By Andy Seiler
USA Today
Thursday, September 12, 1996

When the first talkies drowned out the silent era, theater marquees read: "All talking! All Singing! All Dancing!"

Hundreds of the earliest sound movies, a virtual encyclopedia of '20s vaudeville, were lost or separated from their soundtracks in the 1930s.

Now, 70 years after an all-talking picture show made its debut at the Warner Theater in Manhattan, they're back.

"A lot of things are suddenly surfacing that nobody thought were around anymore," says Ron Hutchinson, founder of the new Jersey based Vitaphone Project. About 100 sound shorts were made a year before The Jazz Singer, Hutchinson says, using a sound-on-disc technology that was soon replaced by sound-on-film.

Warner Bros. produced most of the shorts at its Vitaphone studio in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the '20s and '30s.

A young George Burns and Gracie Allen appear, as do ventriloquist act Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, and "some of the greatest musicians and opera singers of the 1920s," says Robert Gitt, who has preserved many of the films at the University of California at Los Angeles Film and Television Archive.

Gitt estimates that collectors have found 1,600 soundtrack discs. The UCLA archive has restored 20 films so far, funded by contributions from film fans. More than 100 films need restoration, including 28 featuring legendary opera singers.

"The collectors are absolutely great because if it weren't for their interest, I don't know any way these things would turn up," says Richard May, a film preservation and distribution specialist for Turner Entertainment, which owns the TV rights to most of the finds.

"They represent a huge, tumultuous period of change in the history of the entertainment industry - as well as our country," adds George Feltenstein, who produced much of the material for Turner and MGM/UA.

Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film (Oxford University Press), says that many vaudeville stars made no later movies or waited until they were past their prime.

"Fanny Brice is a good example, because we only know her because of Barbra Streisand (in Funny Girl). But Brice made two films. One has been lost, but the other, Be Yourself, survived."

Another discovery is Baby Rose Marie, The Child Wonder (1929), starring the top child performer in vaudeville and radio - who was only 6 but already a jazzy scat singer.

"I think it's wonderful that they found these films because it shows a lot of people that I did exist before The Dick Van Dyke Show," says Marie, who also appears in a later short.

Vitaphone Project members have found lost soundtracks in flea markets, estate auctions and garage sales. One discovery rewrites film history.

Al Jolson in a Plantation Act was found four years ago in a Maryland barn. In it. Jolson sings and talks and shouts "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" - famous words that proclaimed the dawn of sound.

Most historians credit the phrase to The Jazz Singer - and they're right. But this film came out one year earlier.

When found, the disc was broken into several pieces. It had been glued together, but the grooves no longer matched.

Gitt recalls the high tech methods he used to repair the disc and restore the film. But a low-tech trick helped too: "I had to blow on the tone arm each time the crack came around to get the needle to go to the next groove."

To contact The Vitaphone Project write to:
Ron Hutchinson
5 Meade Court
Piscataway, NJ 08854
or email Ron at medusashaircut@erols.com
or project member Bill Cappello at billcapp@ix.netcom.com 

 Write to:  Patrick@Picking.com