|Volume 9 Number 2||
We strongly recommend that readers of VITAPHONE NEWS buy a copy of Richard Koszarski’s outstanding new book on film making in and around New York, “HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff”. Covering roughly the beginning of the twentieth century to World War II, the 577-page book will be of particular interest to fans of the transition to sound. When talkies came in, New York became a focus for established studios (Paramount, Vitaphone, Pathe, Fox and MGM) as well as fleeting independents. Koszarski provides incredible detail on each, along with many never before published stills. From the Pathe studio fire, to “Moonlight and Pretzels”, Educational shorts, Fleischer animation and Metro Movietone shorts, it’s all here. And yes, lots on Vitaphone!
Richard Koszarski is a longtime friend and supporter of The Vitaphone Project. Now an associate professor of English and film studies at Rutgers University, he previously ran the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, based in the old Paramount East Coast Studios so thoroughly detailed in the book.
“Hollywood On The Hudson” (ISBN-13.978.08135-4293-5) is published by Rutgers University Press and is available at a great price on Amazon.com
Film Forum’s Repertory Director Bruce Goldstein kindly shared some vintage correspondence he obtained from Lester Binger of Brooklyn. Lester A. Binger, who grew up in Brooklyn, not far from the Vitaphone studio, was crazy about movies from early childhood. I remember that the basement of Les' home on Long Island was filled with movie memorabilia, including then notebooks he kept of every film he went to see as a kid in the 1930s, with a ticket stub for each visit and the name of the feature, newsreel, cartoon, short, and live acts (if any) carefully indicated. He went to work as an usher at Loews Kings on Flatbush Avenue (which he considered the jewel of the Loews chain, claiming that it was much grander than even the Capitol on Broadway or Loews Paradise in the Bronx) when he was in his teens and, decades later, long after that theater had closed, gave tours of the crumbling building. He was in the Signal Corps during the war and ,as a civilian after the war, went to work at the Army Pictorial Service in Astoria (the former Paramount studio). His job was in the distribution of army training films throughout the world and he held onto prints he was ordered to destroy -- not out of insubordination, but out of love of movies. Because of him, I got to see a lot of films not intended for the general public (including some legendary films about venereal disease!). After his retirement, he volunteered as a docent at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, which was just around the corner from the studio where he worked for over 20 years. He took Bruce to the Astoria studios when I was in high school in the late 60s; there were still Paramount logos all over the place and I recall a model from OLD IRONSIDES, a Paramount movie of the 20s. Les died about 10 years ago. He was in his mid-80s. He and his wife had moved from Long Island back to Manhattan, just so they could be where the movies were. Even when VCRs came in, he still preferred going to the movies.
Here are Les Binger’s recollections, written shortly after the visit…
“After getting up the courage to enter, we showed the office boy our letter [from Sam Sax]. He invited us to the main office where we sat for the good part of an hour since most of the actors and workmen were out to lunch. As we sat there, many extras began coming in. It seemed as if we were in Hollywood. A Mr. Story motioned to us to follow him. We went up a flight of stairs and down a long corridor. Along this one were the different offices of the departments of the company. We made a slight turn… along this one were the dressing rooms for the actors. At the end of another corridor was a door with a large electric sign next to it, which flashed the red letters “SILENCE”. We finally came to another door [with a similar sign] next to it. The sign was not lit and we went in. The scenery was all against a wall. In one end of the huge room was a set showing a parlor with antique furniture. This was not being used. At the other end was a camping scene. There was artificial grass on the floor… there were five tents placed around and in the background was a complete forest and artificial trees.
It happened that Borrah Minnevich and His Harmonica Rascals were making a short at this time and we had the pleasure of seeing them work. As we came in, the director, a quiet looking man not at all the one you would expect to see as director, was telling the boys: ‘Now boys as soon as I give you the signal, come running out from behind the trees, make a great deal of noise and talk about going to the showers. Now let’s get going.’ Then the man who had charge of recording the sound yelled ‘Lock ‘em up and blowers!’ By ‘lock ‘em up’ he meant that the cameramen [note plural] should close their machines so that the sound of the motors couldn’t b heard, and by blowers he meant the studio ventilation system should be turned off. After this, he flashed a button, which put on the electric sign outside. Then the director said ‘lights and quiet please!’ Up til then I didn’t notice the many lights, which were placed at the top of the big pieces of scenery. They lighted up the scene as though the sun was right in the studio. The cameras were started and then the director clapped his hand and that began the scene.”
