"Projection Room Best in Country" ran the headline in the Atlanta Georgian of December 22, 1929. The full text of the article is below.
Three years before the Fox opened, pictures with sound made their debut in August, 1926 with "Don Juan." This daring experiment was a joint venture between Warner Brothers and Western Electric, the research and manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone Company. The Vitaphone system was a disc recording synchronized to the film projector.
The film was an instantaneous and enormous success which rocked the very foundations of Hollywood where the term "silent picture" had not yet been coined.
Not an actual talking picture, "Don Juan" was originally slated as a silent release which Vitaphone supplemented with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, recorded at the Manhattan Opera House. The four minute greeting by film czar Will Hays talked. To watch, click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtOKCQY58VI
Second and third units of "Juan" were sent westward, but the picture could play only houses equipped for talkies, of which there were none. Western Electric accomplished rapid installs in Chicago, then Los Angeles.
Least thrilled in LA about Vitaphone were the studios when this "New York picture" encroached upon their home turf.
Film moguls held firmly to the belief that silent pictures represented an art form which had reached the apex of its perfection. It did not hurt that pictures without voices could be exhibited in any country by the mere translation of title cards.
Talking pictures would kill vaudeville and put thousands of show folk out of work just as the Depression began. At the end of 1927, four of the six Atlanta downtown houses featured stage shows and all but one had a house orchestra. Burns and Allen (lower right) played Keith's Georgia that first week of December, 1927.
Even in smaller towns like Atlanta, orchestral accompaniment for silent pictures was the rule, not the exception. House orchestras in Atlanta movie houses came into being between 1905 and 1911. The ad below for Atlanta's Montgomery Theatre dates from 1912.
Talking pictures debuted in Atlanta at the locally-owned Metropolitan Theatre nine months after New York in May, 1927. The feature "Lady in Ermine" was a silent, accompanied by Enrico Leide's band; the shorts were "in sound."
In mid-1926, William Fox licensed from inventor Theodore Case a variable-density sound-on-film process, which Fox named Movietone. In May, 1927 Western Electric began theatre installation of machines which could play both formats.
By March, 1928 more than two hundred theatres in the US had been equipped for talkies. Warner Brother's Vitaphone feature of that year "The Jazz Singer" included "talking and singing sequences, musical score and sound effects," and the presence of Al Jolson provided an enormous boost to sound films. William Fox, who owned the Roxy, didn't mind making money from Vitaphone, even if it belonged to the competition.
Two months later, the Movietone process debuted in Atlanta at the Rialto.
July, 1928 brought the first all-talking picture, two years after "Don Juan."
Consternation reigned within the business.
Wishful thinking, mid-1929.
Possibly the best theatre organ ad ever, displaying thirty-nine of the infinite emotions that this machine could express, when properly operated.
Warner Brother's had become very wealthy. They acquired First National Pictures and converted their Burbank lot to Vitaphone.
Other studios licensed the Vitaphone process from Warners on an experimental basis. MGM's "Broadway Melody" was the first talkie to take Best Picture.
Silent picture production was gone with the wind.
Silent were toast.
Silents were washed up.
Screen and stage attractions changed weekly, and the major studios each cranked out 52 films a year. The first week program at the Atlanta Fox (inset) featured Fanchon & Marco's Beach Nights Idea on the stage and Enrico Leide's house orchestra in the pit. The screen program included the all talking Fox feature "West Point," Fox Movietone News, and the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, with synchronized score and sound effects. The second week marquee stressed a Fox "All-Dialogue-Comedy."
The first two picture to play the Atlanta Fox, both Movietone and both in 1929.
Although William Fox was the progenitor of sound-on-film and the Warner brothers the true pioneers of talking pictures, it was Western Electric that made talkies possible.
In 1914 Western Electric perfected the first audio amplifier to facilitate long-distant telephony for its parent, the Bell Telephone Company. Western had licensed the invention of a vacuum tube that could amplify current from Lee de Forest, shown below with his Audion.
Western was a prime developer and manufacturer of broadcast amplification, mixing, and transmission equipment. Below, local air personality Lambdin Kay, shown here in 1923 with a Western 1-B microphone, at WSB, Atlanta's first radio station.
|Courtesy aes.org, wikipedia.com|
An early stumbling block was sound speed, which had to match perfectly in both photography and exhibition. According to the 1916 Motion Picture Handbook, the suggested standard for silent film was 60 feet per minute at a time when most cameras were hand-cranked, but other sources claim 60 as "the taking speed" and 90 as the "showing speed." Harold Franklin's 1927 book Motion Picture Theatre Management states "the speed or running time for any film is established when it is pre-viewed in the screen room." Motorized projectors were equipped with variable speed controls.
