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‘The Lost Angle,’ premiering at Gig Harbor Film Festival, shows bridge collapse as you’ve never seen it

Posted on September 18th, 2023 By:

If you grew up in Western Washington, or even just lived here for a good stretch of time, you probably think you already know practically everything about the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  

A short documentary premiering at this week’s Gig Harbor Film Festival could prove you wrong. 

The 11-minute film, called “The Lost Angle,” shows the bridge collapse from a point of view that had never been made public before. And it all came about because Spencer Ries of Tacoma has an unusual hobby – more about that in a moment. 

Footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, as seen in “The Lost Angle.”

Festival details 

The festival runs Thursday, Sept. 21, through Sunday, Sept. 24, at Galaxy Theatres Uptown in Gig Harbor. “The Lost Angle” plays along with “East of the Mountains” on opening night, starting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21. The star of “East of the Mountains,” veteran actor Tom Skerritt, will be on hand to discuss the film. 

“Lost Angle” plays again at 1:55 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22, and at 5:10 Saturday, Sept. 23. It is part of the festival’s Made in Washington block of short films produced in the state.

Executive Producer Heath Hollensbe of the Meraki Agency will be on hand to answer questions about the documentary on Friday and Saturday. 

General admission tickets for the festival are available at the Galaxy box office, though VIP passes are sold out. Click here to see the program for the festival.

Finding the Lost Angle footage

Most people have an oddball hobby or two. For Ries, it’s hitting up estate sales. And specifically, looking for old film reels.

“When I find old reels of film, I try to buy those,” Ries said. “There’s usually something interesting on them. Someone held on to it for a reason.”

One afternoon in 2016, Ries dropped in on an estate sale in Tacoma. He spotted a box of old 8-millimeter film reels and bought it for a couple bucks.

One reel appeared to show the Narrows Bridge collapse, but that wouldn’t be a big find all by itself. A camera shop in Tacoma sold copies of the most famous footage of the collapse shortly after it happened.

Spencer Ries spools up some film in a moment from “The Lost Angle.”

Later, Ries realized that he may have something different on his hands. In extensive online searches, the then 16-year-old couldn’t find the exact footage he just purchased.

He thought to himself: “There’s no way that I just found a new angle. That’s ridiculous.” 

Footage comes to light 

In January 2022, Ries found himself in a casual conversation with Sara Kay and Sierra Hartman of Grit City Magazine at a Tacoma Night Market. They were discussing pieces of Tacoma memorabilia when a lightbulb came on in Ries’ head. He told them about the footage he stumbled on at an estate sale more than five years earlier.

“They both look at me, and they’re like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that when you first met us?” Ries said. “I think I just kind of didn’t remember. It had been a couple years since I even pulled it out of a box and looked at it.”

Grit City is a quarterly print magazine that chronicles the people, history and quirks of Tacoma. Lost footage of the Narrows Bridge collapse was catnip to its owners and editors.

The magazine eventually published an extensive story and print spread about the footage. But not before Hartman dove deep into some rabbit holes as he attempted to determine who shot the footage, and from where.

The moment the Narrows Bridge starts to collapse, as seen in “The Lost Angle.”

Jackson and 13th 

“I spent a couple months on this,” Hartman said. “The reel itself had no identifying information. It was like a bluish box and there was a serial number on it. No names or anything. 

The research left Hartman pretty confident the footage was shot from the vicinity of what’s now Jackson Avenue and North 13th Street in Tacoma, just a couple blocks north of Highway 16. 

And while he can’t prove it definitively, Hartman is pretty confident that the cameraman was Abbot C. Read, a commercial photographer in Tacoma in the 1940s. The estate sale where Ries found the footage was at the former home of Read’s daughter in law. 

Making “The Lost Angle” 

Grit City’s magazine story was incredibly detailed and the print layout was visually striking. But Hartman knew that to fully tell the story of lost bridge collapse footage, he needed to use a different medium. 

Grit City connected with Hollensbe’s Meraki Agency, which produces marketing and other videos, to make the short documentary. The finished product is a collaboration between Grit City, Meraki and Travel Tacoma. 

Sierra Hartman discusses the footage in “The Lost Angle.”

Hollensbe produced a film that incorporates the story of the lost footage, along with numerous other factoids that may put the lie to that idea that everybody already knows everything about Galloping Gertie. 

Like that, in the months before the collapse, people used to drive across the bridge for fun. It was like a “free roller coaster,” narrator Chris Staudinger says in “The Lost Angle.” 

And not everybody knows that local governments issue an advisory for the day the bridge collapsed, urging people to avoid the bridge altogether. 

Or that the University of Washington had already figured out how to stabilize the bridge and prevent its collapse. 

“It would’ve cost $16,000 to fix it” in 1940, Hollensbe said. “The state said, no way, that’s too expensive. I joke that however many years later, we’re still trying to fix it.”