Mary Owen and Kenneth Mitchell letters to Donna

Mary Owen, Donna Reed’s daughter, looks at WWII service pictures of Kenneth Mitchell, who came to town with his son, Brian, in June 2009. Mitchell was one of hundreds of servicemen who corresponded with Donna Reed during WWII. Letters to Reed from soldiers, like Mitchell, formed the basis for a play, “Dear Donna." File photo by Gordon Wolf

In 1981, Mike Zahs, of Washington, Iowa, found 130 cellulose nitrate films in the basement of an old Iowa farmhouse.

Cellulose nitrate is the plastic medium used for motion picture production from the early 1900s until the early 1950s.

Nitrate-based films are unstable and deteriorate in temperatures above 70°F and humidity greater than 50 percent, which is why many films from the early years of the last century simply disappeared.

Zahs’s discovery came from the estate of Frank and Indiana Brinton.

Director/editor Tommy Haines, director/producer Andrew Sherburne and director of photography John Richard set themselves to chronicling Zahs’s discoveries. Their efforts became the film “Saving Brinton.”

Mary Owen, daughter of Donna Reed and a member of the Donna Reed Foundation Board of Directors, was introduced to the film more than a year ago when she was invited by Liz Gilman to see it at a New York film festival.

Gilman is the executive producer at Produce Iowa, which is the official state office of media production.

“I fell in love with the movie,” Owen said.

She loved the Iowa setting because of her connection to the state through her mother.

Owen met Zahs and the filmmakers at the festival screening.

“I fell in love with Mike (Zahs) and his integrity,” she said. “He seems like the kind of person I also associate with folks from Iowa: curious and interesting and knowledgeable about the past.”

Zahs discovered films from the late 1890s and early 1900s from early filmmakers such as Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès.

Some of the films had been thought to be lost forever.

Owen said she didn’t know anything about the film before she saw it.

“I had no idea about the story,” she said. “I think that’s the beauty of a great documentary – when you learn something exciting that you didn’t even know about.”

Frank Brinton was a showman who traveled from Texas to Minnesota to present films, slides and other forms of entertainment from 1895 to 1909.

His company, The Brinton Entertainment Co., was based in Washington, Iowa, where he managed the Graham Opera House, which still shows films today.

Brinton died in 1919 and his collection was forgotten until Zahs discovered it.

“He stumbled upon this collection and I don’t think he really knew what he had,” Owen said. “He just bought it.”

The films total about five hours of material and include rare footage of President Teddy Roosevelt and the first moving images from Burma, now known as Myanmar.

Owen asked the producers to bring the film to Denison when she first saw it, but the timing did not work out until this summer.

“I’m coming to Denison to take care of some business and work in the (Donna Reed Foundation) archives in July, so I contacted Andrew, the director, to see if they would be available to do a screening because it’s still in the back of my mind,” she said.

Sherburne and Zahs will attend the screening.

Zahs is familiar with Denison and has given tours of Donna Reed’s family farm, Owen said.

“I feel like Mike (Zahs) knows everything about everything,” she said.

The screening of “Saving Brinton” will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 18, at the Donna Reed Theater.

Tickets are $5.

“I hope we get a good crowd because it’s really an incredible movie and it’s always better to see it on the big screen,” Owen said.

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