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When Opportunity Knocked

His answer to a simple question changed Dr. Larry Benaquist's professional life and created a rich cultural resource for the College.

by Mark Reynolds

Larry Benaquist photo by FJ Gaylor Larry Benaquist came to Keene State in 1969 fresh out of grad school to teach his passion: Renaissance literature. In 1971, one of his students asked him an innocent enough question: Would he serve as advisor for a film society the students wanted to start?

"Sure," he agreed. Little did he realize that his ready answer to that simple question would change his life – and the curriculum at Keene State College.

"We wrote up a constitution and got access to a 16-mm projector, and once a month we'd show films in the Science Building," Dr. Benaquist remembered. "We had good crowds because there were no videos in those days. Our first film was The Maltese Falcon."

Shortly after that, Dr. Benaquist learned that the Orson Welles Film School had opened in Cambridge. "It taught production and critical studies," he said. "I drove down every Wednesday after class and took a course in film history. It was amazing. I really looked forward to it. Though I'd always watched movies, I'd never thought about film having its own rules, its own history, its own theory, its own pedagogy, its own great writers."

When he finished that class, Dr. Benaquist went to Mac Keddy, who was head of the English Department then, and got permission to teach such a course. "So I started teaching one class in film and three in English; after a year, it became two and two. By the mid '80s, I was signed out of English entirely. To this day, I can't explain why my interest changed. At least in the beginning, film appealed to my populist instinct. The more I read and the more I understood it, I began to see that on the level of artistic bravery and nuance, there's probably little difference between Shakespeare and Hitchcock." But whatever the reason, Dr. Benaquist's life as a professor of Renaissance lit was over, and the rich world of film studies had opened before him.

"…on the level of artistic bravery and nuance, there's probably little difference between Shakespeare and Hitchcock."

The opportunity to make such a career shift is one of the things Dr. Benaquist appreciates about Keene State College. "What's interesting about this school is that there's a lot of curricular flexibility here," he noted. "You really can come here and start your own area. It happens all the time. What happened to me at Keene State was not at all unusual. It happened to Pete Jenkins – he was in psychology and started the management program. Renate Gebauer started environmental studies; David White created the children's literature program; Chuck Hildebrandt started Holocaust studies; Bill Sullivan moved into American studies, to name only a few. That kind of intercurricular flexibility is one of the great things about the school."

By the mid '70s, Dr. Benaquist was seeing growing numbers of students in his film classes, and Edith Notman, who had been hired to create a theatre program, approached him with a proposal. She needed his numbers to support her cause, so she suggested that he bring students who were interested in film out of the English Department and into theatre. "We'll call it Theatre Arts and Film," she said. Dr. Benaquist agreed, and the program soon became Theatre Arts, Speech, and Film. That relationship lasted until 2002, when film studies became a free-standing major.

"Once I started to teach film, my life became difficult in a grand way," Dr. Benaquist remembered. "I was in the flow of experimentation that is a hallmark of this institution, but there was a lot of resistance to adding this aspect of popular culture into the traditional college canon. But the students' interest in making films made a great deal of sense to me. It's the liberal arts experience.

"Until the mid '80s, I had been going off and giving scholarly papers on film. But once the program started to grow, my life changed. I stopped going to conferences; my life became totally involved in making the program work.

"I never really set about this with foresight. I would follow an interest, see how students responded to it, give them what I think they needed, and take the next opportunity. I agree with Shakespeare's idea that 'ripeness is all.' You just have to be ready and respond to an opportunity that presents itself."

And some wonderful opportunities have presented themselves. Dr. Benaquist and his students created a film called The Art of Paul Pollaro, about a collage artist from Hancock. In the mid '80s, he and historian David Leinster shot a film called Through the Eye of the Camera: The Changing World of New Hampshire in the Thirties, about life in the state during the Depression. It aired several times on New Hampshire Public Television.

In 1999, he and Bill Sullivan finished work on a moving film called Here Am I, Send Me: The Journey of Jonathan Daniels, about the Keene native and seminary student who was killed in Alabama in 1965 while saving the life of a young black girl in the civil rights movement. That 60-minute documentary was shown around the nation.

In 1980, Dr. Benaquist picked up a box of old film at a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He soon realized that one of the fragile fragments in the box was "the only known footage from a 1930 MGM Technicolor feature film with Laurel and Hardy, called The Rogue Song. It had been on the American Film Institute's 10 Most Wanted list," he said. "That made international news."

In the 1980s, Dr. Benaquist was regularly showing a 1949 film called Lost Boundaries by New Hampshire-based producer Louis de Rochemont, the "father of the docu-drama" and the creator of the long-running March of Time newsreel series (1935 to 1951).

