbins Barstow wrote it down and preserved it. Imagine being metaphorically hanged because of things you said, and likely don’t recall, from 10 years ago, but someone else has methodically recorded and is prepared to tell you and others what you likely don’t remember.
Robbins Barstow is discussed in the Gary May book Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington (Oxford University Press, 1994), in part, as follows:
From Ch. 5: “Flirting with Danger—Dartmouth, 1938-1939”, at p. 43:
Robbins Barstow was almost eighteen when he came to Dartmouth in September 1937. A senior remembered him “as the darnedest freshman I’d ever seen. A real Joe Intellectual. He used to wander around the campus with a little notebook, listening in on discussions that students were having. He’d tell us to go right on talking—that he just wanted to take notes on what he called Food for Reflection.” One of Barstow’s friends was a German exchange student and an admirer of the Nazis—his views found a home in Barstow’s notebook. So did Bill Remington’s thoughts on Communism, which Bill was happy to share with the freshman, even though he was working so hard to convince the administration that he was no longer committed to the cause. (From endnote 1: “…Barstow’s notebook references are quoted in his 1948 testimony before the U.S. Senate Investigations Subcommittee, reprinted in U.S. Congress House, 81st Cong, 2d Sess, Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding Communism in the U.S. Government—Part 1. Washington, D.C., 1950…”)
From Ch. 8, “Fighting Back”, at pp. 101-102:
…William Rogers ordered [William Remington] to return to the Hill on Saturday, August 7 , to face another accuser—someone (Rogers refused to identify him) he had known at Dartmouth. Who could it be? …It was Robbins Barstow, Jr., the serious little freshman who wandered about the campus recording student views in his notebook… Barstow’s testimony proved to be extremely damaging, and the two-hour hearing was the roughest Remington had ever experienced.
Barstow, now twenty-eight and a teacher in Connecticut, had been following Remington’s ordeal with great interest and some confusion. He remembered Bill as one of the most articulate Communists he had encountered at Dartmouth. But in his testimony before the Ferguson Committee, Remington had claimed that he was a Republican; had Barstow misunderstood him? The answer lay in his college notebooks, which he had preserved among his personal papers. Consulting the first volume, which covered his freshman year, 1937-1938, he discovered that his memory was correct. An entry dated January 5-6, 1938 read—“Communism…supported and striven for by Bill, and now working for CIO for immediate ends of workers’ welfare.” And there was more, much more. On August 4 , Barstow had written Senator Irving Ives of his concern that Remington , now a government official, might still be a Communist; if so, he was a danger to American security. Two days later, the Ferguson Committee invited Barstow to come to Washington.
As Remington listened, Barstow read directly from his notebooks Bill’s thoughts on Communism, the Russian constitution, the Spanish Civil War, and other subjects. For more damaging evidence, Barstow suggested that the committee examine back issues of The Dartmouth, where they would find Remington’s articles and letters.
When Barstow was excused, Counsel Rogers pounced on Remington…
Barstow and Remington left the building together and, incredibly, they decided to go to lunch. Later, they parted warmly, that Saturday in August.
Well, at least Robbins Barstow and his family got to go to Disneyland. William Remington and his family did not: