Cesar Romero, still in his Joker makeup, smokes a cigarette while he chats with a reporter during the 1966 Austin premiere of Batman. A young, lushly sideburned George W. Bush gives an interview to a Midland TV station in 1980 in which he gushes about his dad’s recent vice-presidential nomination. In Dallas, an exhausted-sounding mother discusses her toddler’s mania for Barney the dinosaur. Clad in a canary-yellow turtleneck, American Bandstand host Dick Clark sits before a roaring fire, ladling hot Dr Pepper out of a punch bowl in a 1968 ad. A chorus from Houston’s West University Baptist Church sings a joyous ode to senior citizens, bursting into a refrain played on kazoos


TURN ON THE SOUND! For your Sunday morning choir break, watch this 1982 episode of “Set the Echoes Ringing” from @KHOU11 in Houston. It features the Prime Time Singers of West University Baptist Church. The senior choir performs their musical “Count On Us,”… complete with KAZOOS!

♬ original sound – Texas Archive

These moments are the very definition of ephemera—cultural objects of fleeting curiosity and debatable significance, captured for local newscasts or by amateurs playing around with retail cameras. Most of this footage spent decades languishing on decaying film stock or unlabeled VHS tapes stashed in closets. But since 2002, they’ve been collected, cataloged, and given new, digital life by the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, the Austin-based nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Texas’s vast film heritage, as generously as one can define it. 

Founded by University of Texas at Austin professor Caroline Frick, TAMI accepts submissions of just about any kind of film from all across the state, everything from silent-era shorts to grainy fifties home movies, industrial documentaries to bizarro commercials from the sixties, seventies, and eighties. It then digitizes these for a small fee—or even for free during its annual Texas Film Round-Up program, which returns in October—with the only stipulation being that the archive then retains a copy. Over the years, that collection has grown to upwards of 50,000 videos, while the archive’s website has become an indispensable resource for enthusiasts of Texas history. It’s also one hell of a way to waste an hour or two. More recently, the archive has become something else: one of the absolute best follows on TikTok. 

Much of this viral success can be credited to Elizabeth Hansen, TAMI’s managing director, who joined the archive full-time in February of 2020 and immediately began looking at new ways to expand its community outreach. Unfortunately, the start of Hansen’s tenure coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19. So, like many others who found themselves suddenly trapped inside, struggling to connect, Hansen turned to TikTok, the short-form video-based social media site that became massively popular during those early, lonely days of the pandemic.   

“The first time I looked at TikTok, I saw there was a museum that was doing snail jokes,” Hansen recalls. “I was like, oh, that doesn’t really work for us. We’re archivists. We don’t really like being in front of the camera. Then I went to a webinar about TikTok where they were talking about dancing. And I thought, well, we’ve got all these silent movies of people dancing . . .”

That May, Hansen launched the archive’s official TikTok account with a short clip culled from a 1996 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders audition, setting footage of dozens of ladies with gloriously teased tresses (and a couple of men boasting some truly regrettable Billy Ray Cyrus mullets) dancing and gyrating to Valentino Khan’s 2017 single “Pump.” From those modest beginnings, @TexasArchive has grown exponentially, racking up more than 56,000 followers in just over two years and nearly doubling traffic to the website. It’s also been a fund-raising boon: last year, TAMI pulled in $60,000 to buy a new, top-of-the-line 5K film scanner, largely thanks to that devoted social media following. “I don’t think we could have raised that money in that little time five years ago,” Hansen says. Today, the archive’s TikTok averages thousands of plays per video, with frequent viral hits that net hundreds of thousands—not bad for an account that doesn’t feature pranks or elaborate choreography.

At one point, Hansen says, TAMI’s account became so popular that it ran afoul of TikTok’s rules outlawing the use of commercial music by big businesses and established brands. So she pivoted to another tried-and-true TikTok subject: celebrities. Hansen began sharing clips of movie stars such as Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger being interviewed on local news shows, as well as vintage, often-silent footage of classic bands passing through venues such as Dallas’s Cotton Bowl or the Houston rodeo. “Fleetwood Mac getting off of an airplane in Dallas I think gained us twenty thousand followers,” Hansen says.

