Milan ’54 basketball ‘miracle’ film in jeopardy

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MILAN, Ind. (April 3, 2015)-- The images are literally fading before our eyes.

A skinny farm boy ironically named Bobby Plumb crosses over, crosses back, advances to the right side of the top of the key, jumps and lets loft a shot that scores nothing but net and propels the Milan High School 1954 Indians into Indiana basketball history as the David conquering that year's Goliath. Milan beat Muncie Central 32-30 to wear the state's high school basketball crown, become small town court heroes and launch a legend that a generation later won the hearts of Hollywood and moviegoers around the world in a surprise hit film called, appropriately, "Hoosiers."

And our only lasting vision of it is slowly disappearing.

"This probably has about two years before its going to be unprojectible or usable," said movie historian Eric Grayson, holding a stretch of film up to the light in the backroom behind the concession stand at Milan High School. "And the Terre Haute one has about six months."

Grayson loves old movies and restores long forgotten and fragile prints so that they might be viewed by fans for years to come, and he came to Milan at our invitation to meet Athletic Director John Prifogle who doesn't know anything about film but knew from the smell emanating from the canisters in his office that the contents within were falling apart.

"Six years ago I took over the job, went into the room, opened up the cabinets and there it was. I could smell it."

What Prifogle smelled was the vinegary-like scent of triacetate breaking down, risking the 61-year-old film of the championship game with disintegration.

"You know, I was afraid some day I would walk in and it would just be in pieces and we'd end up throwing it away because we had nothing to do," he said.

Grayson, who is an expert in such things, agreed.

"Well, I got good news for you," said the Indianapolis expert who spends his days digging through old theaters and dumpsters and garages looking for long forgotten celluloid to restore. "See this?" he said, bending the brittle film back and forth between his fingers. "That means I can work with this. If it started to go, 'Crack, crack, crack,' that means I can't work with that, but its not doing that, so this probably has a chance. It doesn't have a great chance, but it has a chance."

Grayson thinks there is an 85-95% chance the films can be saved.

Prifogle, speaking on behalf of the good people of Ripley County who have entrusted him with their basketball heritage, was thrilled to hear it wasn't too late.

"We're learning more from you right now than we've know."

FOX59 News discovered the game film, an original copy (not the original film which may be lost to the ages), while visiting Milan for a story about its museum dedicated to the '54 championship team.

An aged steel film canister, with a "Milan-Muncie Central" label on the rim, contains the historic movie that's been transferred and dubbed down to an almost unwatchable quality searchable on YouTube and the web.

"What they're really missing from 1954 is contrast, resolution and dynamic range of the original film," said Grayson. "What they're seeing in 2015 is they're seeing compression artifacts and blown out whites and things like that which is what we're all used to seeing on YouTube.

"You're missing probably 90% of the image detail when you look at it on your smart phone."

Since our trip to Milan, Grayson has found two more original prints in a vault at Indiana University and, depending on their quality, may have enough archive footage to edit together a semi-master print which will stand up for generations to come.

"What we can do is scan it high resolution and then we can drop it back to modern mylar film which is good for 450 years and then get you a print of it that looks better than what this does.

"This is HD plus quality, so you're looking at 1000 lines of quality. You'll be able to see people's faces in the stands, you'll be able to see the wood on the floor, things like that. This is going to have all kinds of quality that's not been seen for years.

"History's going to re-reveal itself."

A digital copy of the movie will be made and the restored film print will be housed at the Library of Congress with Milan High School's name on it for future reference.

Grayson estimates that it may cost up to $15,000 to restore the '54 championship game print and a print of the semi-final game between Milan and Terre Haute Gerstmeyer which is in much worse shape, the film taking on a wavy appearance and the soundtrack buckling.

Prifogle also has an original camera film of the 1954 Sectionals game the Indians won on their way to the Muncie Central showdown at the Butler Field House in Indianapolis.

Fans of the movie "Hoosiers" will remember the team from Hickory High School that Coach Gene Hackman led into what is now known as Hinkle Field House before the big game and the tape measure stunt that proved that the rims of the State Finals baskets were exactly ten feet above the floor just like the court the boys played on back home.

"Lets make sure that this is saved because this is a real piece of history and we're not going to see it again," said Grayson as he dropped bits of camphor into the film can and sealed history back up, waiting for the chemical to restore pliability to the print.

"I'm excited to see where we can go from here," said Prifogle, a Milan grad who left for college and came back home to the little town between the cornfields near Cincinnati to hand out basketballs, schedule games and maintain the sports tradition of today's Indians. "I mean anytime you can restore history and it deals with your school and your community, I think its a win- win.

"That's history. That's the game right there," he said. "You talk about Milan. You talk about Indiana basketball at any level, it all comes back to Milan 1954, and we're looking at it. When that's gone, the original game is lost. You know, we can talk about it but will we ever be able to really view the whole thing?

"That's 32 minutes of game film. We have 45 minutes so what are we going to find? Who else are we going to see in the crowd that someone might be going, 'Wow!' What were time outs like on that film? No one knows."

Within a year, Grayson said we may find out.

"This is fantastic. This is the kind of thing that we need more of. We need more people celebrating where we came from.

"Somebody said the other day, 'If you have no root, you have no fruit,' and that's a really great way of summing up. You've got to keep track of where your roots are. You've got to keep track of how things used to be."

Grayson has shown the movie "Hoosiers" to film fans in one of the historic small town high school gyms where cameras rolled in the 1980s.

"It was a perfect Hollywood story. Its got all the elements of drama in it. Its got that last second shot that clinches the whole thing. I mean, you want drama, its here."

In order to stay here, Grayson estimates he needs to get to work this summer.

If you want to help save Indiana and Milan’s basketball history on film, send donations to:

Milan High School

609 North Warpath Drive

Milan, Indiana  47031

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