The first time I talked to Stephen Parr, it felt like a test. I’d been referred to him as a lead to hard-to-find footage of the Velvet Underground while researching films for a book on the group. At our first meeting, Parr asked me whether it was true that noted avant-garde filmmaker/musician Tony Conrad had been an original member. I had to explain at some length that this wasn’t the case, though Conrad had indeed played with John Cale and Lou Reed before the Velvets formed. My explanation wasn’t enough for Parr, who proceeded to jab me with questions and make me justify myself.
Satisfied after several minutes that I did indeed know my Velvet Underground, he went to some lengths to help me view rare footage of the group through contacts at the Andy Warhol museum. Several years after that, he invited me to give a Velvet Underground film night of sorts at his small funky theater of sorts at the Oddball Films archive, near Capp and 18th Streets in the Mission. I presented several other screenings of rare rock films at Oddball over the past few years, and on multiple occasions I witnessed Stephen’s generally pessimistic view give way to fanboy enthusiasm when lights dimmed and the show got underway.
The last time I saw him this spring, he had no apparent physical problems, so it came as a shock to myself and the entire Bay Area film community when he died Oct. 24 at 63 years old. According to those close to him, Parr died from complications related to Parkinson’s disease.
For the past three decades or so, Parr ran Oddball Films and its massive archive that preserved the kind of footage most other film repositories overlook or even disdain. Educational shorts, industrial movies and early punk performances all found a home at Oddball. He even collected actual home movies, all obtained during “home movie days” when the originals would be given to the archive in exchange for higher-tech copies. Clients who licensed footage ranged from mainstream media corporations like ABC, HBO, and MTV to independent filmmakers struggling to complete their first feature.
“Steve was down with the underground. There were people approaching him that were advertising agencies, and he would charge them a good amount of money. There were other people who approached him who were, like, some independent filmmaker who lived in the Mission and didn’t really have any money, and he’d work with that,” said filmmaker Sam Green.
Green used some of Oddball’s footage in The Weather Underground, his acclaimed documentary on radical activists the Weathermen. “Steve understood that there were artists were making art, and they didn’t necessarily have the budgets of the ad agencies,” he said.
And while Parr could be prickly while you were getting to know him, those who worked with Oddball stress that once he was convinced of the worthiness of your enterprise, he’d go to great lengths to help.
“It is a crazy thing to do, film collecting. And there are generally only dribs and drabs of revenue that come in. Without him handling my footage I never would have been able to get it out into the world like that,” director and LGBT film historian Jenni Olson said. Olson’s collection of vintage trailers and 16mm/35mm prints was stored, transferred, and licensed by Oddball.
“Thanks to Stephen and his colleagues at Oddball — especially Robert Chehoski — my footage was licensed for dozens of documentaries, including films like I Am Divine, After Stonewall, The Battle of AmFAR, and Regarding Susan Sontag.”
At Oddball, “you never knew what excitement was gonna get thrown at you” during a regular day, said Chehoski, who worked with Parr as Oddball’s project director for 13 years, beginning in 1998. Chehoski handled licensing and client requests — “the business stuff” as Chehoski called it — so Parr could concentrate on collecting.
“What made Stephen tick was collecting,” Chehoski said. “He was so skilled at obtaining that kind of stuff because he was relentless. He would literally haunt people until he got what he wanted.”
The thousands of reels of films at Oddball — stacked on dozens of shelves, rising dozens of feet high — formed aisles you walked through when attending Parr’s periodic screenings at the archive’s Capp Street headquarters. It was those same reels that Parr mined for the screenings at Oddball, which showcased the simultaneously eclectic and obscure. They ranged from new work by local filmmakers to vintage Asian-American rock performances.
“His film screenings were the playful side of Stephen,” Chehoski said.
The Bay Area is blessed with several venues showing offbeat films, but arguably none could compare with Oddball what had to offer. And though plenty of Oddball’s films could send those with conservative tastes running for the hills, not everything Parr showed was sexy or shocking. For example, for one of my rare rock clip nights, he unearthed excerpts from the forgotten 1970 TV series Something Else, which showed the singer Melanie and political folksinger Phil Ochs miming in impossibly industrial settings.
“Stephen had a great affection for the most unusual vintage films and footage — both obviously appealing campy things, but also materials that were deceptively mundane but deserved our attention,” Olson said.
Chehoski said it was when he showed those films that folks saw the best side of Parr.
“The first time I saw him onstage, talking about some films he was gonna show, he was so articulate and so well spoken, he just captivated everybody,” Chehoski said. “When he was in his element and it was something that he loved, he was incredible.”