Rare film of FDR walking unveiled

Footage donated to Pa. State Archives

HARRISBURG -- It was July 7, 1937, and Jimmie DeShong -- a native of Harrisburg and a pitcher for the Washington Senators baseball team -- was on the field at D.C.'s Griffith Stadium, filming players warming up before the All-Star Game, including baseball greats such as Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez and Hank Greenberg.

But DeShong's camera that day captured more than just baseball history -- he captured American history, filming a rare eight seconds of footage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been paralyzed from the waist down by polio in 1921, walking.

The film clip, donated by DeShong's daughter to the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, was unveiled at a news conference Thursday.

The footage is one of only a few known films of the 32nd president walking, said Bob Clark, deputy director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y..

FDR could not bend his knees, and to walk a few steps at a time he would essentially have to use his upper-body strength to throw his legs forward, Mr. Clark described.

"This [film] shows how difficult it was for him to get around," he said.

It depicts the four-term Democratic president haltingly walking up a ramp from the field to the stands, wearing leg braces and being assisted by another person. Roosevelt threw out the opening pitch at the game.

Now that it is in the collection of the State Archives, it will be available to presidential scholars, documentary filmmakers and others for research and viewing, said Pennsylvania first lady Susan Corbett, speaking at Thursday's event.

The footage will be used in an upcoming Ken Burns documentary "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," which will air on public television in September.

"We were thrilled with the discovery of a new piece of film footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt walking," the celebrated PBS filmmaker said in a statement. "Any film of him struggling to get from one place to another is extremely rare, as the Secret Service either prohibited or confiscated cameras whenever FDR was making an attempt to propel himself from his car to anywhere else."

The president had sought to minimize the public's knowledge of polio's devastating effect on his lower body, Mr. Burns said, and the news media in those days "complied with his request not to be filmed."

The clip will be used in episode four of the seven-part series, said Paul Barnes, a co-producer of the film.

When the film was discovered, the episode had already been completed, but the filmmakers re-edited the show to be able to include the footage in a sequence about FDR learning to walk again, he said.

"It was so extraordinary, we decided to take the time to include it," Mr. Barnes said.

Florentine Films, Mr. Burns' production company, cleaned, preserved and digitized the film from its 8 mm original format into a high-definition digital file at no cost to the state.

"This eight seconds enriches our series and helps deepen the American public's understanding of the strength and fortitude this badly disabled man brought to the task of seeing our country through two of the worst crises in our history -- the Depression and World War II," Mr. Burns' statement said.

Mike Savastio, DeShong's grandson, said he and his family were privileged to grow up surrounded by films and other memorabilia from DeShong's baseball career, during which he pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics, New York Yankees and Washington Senators.

"It's only fitting for the state, and for the people of Harrisburg, to have a chance to enjoy it," he said.

Jim Vaughan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, declined to place a monetary value on the film.

"In its own way, it's priceless," he said.

Kate Giammarise: kigammarise@post-gazette.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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