The Strange and Interesting Case of the Mystery Films

Thursday, December 2nd 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It could be just a nostalgic trip to great places such as Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Or an American history lesson from Valley Forge to the White House. But it might best be told as a love story with a mysterious ending.

In the 1940's, a man named George Rhoades owned a film camera, and he filmed many events during the years he met and married a woman named Betty Callahan. George and Betty took wonderful trips all over the country, at a time when not many people traveled very far or very often. They photographed their vacations on silent 8-millimeter film, which was carefully catalogued and packed away.

Decades later, three boxes of this film ended up at Tulsa's public television station OETA, but the identity of the man who left it there was lost and, with it, the story of whatever happened to George and Betty. For all the things we do know about George and Betty, and the things we can gather by watching their vacations, we don't know how the film canisters came to be in Tulsa because nothing from Oklahoma can be found on the films. In fact, we only know their names because they so carefully labeled their film.

We know they took pictures of some of America's great places at the best time of year: Williamsburg, Virginia just as the trees begin to turn in the fall; Utah in the winter when the skating rinks open, and Wyoming during rodeo season. And we know that George and Betty spent a lot of time in Washington, DC.

They were standing along the parade route as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was driven to his third inauguration, and again as a horse drawn caisson carried Roosevelt’s body to the Capitol for the last time. And we deduce from watching the films that George and Betty were in love. They certainly traveled to romantic places like Niagara Falls. Perhaps the trip was their honeymoon or an anniversary.

We only know about them what is evident from their vacations, so we showed their pictures to long-time traveler, Sid Heidler. "It was the affluent families that really took the trips,” remarked Heidler. “Now everyone can go to the Grand Canyon, but back then very few Americans had visited the Grand Canyon. They seemed he had a purpose in their trips. Maybe he just liked American history and wanted to see the national monuments throughout the country."

At every place, they stopped to get pictures of natural beauty. They went to Canada and photographed the daisies. They flew between the islands of Hawaii and, along with the typical tourist pictures, they stopped to see the sugar cane fields and flowers.

During their travels, they were often on the verge of history. They were at Pearl Harbor just before World War II began, filming the Pacific Fleet as it lay anchored in the harbor. They were in Washington just before the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial, and they happened to be outside the White House the day Roosevelt died.

George and Betty met lots of people along the way. A man and his prize horse in Arizona and the Smith family. They took their young daughter along on a Grand Canyon trip. She would be one of the few people seen in the films to be alive now. The last film is from Florida in 1953 with unidentified friends who surely know what happened to George and Betty.

We don't know what happened, or how they became separated from their vacation memories. We know that George wasn't ashamed of the American flag, and he loved a good parade. In Phoenix, it was a parade for the Navy. On New Years Day in 1941, he was at the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena. And in Boston, he watched a wartime parade of red, white and blue.

Perhaps when George and Betty traveled is a clue to the mystery film. "Apparently this man was traveling at those times he wasn't in the service,” noted Heidler. “Or he may have had a position in the government where he got to take these trips. But it is interesting. I would just love to know who they were."

Since George and Betty usually photographed each other, they appear together on the films only a few times. Perhaps their most valuable memory on film is a reel labeled, "Wedding Day." For someone, these films are family treasures, maybe even historic records. But they will only be valuable once the question is answered of what happened to the people in the mystery films.

*Editor's note: Be sure to see the second part of this story "Mystery Solved" to find out what happened to George and Betty.