“Guess you could say I hoard,” said Tommy José Stathes as he maneuvered around the shelves of his storage unit. Large enough to accommodate a minivan, it was stuffed with thousands of film canisters stacked floor to ceiling, arranged by studio and labeled with Sharpie. “Bray: Farmer Alfalfa Sees New York,” one read. Another said: “Fleischer: Adventures of Popeye (1935).”
“Oh,” he muttered absently as he paused before a tower of brass movie cans, “what do we have here?”
Once a week, Mr. Stathes heads from his small studio apartment in Queens to his enormous collection of vintage cartoons: a celluloid library of around 4,000 reels, some of the prints more than 100 years old. It is certainly one of the largest collections of early animated films anywhere in the world — and that accounts for the holdings of the Library of Congress, according to an archivist who does restoration there.
Usually, Mr. Stathes is searching for a specific clip — something with Felix the Cat (“the biggest star in 1920s cartoons”), say, or Popeye — for the regular events he hosts at Metrograph, an arty Lower East Side movie house with red velvet seating and chilled Junior Mints.
Tommy José Stathes maintains a library of roughly 4,000 reels of vintage cartoons. Some of the prints are more than 100 years old.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times
For his most recent screening, he dug out some vintage reels with a Christmas feel, like Fleischer Studios’ “Somewhere in Dreamland” — a Technicolor fantasia that follows two street urchins who scavenge firewood and go to bed hungry. Mr. Stathes first watched it on VHS tape as a toddler. “I think it helped me to better understand and connect with the inner children in my own grandparents, all of whom were born right around the time of the 1929 stock market crash and grew up during the Great Depression.”
Now 34, Mr. Stathes makes a living as a professor of animation history at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. But his true vocation is curating vintage cartoon programs. In addition to his gig at Metrograph, he also regularly shows at Roxy Cinema and the Society of Illustrators and has over the last decade landed a recurring role on Turner Classic Movies.
It was by sheer chance that executives at the network, also known as TCM, saw an article about a 21-year-old movie historian on Fox News Latino.
They understood quickly that this young collector had amassed a deeper cartoon archive than TCM had ever gained access to. “We can’t do everything,” the network’s longtime lead programmer, Charles Tabesh, said in a phone interview. “But sometimes something comes along and you just think: This is an important part of film history — one we’ve never explored.”
The network contracted Mr. Stathes to produce a program in 2012, for which he provided an hour’s worth of silent animation he had recently restored. Then, a couple of years later, he found himself being interviewed on air by the channel’s marquee host, Robert Osborne, as the network’s expert on vintage cartoons. Mr. Stathes knew then that he had arrived.
It is a far cry from his early days, when he used to screen oddball cartoons at strange little pop-up places that don’t typically show movies. His very first show, when he was not even old enough to drink, was in a dive bar stuffed with vintage clutter in Bushwick, Brooklyn, called Goodbye Blue Monday. From that success, he bounced around various community centers (including the Queens Public Library, where he had a yearslong stint) and storefront galleries, like Shoestring Press in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
This avocation can be traced back to an obscure Farmer Alfalfa cartoon his father showed him once. From there, he expanded to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Felix the Cat, and he started hunting for reels in local antique shops and flea markets. He soon progressed to eBay, ultimately piling up a six-figure investment in the archive.
His devotion to silent cartoons — the very birth of the form — is unrivaled. In fact, he has helped the Library of Congress identify some of its own collection. George Willeman, who oversees the nitrate film vaults for the library, recalled being amazed when Mr. Stathes, then in his 20s, took a seat in the archive and identified reel after reel of unidentified cartoons made decades before he was even born.
“As far as I know,” Mr. Willeman said, “Tommy is the king of silent animation.”
As for how much his archive is worth today, Mr. Stathes is reluctant to venture a guess. “Films don’t have standardized valuations like coins or other regularly traded collectibles,” he said. “It’s a very niche, specialized field concerning objects that are more utilitarian than anything else.”
“Might any of the kids here be alarmed by a creepy snowman?” Mr. Stathes asked a 100-strong crowd, nearly all of them adults shifting around on velvet seats during a Halloween-themed screening at Metrograph a couple months ago. It’s clear he loves playing M.C. — as he worked the audience, his enthusiasm was infectious. Mr. Stathes launched into a discussion of the disputed merits of Molly Moo-Cow, a key character for New York City-based Van Beuren Studios during the 1930s. “She always saves the day — and she’s a cow!” he marveled. “I mean …” His voice trailed off and he sighed wistfully.
Ian Adams, who began attending Mr. Stathes’s cartoon screenings back when they were projected onto sheets tacked to the walls of ad hoc venues, is now part of Metrograph’s programming department. The repertory theater first sought Mr. Stathes out to do a Halloween program in 2021. His Christmastime “Happy Endings” special ran last week. “Tommy has a following,” Mr. Adams said.
This August, Mr. Stathes introduced the theatrical release of “Cartoon Carnival” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he stayed for a Q. and A. session with the audience. Produced by a British filmmaker, the movie focuses on the pioneers of cartoons and follows Mr. Stathes’s quest to preserve them. According to the director, Andrew T. Smith, Mr. Stathes “kind of inspired the documentary.” He stumbled onto Mr. Stathes’s work online and was struck by his devotion.
“He just kind of crossed me as someone very young to take on this quite big responsibility of gathering this archive of neglected films,” Mr. Smith said.
“Cartoon Carnival” has been shown on TCM, but Mr. Stathes is hoping it will get picked up by a streaming service like Netflix, which would definitely help offset the costs associated with maintaining the archive. The rent for his storage unit is now up to nearly $1,000 per month.
“That’s the kind of big break I truly need,” Mr. Stathes said. “Yes, I do it out of a love for the medium — because I enjoy sharing the film. But I do also have to get either a flat fee or a share of ticket sales, to get by.”
“Hopefully a time will come when I don’t have to push so hard and hustle so much every single day to keep all this collecting and archiving and storing and event production afloat,” he continued. “I still want to do those things as the years go on, but really need an additional set of buoys under me.”