[Editor’s note: The short being made appears to be Vitaphone #1567 “Borrah Minnevich and His Harmonica Rascals” shot in Brooklyn in June 1933. The director was Roy Mack, who specialized in Vitaphone’s musical shorts. Also in the cast was dancer Dixie Dunbar, who soon headed west to appear in many Fox feature musicals. ]
NOTE: This article has been adapted from a larger chapter of Tom Rhodes’’ book-in-progress, The Orthophonic Victrola in Word & Picture. We’ll let you know as soon as it is published. In the meantime, here is the answer to the often-answered question of how just-recorded Vitaphone discs could be played back immediately without destroying them…
After lengthy research and experimentation, Edward Beech Craft and Edwin Henry Colpitts, on November 25, 1919 patented their application for the world's first high quality electromagnetic disk recording system. This employed the WE Type 394 condenser transmitter, sophisticated amplifiers and electric filters and a balanced armature type electromagnetic disk cutter. In time an updated version of this process was licensed to Victor and Columbia. Mr. Craft, however, had greater plans for his high grade electrically amplified recording process than just waxing fox trots. On October 27, 1922 at a branch meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers presided over by Dr. Frank Baldwin Jewett of Western Electric, Edward B. Craft demonstrated Audion to an audience of nearly 3000 engineers and guests assembled within the huge auditorium of Woolsey Hall at Yale University. The sound track disk, recorded in September of 1922, afforded matched music and narration for an animated short illustrating the development of the audion vacuum tube at Western Electric. From this point it was almost inevitable that this process, with suitable modifications and additions, would become the parent of Vitaphone.
Technical Recording Considerations
Not only did electrical recording sound better it also afforded a degree of control and flexibility all its own. One of the chief benefits was the ability to listen to the actual signal fed to the magnetic cutter, a feat obviously not possible with the old horn waxing art. None other than Joseph P. Maxfield, who helmed the disk recording part of the Vitaphone endeavor, starting in late 1922, described this. In a September 27, 1923 patent, he explained this advantage of the Western Electric process:
"A loud speaker located adjacent to the recording machine, is supplied with current from the amplifier. This loudspeaker is adapted to be in operation while the master record is being cut, thus making it possible to monitor the record during its production. If by listening to the loudspeaker it is perceived that the distortion is so great due, for instance, to noises in the amplifier…that a satisfactory record cannot be made, the recording may be stopped, thereby saving the trouble and expense of finishing the record. Without the monitoring system, the fact that a record is unsatisfactory cannot be ascertained until the master record is made, plated and reproduced."
This ability to listen, and obviously control recording levels by turning a potentiometer or "gain" control, was most important to making a "satisfactory record" whether at the Victor or Columbia studios, or when shooting a Vitaphone scene. This led to the "monitor man" becoming at least as important as the movie's director. However, although it allowed greater control and could easily inform the monitor man when to stop a given "take", for instance by a mumbled word of dialogue or a bump noise against a set prop, it could not really afford a means to judge the effect of the scene as a whole, whether in the actor's speech or even in the dramatic effect. The large "master" record still had to be processed and a test pressing made in order to evaluate the artistic or dramatic effect of a given scene, taking several hours at least, not much help during a busy shooting schedule.. If only it were possible to play back the wax master right after it had been cut? Such a course would have not only destroyed the precious take but the fidelity of the typical heavy magnetic pickup reaming a fragile wax groove was enough to discourage such a rash course of action.
Bell Laboratories Comes to the Rescue
Bell Telephone Laboratories, which formally came into existence on January 1, 1925, was composed of the same executives and staff that made up Western Electric's engineering department. Within this huge organization of 3200 engineers and assistants worked a much smaller staff devoted to applied acoustics, such as the Orthophonic Victrola, electrical sound recording and playback, as well as the synchronized sound film process later called Vitaphone. In late 1926 a new division, called Electrical Research Products, Incorporated or ERPI for short, was formed to handle Vitaphone and commercial public address systems and installation.
Requirements for Wax Master Playback
In 1925 a revolution occurred in the home phonograph. Out went the old fashioned upright spring wound talking machine and in its place came electrically powered phonographs like the Victor "Electrola" and Brunswick "Panatrope". Such amplified instruments used heavy horseshoe magnet pickups that put even more pressure on the record groove, causing even more wear than the old acoustic sound boxes.
Certainly such pickups were manifestly unsuited to track the infinitely more delicate grooves of a wax master. What was needed was a pickup having low mass, light moving parts and high compliance to avoid damaging the wax groove. Two of Western Electric's best engineers. H.C. Harrison and W.C. Jones worked for over half a year on this project and just before the summer of 1928 arrived at a design, which fulfilled these requirements.
The Vitaphone Wax Playback Attachment
On June 21, 1928 W.C. Jones witnessed his patent application for a special oversized hollow low mass needle and mounting, and a week later, on June 28th, H.C. Harrison (who had already made great contributions to the Vitaphone disk cutter using the basic balanced armature scheme patented on December 29, 1917) witnessed his own application for the basic magnetic structure. In essence this pickup did not "ride" on the wax master like the GE horseshoe magnetic pickup over common shellac disks or the Vitaphone pickup over the 16-inch record. Instead, it was attached to the cutting lathe itself, and was transported across the wax record by the feed screw propelling the cutting head. Thus very little downward tracking force was applied and no inertia co-efficient from the "tone arm" was present. The reader looking at the line drawing taken from the patent might shudder at the large "needle" until realizing that it was hollow and made of light weight aluminum. With this device it was then finally possible to hear a given recording "take" right after it was made, allowing the director and actors to judge the clarity, articulation and dramatic impact of the speech. So little distortion of the groove resulted from the playback that it was almost possible to then process the wax master as an "approved" take, although this obviously was not normally done. With this special recording pickup, flexibility was gained and much of the "terror" entailed in early "talkie" recording sessions lessened. Are any of these wax pickups still in existence?
