Whether it’s the first televised dance steps of Elvis Presley or man’s first steps on the moon, Joe Lauro is the go-to guy for archival film footage.
His specialty and passion are one-of-a-kind music performances of all genres, and his company, Historic Films in Greenport, boasts over 50,000 hours of news and entertainment footage from 1895 to the present day, pieces of which can be seen daily on television networks, on Broadway, and in museums.
Mr. Lauro also makes films and plays music himself, and is known for his annual parties, including the Shelter Island Beach Blast on Saturday at Wade’s Beach to benefit the Island Gift of Life Foundation and a Halloween throw-down in the three-story barn behind his house on Shelter Island.
He owns a house in Sag Harbor, too, his primary residence outside the summer months, when it is occupied by Bay Street Theatre performers. Lilias White, the Tony-Award-winning star of the musical “Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues,” stayed there through Sunday, and each night when she went on stage, Mr. Lauro’s black-and-white film footage served as the set’s backdrop. Mr. Lauro said he is “enthralled with theater” and awed by the talent of live performers. In film, he said, you can do it over 20 times, not so on the stage.
Mr. Lauro is working now on a documentary on Fats Domino. “It’s 80 percent shot,” he said, but had been on hold until last week, when he received news that the French archive I.N.A. had released footage he needs to complete the film.
“Katrina is part of the story,” Mr. Lauro said, because after the hurricane, Fats Domino was displaced from his neighborhood, where friends used to sit with him around his kitchen table, sometimes eating crawfish at 10 a.m. “He is really excited about sharing his life and music in the film,” Mr. Lauro said. People in New Orleans who are involved in the project learned the good news last week as they were dealing with the effects Hurricane Isaac.
Mr. Lauro loves the New Orleans music scene and has visited the city for 20 years. While making the documentary, he had the chance to spend time with the musician in New Orleans, which was “an honor,” he said.
Mr. Lauro has been making films for 15 years and collecting footage for much longer. Of all the films he’s made, a Louis Prima documentary is his favorite and “Reflections,” a documentary on the Supremes, is his most successful, he said.
Born in Brooklyn, he saw Al Jolson on television as a kid and was immediately captured by the older music style. He would roam around on his bicycle in search of the music he loved and became known as the “kid that wants the old 78 r.p.m. records.” When he was 15, he said he played in a band that played Beatles-type music, but he always had a private love for the music of the 1920s, and continued “gobbling up all of that stuff” through graduate school at New York University. While living in the city, Mr. Lauro said he was fortunate to have heard Alberta Hunter, a blues singer-songwriter born in 1895, perform every week at the Cookery.
The son of a correction officer, he was also inspired by seeing the inmate performances, including one called “I’m Dreaming of a Right Christmas,” that his father produced when he ran the art program at the Brooklyn House of Detention. He was fascinated, too, with the prison library that contained donated books from as far back as 1820, some with unexpected memorabilia such as letters and a dried flower. The new, he said, is advertised, but “it’s important to learn about what came before.”
After seeing someone fall to the ground in Greenwich Village and watching people simply step over him to get to a pizza parlor, Mr. Lauro “packed my bongos and came to Shelter Island.” He spends most of his time now on the East End.
Next week, he will travel to Portland, Me., where he will pick up thousands of pieces of music and drive it back to New York by rented truck.
In addition to vintage film clips, he also buys and sells music and vintage memorabilia, selling about 40 items a week on eBay. Some if it is hard for him to part with, he said. He has sold the only known copies of certain albums, and for one rare Louis Armstrong record, “Zulu’s Ball,” recorded in 1923 in Chicago, he received the highest price ever paid for a record. Nobody could find a pressing of the album until the 1940s, when it surfaced during a World War II scrap drive (records were melted down to create shellac for ombs). Mr. Lauro purchased it in the 1970s from a collector in Holland along with some 1,500 other pre-1940 jazz and blues records. He and a partner took turns holding it, eventually selling it for $32,000. Mr. Lauro’s collection also includes what he calls his treasure, a 125-year-old “gut-string” bass, which he plays for the Who Dat Loungers, his nine-piece band, which plays gigs from Manhattan to Montauk.
Before starting the band, he played with Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks for several years, and before that with the Moon Dogs. He puts together other ensembles, too, like the new band Stretch, which has a sound reminiscent of the Grateful Dead.
Of all of his work, he said that performing live is his favorite thing to do and the hardest, being at the mercy of the audience, acoustics, and weather.
The Who Dat Loungers will play on Saturday at Mr. Lauro’s annual fund-raiser for Island Gift of Life, which helps numerous patients on the East End with illness-related financial burdens. A member of the Island Gift of Life’s board of directors, Mr. Lauro helps to seek out locals in need who have terminal or life-altering illnesses.
The end-of-summer party has taken place for 27 years at various locations including Mr. Lauro’s barn, but the last 15 have been at Wade’s Beach on Shelter Island, where it will be held this year from 3 p.m. to midnight. The $20 entry fee will include live music by such bands as Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks, New Dawn, the Realm, Jet Set Renegades, and Dead Dogs. The headlining band, selected by Mr. Lauro, is the New Orleans High and Mighty Brass Band, which will play new and old tunes, a combination of hip-hop and tubas. Attendees have the option of buying barbecue or taking their own picnic.