The account posts as many as four times per day, an effort that is largely spearheaded by TAMI’s recently installed communications contractor, Sarah Walters, who joined in May. To keep up with demand, Walters maintains a running list of videos that stand out to the archive’s small, insular staff. She then looks for topical hooks, picking clips to run alongside news of celebrity birthdays (or deaths), historical anniversaries, or other current events. She’s ably supported in this by archive curator Katharine Austin, who personally puts eyes on nearly every video that goes through the digitization process, then keeps them all organized in a searchable database. Whenever Willie Nelson comes up, for example—and when doesn’t he?—all Walters has to do is plug in Willie’s name to find a treasure trove of footage. Together they’ve turned TAMI’s social media presence into one of the most reliably bright spots in your feed. 

But the archive supplies more than just entertaining filler. Through regular series such as “Ask an Archivist,” which users quickly commandeered to request footage of their own hometowns, it also provides Texans with a deeper understanding of their communities. Among TAMI’s most-played clips after Fleetwood Mac are an industrial video from 1946 that shows off the Abilene skyline and a 1960s newsreel filmed in New Braunfels, where vendors in lederhosen and dirndls sling sausage at the annual WurstFest.

“It’s funny, because you wouldn’t think that TikTok is a place for nostalgia,” Hansen says. “You would assume that it’s mostly just younger people. But the Huntsville Prison Rodeo is one of our most popular TikToks because the people who watched it actually went to it when they were kids. People just love to see what their communities once looked like, because Texas is changing so much all the time.” 

There’s also TAMI’s live monthly “Archive Dive” series on Facebook and YouTube where Austin talks with the owners and subjects of some of the particularly notable collections from the vault. The next episode, streaming August 30 at 6 p.m., will feature Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and veteran TV director Viet Nguyen revisiting Scope, the nineties-era Channel One news show that Nguyen and his classmates at Austin’s Reagan High School made under Thomas’s guidance. These more investigative efforts help fulfill TAMI’s overarching mission of not only providing Texans with a greater appreciation of their state but also making them savvier about how Texas has been documented and portrayed. 

“We’re called the Texas Archive, and we definitely have stuff that’s related to the Texas history you learned in school—oil wells and cowboys and things like that,” Hansen says. “But we take a really broad view on Texas. And a lot of us are from media backgrounds, so we’re really interested in how media is made. It’s something that we don’t talk about enough, media literacy. To see how the sausage is made, it’s something that helps us understand the media that we consume.”  

Arguably, the main appeal of the feed is the stuff that defies understanding—things like the 1914 footage of W.A. King, “The Snake King of Brownsville,” as he tosses rattlers into a bag before a rapt Gulf Coast audience. Or the 1978 film produced for the marketing team of the Dallas-based Taylor Wines, in which two robots named “Metal Man and Shorty,” who are clearly lawsuit-baiting ripoffs of Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2-D2, cavort to disco music alongside a leggy blonde.


Reply to @letterpress_mechanic Also this #wine merchandising #film shot in #Dallas 1978. #MetalMan and #Shorty = #c3po and r2d2. #Starwars

♬ original sound – Texas Archive

Hansen gravitates toward these less polished industrial films, which starred nonactors and were often produced in-house by amateur filmmakers, such as one instructing the wives of Texas oilmen on how to assimilate in Saudi Arabia. Owing to Walters’s background in TV news, she has a soft spot for the cheesy opening credits and crude chyrons of the local “Action News” casts of the eighties. Like me, she’s especially fond of Roy Faires, the former entertainment critic for Austin’s KVUE news, who interviewed seemingly every movie star of the eighties and nineties, while putting together report packages that bordered on the avant-garde. My favorite finds Faires standing next to a duck pond, complaining that the star of 1986’s Howard the Duck simply isn’t believable as “a real, live duck.”

Still, while Hansen cops to being a fan of schadenfreude-exploiting found-footage festivals like Everything Is Terrible!, she’s quick to reiterate the spirit of the archive. “Sometimes that stuff can be ‘laugh at,’” she explains. “We really try not to be ‘laugh at.’ You know, Roy Faires had a serious career, and we’re excited about sharing it. And I think it’s inherently educational.”

“We’re learning new stuff all the time, which is part of the reason this job stays interesting,” Walters agrees, saying that watching these clips regularly sends the entire staff down rabbit holes and into the underbellies of Texas history, much as it will for you. “We’re like, ‘let me google that,’ and all of a sudden an hour and a half has gone by.”