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In The Pipeline: Local Babe Ruth footage unearthed

August 15, 2012|By Chris Epting

A week after our meeting, on a sweltering night, I found myself, along with my teenage son and fellow history buff, in the home of Carolyn Neilson and her husband, Bob. In their dark and refreshingly cool living room, sepia-toned images flickered forth, casting a honey glow on our faces. Our mouths were mostly agape for the first hour of footage, which included remarkably shot 16-milimeter home movies reflecting the life of the affluent Thomas family in the mid-to-late 1920s.

There was stunning aerial footage around the Long Beach and Los Angeles areas. There was Catalina Island, local oil gushers, sophisticated parties, family functions and more. Much of it was Gatsby-esque in terms of the clothing styles and grand behavior. Home movies from his period are extremely rare, and naturally was something only the well-heeled could afford.

Incredibly, there was carefully crafted footage of Charles Lindbergh, shot documentary-style, telling the story of his famed first voyage.

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Then, a scene of two men fishing. One has a large barrel shape. The other is smaller, more modest and businesslike. It is Ruth and Thomas. What follows is simple, yet mesmerizing. Quick cuts of Ruth pulling a fish out of lake, unhooking the fish and dropping it into his saddlebag. Ruth playing around with a small dog, draping a line of freshly hunted ducks around his neck in a silly pose, tossing a ball to a small child, enjoying food cooked over a fire, and just sitting with the men after a long day in the field.

He is relaxed and comfortable with the camera, never turning away and often looking it straight in the eye. In the Orange County wilds, he has never looked happier, perhaps because of his love of the outdoors and getting away from the intense media scrutiny in New York.

The footage seems to span more than one duck club. Might they be in Huntington Beach? I'm going to analyze further with a friend who is an expert in local gun clubs, Dave Carlberg.

After the first reel, we break for dinner and try to process what we watched. We theorize about visual clues in hopes of connecting the dots. Then we go back to watch the second tape, which includes another hour or so of vintage home movies.

There is Yosemite. A trip to Mexico. There are more parties. Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance! And then, the Babe reappears, but this time, he is not smiling. In fact, he seems to be passed out cold. The result of a hard night?

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