Dick Gollin’s Story

Towards the end of his career Professor Richard Gollin was asked by a member of the University of Rochester’s Interdepartmental Studies Committee to define his subject matter. By that time, his department was graduating 10-15 seniors each year while offering a dozen or more courses. He had finally written what he called “the text book I always wanted to teach the introductory course from.”  Although his early focus had been on poetry from the Victorian Period, his answer described a visual art form that had emerged at the tail end of that era—just before the turn of the 20th Century.

“If it is an image that moves inside of a rectangle, we study it.”

The committee was looking for insight into why the Film Studies department he had created 15 years before had experienced the success and sustainability that many other attempts at collaboration between departments at the school had failed to achieve. Dick had a passion for film going all the way back to his days as a high school student at Brooklyn Tech. During that time, he and a classmate would often skip their final class of the day and head to Manhattan to the Museum of Modern Art to catch showings of silent films. However, as he developed the framework of the Film Studies program in the mid-1970s, he realized that not everyone shared the passion he had for his subject matter. “Movies are the dramas in definitive production,” he says. “But at that time, films were thought of as middle-brow, which is to say they were not to be considered at all.” With that reality in mind, he knew developing partnerships was the way to make it all work.

Dick Gollin—now a resident of Brickstone by St. John’s along with his wife Rita—applied for and received a significant grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)to create what is today known as the Film and Media Studies Department at the University of Rochester. He had previously contended in a published article that while the study of film did face a perception problem, what he proposed was not much different than what students were already learning. “When we think we’re teaching the plays of Shakespeare in the English department, we’re not. We’re teaching the scripts.” It was with a mindset that the study of film draws relevant parallels from a variety of other disciplines that Dick successfully developed working relationships with the departments of History, Comparative Literature, Fine Art, and Religion and Classics.

Another collaboration that was critical to the success of the Film Studies department was with the world renowned George Eastman Museum. In particular, Dick’s relationship with the museum’s founding curator James Card provided his program with “some early respectability as it was getting started.”  Card came to Rochester in 1948 and his personal collection became the foundation of the museum’s film archives. Many people found it difficult to get close to the temperamental Card, but Dick gained his trust over time. As a result, his students were able to view films from the museum’s collection as part of their studies, typically at the Dryden Theater. Both Card and his assistant George Pratt added further legitimacy to the program by becoming adjunct professors and teaching film courses.

At the same time, the archive of films and scripts Dick was building for the University was becoming an impressive collection in its own right. In the initial National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, he included funds for acquiring films for student viewing purposes. He worked with private collectors to purchase dozens of films—first in 16mm format—which he would show in one of a half dozen viewing rooms he had developed adjacent to his department’s offices on  the top floor of the University library. As the rise of VHS tapes made films a bit more accessible, his collection continued to grow. “At the time of my retirement, we had built up a very respectable collection of two or three thousand films.”

Dick gave up his role as head of the department he created in 1992, but stayed on for three more years as a professor. Following his retirement, he found that he still had ideas and opinions about different directions the department could go in.  “But I realized that this wasn’t my baby anymore and I gave up my involvement in the program cold turkey.”

Despite being away in an official capacity, his fever for the art form has not relinquished.  In fact, prior to Card’s death in 2000, Dick was one of the select few who received an invitation from him to participate in a truly unique viewing experience. “Card had property in Bristol where he converted an old hen house into a screening room,” remembers Dick. “He held viewings of rare films of some considerable historical or artistic significance.” It was here that Dick hobnobbed with preservationists and even industry elites. Among those Dick met during these screenings were the musical-comedy duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The Gollins moved to Brickstone in 2012. “We have been here from the beginning,” he explains. “We had a fairly large house just north of 12 corners (in Brighton). The kids got together and decided to put a down payment on one of the bungalows.” Rita retired from a distinguished career of her own as a college professor and also penned several published works on Nathaniel Hawthorne.   Together, the couple enjoys life in a community popular among retired educators from throughout the area. Dick even came out of retirement for one night to give a presentation to fellow residents on comics of silent films as part of the “Coffee House Series.”

In retirement, Dick remains an avid film connoisseur.  While his trips to the cinema have declined to a small handful of films per month, he remains an expert in an art form that has grown in significance since he suggested it was worthy of further introspection, analysis, and critique.

Dick Gollin’s name will forever remain synonymous with the study of film in Rochester. Since 2006, a student film festival bearing his name has been held at the University each May.