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Not Much to Do

September 17, 2012

From the Executive Director...

Sometimes the making of a good story takes time--and not infrequently, an unlikely cast of characters to bring it to life.

The story behind the film “Not Much to Do” transcends both time and space, bringing together a Presbyterian minister serving an inner city parish; a university professor; a young graduate student; six Philadelphia boys ages 11-15; and last but not least, an archivist who discovered their story.

During the summer of 1966, in a time before video recorders and reality television, six boys became the subjects of a film about their own lives on the mean streets of Philadelphia. The idea for a film project began with the Reverend Bob Stoddard, a pastor at the Tabernacle Federated Church. Sol Worth, a professor in the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested to Stoddard that a “significant film might result simply by turning the children loose with a movie camera to take pictures depicting life as they saw it." Ben Achtenberg, a communications student, taught them how to operate a movie camera and edit film, instructing them to “start filming anything they wanted, with the idea of developing a story for their own movie.”

The film “Not Much to Do,” created in the manner Worth proposed, debuted in the fall of 1966. Though financed by a grant from the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, it was the efforts of the Tabernacle congregation that made the project possible. The film became a centerpiece for the congregation’s outreach efforts to their west Philadelphia community during a time of turbulence and transition. Fast forward forty-five years

In 2011, PHS Records Archivist David Staniunas “discovered” the film along with some newspaper clippings in a collection donated by the Reverend Stoddard. Staniunas and other PHS staff realized the film’s importance and decided to contact both Stoddard and Achtenberg about their interest in a public screening at PHS, perhaps followed by a panel discussion. Both Stoddard, now retired, and Achtenberg, a successful documentary filmmaker, were thrilled with the idea and agreed to be part of our efforts to share the film and its history with a wider audience.

On October 17, the Presbyterian Historical Society, in collaboration with Old Pine Street Church, will host a film screening and panel discussion of “Not Much to Do.” Learn more about the film and the event here.

Frederick J. Heuser, Ph.D.