Lost Boundaries was based on the true story of Dr. Albert Johnston, a black physician who lived with his family in Keene for 20 years, passing for white, until his heritage was discovered when he became an officer in the Navy during World War II. The Navy revoked his commission, and a number of people in Keene rejected him.

In 1988, Dr. Benaquist learned that Dr. Johnston had died and his family would be in the area for the funeral. One of the family members contacted him and asked if he had a copy of the film. He brought the film and a projector to the family gathering and, as a result, became good friends with them.

He's handing over the Film Studies Department that he created, which now boasts 12 teachers, some 170 declared majors, state-of-the-art viewing and production equipment, and an archive of nearly 1,000 films.

In 1989, Dr. Benaquist decided to organize a 40th anniversary reunion of everyone involved with the film. The de Rochemont and Johnston families pitched in wholeheartedly, and many family members, members of the film crew, and the actors (including Mel Ferrer, who played the doctor) were delighted to attend.

Word got out and generated news coverage in the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. New Hampshire Public TV did a documentary called "Home to Keene: the Lost Boundaries Reunion" that has aired several times since. Dr. Benaquist said that, of all the things he's done in his career, including receiving the Distinguished Teacher Award in 1987, he is most proud of the part he played in the Lost Boundaries reunion.

In 2006, local contractor Peter Massie donated several reels of old film and a projector he'd found in a barn to the KSC Film Society. One of those films was When Lincoln Paid, the only known copy of a 1913 film about Abraham Lincoln by Francis Ford, the older brother of and most significant influence on the great director John Ford (whose work includes The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley). When Lincoln Paid was of such historical significance that the National Film Preservation Foundation gave a grant to have it restored. The film was shown at the College for the first time in nearly 100 years on April 20, 2010. News of this historic event generated interest around the world. You can read more about it in Newsline.

On May 5, 2010, Keene State College held a retirement party for Dr. Benaquist, a fond farewell for a long and most fruitful career. He's handing over the Film Studies Department that he created, which now boasts 12 teachers, some 170 declared majors, state-of-the-art viewing and production equipment, and an archive of nearly 1,000 films. All this because some students years ago asked him to help them start a film society. After that, all he had to do was stay open to the golden opportunities that presented themselves, and be ready to respond.

KSC's Film Archive

Footage for restoring Lincoln film In its nearly 40 years of existence, the Film Studies Department has amassed a collection of approximately 1,000 films. Larry Benaquist bought many of them as he built up the program, and others were donated by local filmmakers, collectors, and benefactors who realized the value of Dr. Benaquist's efforts. The Putnam Foundation awarded Film Studies grants to buy movies and state-of-the-art projection equipment.

As a result of Dr. Benaquist's friendship with the family of producer Louis de Rochemont, the film archive holds more than 270 films by the pioneer, including several outtakes from the March of Time newsreel series – outtakes that few people have seen.

"De Rochemont changed film," Dr. Benaquist noted. "He won two Academy Awards. He pioneered in the Cinerama process and directed very progressive movies, tackling such controversial subjects as racism and labor relations. Our de Rochemont holdings could be the foundation of a collection of socially conscious films and the basis of symposia on de Rochemont and similar directors."

The film archive gained some important expertise when Rodney Obien joined the Mason Library's faculty in July 2009 as the College's first full-time, tenure-track archivist. "I've been working with Film Studies faculty to better organize and catalog the collection so they can maintain better intellectual and physical control," Mr. Obien said. "We're also working on rehousing the films in archival-standard containers. As we saw from the recent screening of the Lincoln film, our film archive holds some treasures."

Louis de Rochemont also produced a series of ethnographic films called The Earth and Its Peoples. One of those in the KSC archive is Nomads of the Jungle, a 16mm sound film, made in the 1950s, on the Orang Asli people (the indigenous people of peninsular Malaysia). In a remarkable stroke of fortune, the Mason Library is also the home of the Orang Asli Archive, a repository for other material relevant to this people. "From an anthropological or ethnographic point of view, de Rochemont's cultural films are priceless," Mr. Obien said. "Usually, you have still photographs, but here we have motion pictures of rapidly changing or lost cultures – with sound."

Once the collection is better organized and cataloged, it can serve not only as a source of pride and attention, but also earn usage fees and attract significant grant monies. It can expand opportunities for Keene State students who want to move into the area of film preservation, which requires not only a Film Studies background, but also expertise in computer science and graphic design. "About half of the films made before 1950 are lost, so it's important that we take care of what we have," Obien said. "I want to be part of the effort to move our institution forward and help bring national and international recognition to the collection."