Wake County

This A/V geek is behind Alamo Drafthouse coming to Raleigh

Skip Elsheimer, the founder of A/V Geeks, inspects a reel of film in his vast collection at his home on Thursday in Raleigh. Elsheimer has more than 24,000 educational 16mm films in his collection.
Skip Elsheimer, the founder of A/V Geeks, inspects a reel of film in his vast collection at his home on Thursday in Raleigh. Elsheimer has more than 24,000 educational 16mm films in his collection. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Skip Elsheimer first started showing movies as an N.C. State University undergraduate, playing obscure VHS tapes – a favorite was called “It’s Potty Time” – at parties.

These days, Elsheimer is nationally known for his collection of 25,000 16-millimeter films, mostly of the educational type that were a staple of U.S. classrooms for decades, teaching about everything from hand-washing to the Cold War nuclear threat.

As head of A/V Geeks, Elsheimer shares his films with audiences across the country. Locally, he holds themed film showings regularly at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and King’s Barcade, and helps host the annual Home Movie Day that was recognized with a city declaration in 2015.

Now he hopes to recruit even more people to the world of film at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an Austin-based business that will be opening in the Longview Shopping Center on New Bern Avenue later this year.

Elsheimer helped bring the business to Raleigh, and plans to develop programming at the 11-screen theater that will also have a restaurant and bar. The theater will show smaller independent and foreign films, and host events exposing its audience to a wide variety of offerings, including some from A/V Geeks.

“This is a major cultural gift and a boon to Raleigh,” says Marsha Gordon, a professor of film studies at N.C. State. “The kinds of films that will be shown there is going to raise the bar substantially and hopefully inspire a love for film in a new generation.”

Gordon worked with Elsheimer to get a film from his collection on the Library of Congress National Film Register two years ago. She says he is well-known nationally as a film collector whose unique collection benefits researchers and the public.

“He’s incredibly generous and sharing his material and encouraging them to be out in the world,” Gordon says. “He has consistently worked as an advocate for these film materials that frankly had been dismissed and discarded by too many other institutions and people.”

Saving films

A native of Pennsylvania who went to high school in Albemarle, Elsheimer came to Raleigh to study computer science at N.C. State, though he would later change his major to design.

He bought his first films while he was still a student, living with a group of like-minded creative types who produced a number of bands, performance art projects and other ventures from an apartment near campus.

He found the films and projection equipment at a school surplus auction in 1992. Over the next few years, he would travel across the state and beyond, buying films that might otherwise have been thrown away, largely from schools that needed to make space for a newer wave of educational technology: computers.

“Many times I would show up at a school to get films and there would be a box of computers and desks waiting to come into the room,” he says.

His largest haul was 3,000 films on one trip to Pennsylvania. His heyday for purchases was in the mid- to late 1990s, though he’s still collecting an average of a film a day, he says, often picking them up from teachers who had saved them from the trash bin years before.

He started showing them right away, first at a local gallery and later at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. He continued collecting and showing films after graduation in addition to jobs at a bookstore, a national AIDS hotline and a local software company.

A/V Geeks has been Elsheimer’s full-time job since about 2002. In addition to the viewings, the company digitizes video and film for clients. Lately, he’s started digitizing and selling some films as stock footage for documentaries and televisions shows.

Attracting Alamo

The scent of vinegar hovers in the East Raleigh home where A/V Geeks is based, a byproduct of aging acetate in some of its films. Several walls are filled with shelves of metal film cases. Squeezed between them is an impressive collection of devices representing the different technologies used to project films spanning decades.

He keeps a database of his films with all the information he can find on each, and views as many as he can, though he’s seen only a fraction of them.

His exciting find for the week is a film from the 1950s promoting UNC-TV. In a telling exchange, a TV repairman is talking about a Bible study on the station, to which his customer replies that he “didn’t know they had a Bible in Chapel Hill.”

It’s a subtle insult – and an early one – to the town that Jesse Helms and other conservative politicians would later make the butt of many jokes.

In 2015, he and Gordon succeeded in having the film “Felicia” added to the National Film Registry. It contains an interview with a young African-American girl in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1960s, before the riots that made the area infamous for racial violence.

“It’s in a lot of libraries, but no one had watched it since it came out,” says Elsheimer. “It captured something for this moment before everything went crazy, before people were paying attention to Watts because of what happened.”

He hopes that the new cinema will bring some of these hidden gems to light as well. Elsheimer had brought his films to the Alamo in Austin for years, often providing films to watch while people are arriving and ordering food before the featured film.

He also worked with them on a series of special events – showing boating safety films while on a boat, for instance, and viewing films on cafeteria manners while eating in a school cafeteria for a PTA fundraiser.

Elsheimer called the Alamo to see whether the company might want to move in when the Colony theater closed a few years ago, but the location was too small.

He offered to find another location and soon landed on the Longview Shopping Center. The theater will move into the empty space that once housed a Winn-Dixie, a set-up familiar to Alamo, which has opened other locations in former grocery stores.

With 11 screens, Alamo will be able to show a wide variety of films, from newer blockbusters, which could be shown in the two larger theaters, to lesser-known films and, of course, the kind of rare and obscure films that are Elsheimer’s specialty.

“Alamo is the next step, an extension of what I’ve been doing by taking something I really love and bringing it here,” he says. “ I think Raleigh is ready for it.”

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Skip Elsheimer

Born: October 1966, Pennsylvania

Residence: Raleigh

Career: Founder, A/V Geeks

Education: B.A. design, N.C. State University

Family: Wife Katrina

Fun Fact: A/V Geeks is named for the students who were charged with rolling the projector into class on movie days.