--- Tom Rhodes, “Mr. Orthophonic”
We have a VERY limited number of 100% cotton T-shirts left over from our visit to the Syracuse CINEFEST this spring.
SHAW & LEE CARICATURE SHIRT on white cotton, black ink. Features a previously unknown 1929 line drawing of the stars of Vitaphone shorts “THE BEAU BRUMMELS” (1928) and “GOING PLACES (1930).
WESTERN ELECTRIC – THE VOICE OF THE SCREEN logo shirt – on light blue cotton, black ink.
Because remainders are extremely limited, you must email us first to determine availability at firstname.lastname@example.org
Price is $15 each plus $2.00 postage in US, $5.00 postage elsewhere.
We’ve added yet another more rare soundtrack CD’s to thank those who contribute to The Vitaphone Project. In addition to the recent new Volumes 1 and 2 of 1929-30 Universal Studios music themes used to intro segments of their newsreels and shorts, we now have a Volume 3 --- with 96 (!!!) 30-second music cuts! Each selection runs only 30-40 seconds and is a jazz, traditional or original tune.
Each counts as one CD.
Remember that these are unique, non-professional (but highly listenable) recordings of rare early talkie material. No fancy notes or packaging, but we are sure you will enjoy them. Contributions, while not deductible, are greatly appreciated and help us continue to get the word out on our efforts. You may go to our website and contribute via PayPal, or send your check (payable to Ron Hutchinson) to 5 Meade Court, Piscataway, NJ 08854.
Checks (not deductible) should be made payable to:
While final title choices were still being made at press time, the next program of early talkie shorts, titled “VITAPHONE VARIETIES OF 2009”, will be presented at New York’s Film Forum on February 19th. The show will include a number of previously unscreened pre-1930 Vitaphone shorts, as well as several favorites. Accompanying the shorts will be Al Jolson’s 1933 US feature, “HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM!”. Each screening will be introduced by the Project’s Ron Hutchinson.
Check details on Film Forum’s website at www.filmforum.org as the show date approaches.
Cinefest is the celebration and viewing of rarely seen silent and sound films in 16mm and 35mm over an incredible four days in Syracuse, NY. Anyone who has attended one of the previous nearly 30 Cinefests can attest that it is truly a film buff’s dream.
The 2009 event will be held Thursday March 19 through Sunday, March 22nd. Besides the films, Cinefest offers a huge vendor area and the opportunity to meet over 400 fellow movie enthusiasts. The weekend closes with an auction hosted by Leonard Maltin.
For details, go to http://www.picking.com/cinefest.html.
Here’s a rare sample of a cue sheet issued to theatres using the Pict-Ur-Music discs issued by the Victor Talking Machine Company. The turntable operator was directed when to change mood music records either by a title or on-screen action.
Many thanks to Graham Newton for supplying this example. Few exist, and Graham said his sample survived only because the back was used as a scratch pad by record impresario Eli Oberstein and Graham got is purely by luck in a collection acquisition he made recently.
Since our last issue, the following soundtrack discs have surfaced:
While no date has been set as of press time, the UCLA Film & Television Archive is planning its always-popular Vitaphone shorts restoration program sometime between March and May 2009. As always, the latest Vitaphone shorts restorations will be presented, being seen publicly for the first time in nearly 80 years. There are over 50 1926-30 shorts currently being restored by WB under the direction of Ned Price and Bob Gitt. Some may be available for this program. Several other shorts restored by UCLA may also be shown. Check details in mid-winter, at http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/screenings/screenings.html.
Originally, Vitaphone-type soundtrack discs were 16 inches in diameter on heavy shellac. These discs were expensive to ship, broke frequently during shipment, and were bulky to handle.
This November 3, 1931 Motion Picture Times article (courtesy of Rich Finegan) announces the shift to smaller diameter 12 inch soundtrack discs which utilized finer grooving than the original platters. The smaller discs were pressed on a material RCA Victor named “Vitrolac” --- a flexible, almost rubber-like material that made it less prone to breakage. Unfortunately, the combination of finer grooves and softer material resulted in faster wear and poorer sound quality. This no doubt helped speed the remaining shift away from discs to sound-on-film.
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|VITAPHONE NEWS||ISSN 1066-5951|
|Corresponding Secretary & Editor||Ron Hutchinson||5 Meade Court|
Piscataway, NJ 08854
FAX: (732) 463-8521
|Treasurer||Alan Cooperman||23 Clover Hill Road|
Willington, NJ 07946
|Co-Founders:||John Newton||P.O. Box 7191|
Wilmington, DE 19803
|Sherwin Dunner||P.O. Box 1992|
New York, NY 10013
|Vince Giordano||1316 Elm Avenue|
Brooklyn, NY 11230
|Vitaphone Project Web Page||http://email@example.com|
|Leonard Maltin's Site||http://www.leonardmaltin.com|
|Jeff Cohen's "Vitaphone Varieties" Site||http://vitaphone.blogspot.com|