Last month, one of my English professors posed a seemingly innocuous request to our class: try and track down a copy of a 1981 Great Performances video of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.
Simple? Not so much.
I took the ball and ran with it. Part of an old job was rights and permission requests (those of you in publishing know how time-consuming and daunting that can be), so I have some experience with that. Also, I did a stint working with private investigators and picked up a thing or two on research and tracking.
At first, it seemed easy. The internet put a New York Times article at my disposal, and provided me with all the preliminary information I needed and then some; the repertory company the majority of the cast came from, where it was filmed, who were the producers...
Armed with this information, I contacted the Trinity Square Repertory Company, only to discover they'd lost their only copy. They requested that in my continuing search, I'd please try and obtain a copy for them, as well. The library in Providence, Rhode Island didn't have a copy either. The repertory company wished me luck in my search.
Now the real challenge was on. Did I mention my venerable professor had been looking for this for years? Following the information on the producers, I excavated information on the executive producer, who'd moved on to become the President and CEO of a television network in the Midwest. When I called the television station, and spoke to a gentleman in the Human Resources department, they didn't have any forwarding contact information on him. He wished me luck in my search.
Next, I tried the New York Public Library (specifically, a branch dedicated to live theater performances and funded by one of the producers). A very nice librarian suggested I contact the Paley Center (formerly the Museum for broadcasting and television). The librarian informed me they didn't have a copy, but wished me luck in my search.
I contacted the Paley Center, and was directed to call back and speak to their library later in the day. When I called back, a very nice gentleman there told me they only had the third installment of the trilogy, but were not able to release it to the public because they didn't own the rights to the program. They suggested I contact the Channel 13 offices, as (according to their records) WNET New York was the owner of this production.
I searched and searched for contact information for PBS, WNET, anyone who could tell me where to go next. I'd called the WNET offices the prior week and asked for the archives department, only to be told, "There is no archive department." This, while I was sitting in front of my computer looking at the archives page on their website.
I called the WNET offices back. Again, when I asked, I was told there was no archive department. I told them the Paley Center had suggested I call them. I was then asked, "Are you a producer or something?" Insert inkling of delusion of grandeur HERE. I was tempted to say yes, but instead replied, "I'm a researcher or something." That got me through to the archives department!
Digression: Anyone who's ever seen Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" will nod their heads in dystopian sympathy.
The very nice lady who picked up the phone listened to my request, then informed me I could have easily contacted her by referring to the archives page. No, not really.
The lady from PBS then looked for The House of Mirth on her internal database, reminding me all the while this was usually an internal procedure, and these services weren't available to the public. Hey, she was helping me look, right? Big picture.
Aaaaannnd.... They had a copy! Overjoyed, I took down the rights and permissions procedure, and forwarded it to my professor (we'd been keeping in contact). The lady at PBS also told me just because they had a copy in their possession, didn't mean it could be released to the public.
In the meantime, I hadn't given up searching for contact information on the executive producer, who has since retired. There. Was. Nothing. Then I thought, "He's a retired media executive, he must have a LinkedIn account." He did, but there was no way of sending him a direct message. I did see, though, that he'd written a recommendation for a colleague. And I tracked down that colleague.
Digression: It was at this point that I came to the realization, "This is FUN!"
Fast forward to the present. The professor sent a request to WNET, only to be denied on the grounds they didn't own the rights to the production. Who does? The retired executive producer. The production company listed as owning the rights to the production had an address, but no phone number. Suspicious. I believe the company went out of business a long time ago. The retired producer's colleague sent me a contact email. Today, after no response, I emailed the exec producer a second request.
The other producers? One is in the United Kingdom (and the repertory company doesn't think he has a copy) and the other passed away. As for the other companies who donated funding for this production (such as the National Endowment for the Arts), they don't have a copy either.
In the meantime, I'm hoping and waiting for a response from the executive producer. I'm also going to try to track down the retired executive producer for Great Performances. Maybe if the repertory company asked for a copy from WNET, they'd get one?
Also, there's always the actors...
My research efforts resulted in Florida International University's acquisition of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) 1980's film adaptation of Edith Wharton's A House of Mirth. It is the only copy currently available for public viewing in the United States. The link to the IMDB page for the production is here.
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