Spokane: The First 100 Years (1969) a film by Robert L. Pryor

Lost for decades, the films of pioneering Spokane-area documentary filmmaker Robert L. Pryor have been rediscovered. Beginning in the 1960s, Pryor created films about Chief Spokane Garry, the Nez Perce, the city of Spokane, Washington, the development of the Spokane and Columbia rivers, and recreation at Priest Lake, Idaho. Pryor was born in Spokane in 1928 and raised in Cheney where he received his master’s degree from Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) in 1959. After a year of teaching in Oregon, he moved to Spokane and worked for Spokane Public Schools for thirty-two years.

For twenty-three of those years he served as the district’s Instructional Media Coordinator, a position that allowed him to screen thousands of educational films and teach himself the art of filmmaking. Pryor shot on Kodak Ektachrome film. Initially, his recollection was that his camera “was a 16mm Bell and Howell,” but upon reflection he recalled it was actually a Bolex. “And,” he said, “I bought a good tripod with a fluid head so that it would be a smooth pan or tilt.” To assemble his films, Pryor used “a viewer and two hand-cranked reels.” “I decided to make films on Spokane,” he said, “because of the lack in that area and feeling the pupils in SD81 need material on their city and its history.” Students of Spokane Public Schools (District No. 81) and the public had the ability to enjoy Pryor’s films for decades.

However, when 16mm film projectors gave way to VHS and DVD players, Pryor’s documentaries were effectively lost from view. Without a projector, no one could see Pryor’s work until the Washington State University MASC (Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections) department digitized Pryor’s Chief Spokane Garry film and posted it to YouTube in 2014. Since then, the documentary has attracted a couple hundred views, including a view by Eastern Washington University history professor Larry Cebula who commented: “Wow, I had no idea that this video existed!” I saw Pryor’s Chief Spokane Garry film on YouTube and wanted to know more about his filmmaking career. Pryor and I corresponded and he was kind enough to talk with me about his work in an interview available here: [Interview: Robert L. Pryor, A Pioneering Northwest Filmmaker (2017) - YouTube] (Interview: Robert L. Pryor, A Pioneering Northwest Filmmaker (2017) - YouTube)

With Pryor’s permission, I had five of his documentary films digtized by Jeff Tillotson at Lightpress www.lightpress.tv in Seattle in 2015. Pryor also agreed to allow me to post his films on YouTube. Tillotson’s explanation of film scanning and five of Pryor’s films are in this playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list… How to Digitize Vintage Films: Jeff Tillotson Talks 16mm Film Scanning at Lightpress in Seattle https://youtu.be/ecRBf9DwaXI Chief Spokane Garry: Indian of the Northwest, 1966, 23 min http://youtu.be/BW2rs3IVaqI Utilizing Fresh Water Resources: The Columbia River, 1968, 14 min http://youtu.be/_gJ6TMBIJpQ Spokane: The First 100 Years, 1969, 26 min http://youtu.be/Faw7XG1DC3o The Spokane River, 1970, 17 min http://youtu.be/du6pHo3EHYA Aqua Summer [Priest Lake, Idaho], 1973, 14 min https://youtu.be/zxt_dkXqWhw

Pryor and I are still looking for a copy of his final film Nez Perce: Bring Us the Black Book. If you know where this film is, then please send me a note because we would love to borrow the film and have it copied at Lightpress. During his career, Pryor produced films with his company Northwest Film Productions and with the Instructional Materials Service of Spokane Public Schools. He worked with film editor Robert. C. Horn of Crown Film Co., artist Patricia Christensen who worked in Pryor’s Instructional Media department, narrator Stanley G. Witter Jr. of KREM TV and radio, photographer William J. Benish, and Alpha Cine Lab of Spokane.

In his film titles, he acknowledged a veritable who’s-who of Spokane: Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane Public Library, Washington Water Power Company, KREM television, Lincoln First Federal Savings and Loan, Washington State Historical Society, E.T. Becher, John R. Rogers High School, and Northern Pacific Railroad. Pryor’s films should interest scholars because they tell the story of Washington and are a time capsule that show what the state looked like when he created his films. The documentaries should also interest film students because they are a sampler of 16mm filmmaking techniques: time lapse, slow motion, night photography, macro photography, sliding shots, and traditional title art. I am grateful to Pryor for giving me the opportunity to see his films and excited to have his permission to share them with people interested in Spokane’s history and the legacy of filmmaking in the northwest. Lee O’Connor