The film comes from 1957, so the colors look elemental and crayon bright. The music is jouncy and insistent, like something you’d hear in an old-time Friendly’s Restaurant. The men wear neckties and smoke, pretty much no matter where they are or what they’re doing. In spirit, the movie is late-Eisenhower through and through. And so far as the Vineyard is concerned, it’s also a film of importance, offering us our first known motion pictures of the Island shot in color from the sky. A year ago, the Gazette began a project called Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard, an effort to find films of all sorts — home movies, commercial films, documentaries — that feature the Vineyard of long ago. Working with experts in the field, the paper helps owners transfer their films to digital files and keeps a copy for itself. The Gazette then researches what the films show of Martha’s Vineyard back in the day and presents clips and stories to readers and visitors to its website (mvgazette.com/historical-films).
The footage the Gazette posts this morning is a collection of outtakes from a commercial movie produced in 1957 by the Piper Aircraft Company. It’s called Wings for Beginners, and it’s the fourth historic Island film the paper has introduced to the public since last October. Many more films — some dating back to the middle 1920s — will be posted to the Gazette website in the coming weeks and months.
Piper Aircraft produced the Wings for Beginners series after World War II to encourage businessmen around the country to learn to fly so that they could run their companies more efficiently and competitively. The series underscored how easy it was for an entrepreneur to earn his pilot’s license while he also ran his business, and it promoted new types of Piper airplanes, such as the Tri-Pacer, which the Vineyard production features.
“Gramps loved Tri-Pacers,” said Mike Creato, who manages the Katama Airfield, where much of the Island version of Wings for Beginners was shot. He watched the movie recently with his brother, Tim, both of Edgartown. Their grandfather, Stephen C. Gentle, owned the airfield in those days, and he appears in the film as a real-life charter pilot and flight test official.
“He said you could fill [Tri-Pacers] up with as much as you could get in them and they’d fly. They had a fat wing, typical Piper, very safe, easy,” Mike said. “The way they were going in those days was to try to make [flying] more like driving — simple, basic, standardized.” Tri-Pacers from that period had basic flight instruments still recognizable to pilots today.
“They all had ashtrays in them, too,” Mike said. “They don’t any more.”
Both the outtakes and full-length Wings for Beginners movie, which runs 26.5 minutes, came to the Gazette from Mike and Tim Creato. It was transferred to a digital file by Art Donahue, an expert from Franklin, and edited for presentation on the website by John Wilson of Edgartown.
In the movie the Vineyard businessman supposedly learning to fly from the Katama Airfield is the late Arthur Young, who in those days was managing the Harborside Inn in Edgartown for his father in law, Leo J. Convery. The idea was that if Mr. Young knew how to fly, he could travel to his mainland suppliers much more quickly than by ferry and car, thereby meeting the needs of his guests more effectively. (In fact, Mr. Young had earned his wings long before at the V-5 Naval Aviation program during World War II.)
A crisis sets Wings for Beginners in motion: Mr. Convery and Mr. Young, sitting by the pool at the Harborside Inn, learn that they need a hundred pounds of steak to feed their guests at dinner that night. With Mr. Gentle of the Katama Airfield, Mr. Young flies to Boston, picks up the beef, and returns to the inn in time for supper. Along the way, Mr. Gentle persuades Mr. Young to take the wheel. He loves it, soon begins flying lessons, and much of the rest of the movie shows how easy it is for a businessman to get his private pilot’s license — in a Piper aircraft, of course.
The scenes presented on the Gazette website this morning are either outtakes from the Wings for Beginners movie or test shots made before shooting actually began. Unlike Wings for Beginners, the outtakes are silent and shakier than the principal photography, directed by Theodore Ward.
But the outtakes concentrate on scenes actually shot above the Island, including the airfield — a grass strip established on the plains of Katama in 1924 and are still an airfield and conservation area that pilots and visitors love today. They also show the first known color movies from aloft of South Beach, Chappaquiddick, Edgartown harbor, the lighthouse and Starbuck Neck.
To watch the outtakes, as well as the aerial scenes from the longer Wings for Beginners movie, is to look down on a Vineyard both radically changed and surprisingly and gratifyingly the same 56 years later.
In the outtake footage, we fly over the seaside plains of Katama, a prairie still unbroken by houses along Atlantic Drive. Likewise above Chappaquiddick, where the summit of Manaca Hill, as well as the inner harbor shoreline and the point opposite town, moves across the screen in a wide open, almost uninterrupted canvas of green and beach yellow. The landscape is mostly grassy rather than wooded.
On Chappy and the Vineyard, the shoreline itself shows evidence of enormous, irrecoverable change. South of the herring creek at Katama, a glimpse of the beach shows that it extends hundreds of feet farther south into the Atlantic than it does today — acreage forever lost to the rising sea since then.
At the Edgartown light, the stone walkway from North Water street to the lighthouse, built just after World War II, was already trapping a good deal of sand at the harbor entrance, filling in what had been an vast expanse of shoal water up to that point.
But when Wings for Beginners and these outtakes were filmed in 1957, it was still possible to jump from the concrete foundation of the lighthouse into the outer harbor. The walkway continues to trap sand today, and now more than 400 feet of beach hooks broadly from the lighthouse foundation into the harbor channel, cutting the width of the entrance by about half.
One thing along the Atlantic coastline looks familiar: Just like today, an opening cuts through that part of South Beach known as Norton Point, severing Chappaquiddick from the rest of the Vineyard and making Chappy an island on its own. A storm broke through the beach during the night of Feb. 15-16, 1953, and we see that inlet, with the suggestion of a tide streaming south from Katama Bay to the ocean, well to the west of the opening we know now. The 1953 opening closed in 1969. A storm created the present-day opening in 2007. From the sky, Edgartown and the harbor of 1957 look much the same as well. Whereas many villages up and down the east coast have long since given over their waterfronts to homogenizing marinas, malls, condominiums and high-rise hotels, thanks to visionaries and hard work, Edgartown looks almost unchanged. Those who saw this footage more than half a century ago would immediately recognize the cheery jumble of houses and stores along the harborfront in 2013, as well as its assorted landmarks, wharves and piers. As with Wings for Beginners, the outtakes end with a return flight to the Katama Airfield, then, as now, a landscape that looks improbably like Kansas.
“Katama wouldn’t be Katama if the airport wasn’t there, and if Katama Farm wasn’t there,” said Tim Creato after watching the full-length film with his brother. “Those three areas out there — the Herring Creek area, the airfield and Katama Farm just keep that plain open. But mostly the airport, I think. It’s right in the middle.”
Without it, he added, Katama “definitely would not have the same feel.”
The writer thanks Steven E. Gentle, Leo and Alison Convery and Dorothy and Stanley Abelson for their help researching the movie, outtakes and story. Those who want to contribute old Island films to the Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project, or who have questions or comments about it, should contact Tom Dunlop at firstname.lastname@example.org.