Courtesy, Ben Hall
|Courtesy Patrick Seymour, Theatre Historical Society|
Besides a telephone, two sets of pushbutttons were mounted on the Granada stand, which allowed the Leader to control the show. The left bank would buzz the Stage Switchboard, the Curtain, "Emergency" (maybe the manager), and two buttons for the booth: "Pictures and Trailers" and "Slides and Spots." The right bank are dressing room call buzzers.
|Courtesy Patrick Seymour, Theatre Historical Society|
Western and Warners agreed to a sound speed of 24 frames per second, or 90 feet of film per minute, one-third faster than silents. For a camera reel which ran ten minutes, Western devised a 16" diameter disc played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (RPM).
|Courtesy, The Dawn of Sound|
Western determined that all sound recording must be made in a location remote from the stage where the film was being shot.
|Courtesy The Dawn of Sound, flickriver.com|
Another mic used in early film production was a Western 47-B one-tube amplifier paired with a 394 Transmitter to make the first condenser microphone, shown here in 1929 in the Marx Brothers' "The Cocoanuts," a Paramount Picture shot in Astoria under a Vitaphone license.
Movietone, the sound-on-film process promoted by William Fox, differed from Vitaphone in that cameras could record both sight and sound simultaneously and were not necessarily studio-bound. Fox made dramatic use of the camera's portability with his Movietone News.
For studio use, Western devised a "sound camera" separate from the film camera, the object being the reduction of extraneous vibration. The film, once processed, contained the sound track.
As with Vitaphone, banks of Movietone sound cameras were located remote from the shooting stage. Studios retained some disc machines for immediate playback needs.
Before the advent of sound, projection booths were not particularly complicated, as shown in this 1911 shot of Atlanta's Vaudette Theatre. Two projectors (left and center) with a 2000-foot, twenty-two minute capacity, alternated playing the reels of a feature film. Fire-retardant booths were required by code to protect the audience in case of fire.
|Courtesy John Tanner|
Until about 1950, film prints were released on nitrate stock, which were extremely flammable. The likelihood of fire increased with the construction of theatres with longer projection throw distances, which necessitated brighter and hotter carbon arc light sources. Sentry (below) employed a chemical which drenched the burning film within the machine.
By 1920 codes required that the various portals between the booth and the auditorium be equipped with counter-balanced steel fire shutters, which would slam shut in unison if any of a number of strategically placed fusible links burned through.
The projected film was set inches away from the carbon rods which burned white-hot. One device, originally installed at the Atlanta Fox, was a projector film trap which was cooled by re-circulated room-temperature water. Water cooling significantly lowered the temperature of the film gate, which resulted in fewer projectionists being burned while threading.
By 1910, film handling and booth procedures had become routine. Release prints were shipped in fire-proof canisters (left), and the standard projection reel was one-thousand feet in length (right), the same size of those utilized within the camera. the reels could run eleven minutes at sound speed. Operators could "double up" reels by splicing two reels onto 2000-foot reel which the projectors could accommodate.
The Griswold splicer was used with a liquid film glue, as opposed to hot splices employed at the exchange. Splices had to be made properly, or the picture would jump "out of frame" when projected.
So that operators could see what they were doing in a darkened booth, work lights were installed on ceiling-mounted retractable reels. The Fox had two.
At the Fox, power for the eight booth carbon arc lights was fed from motor-generators located in the Gallery elevator machine room. There were two Westinghouse MG sets with a 500 amp, 100 volt DC output, one a standby unit.
Below a typical wiring diagram for parallel generators.
Hoffman Perfection rheostats, located in a room adjacent to the Fox booth, altered the output of the generator to match each lamp connected.
An inventory of the booth and the basement preview room booth was taken in 1935.
The Atlanta Fox projection booth as seen from the stage, showing the eight devices, was 178 feet from the picture sheet.
The Fox booth, in the photo below not yet completely equipped, contained the Brenograph (far left) and the three Super Simplex machines. The third film machine were installed to protect from failure. Although the Fox did not mix sound and silent (or Vitaphone) prints, houses ran each format on designated machines, so that the differing image sizes could be set to match on the screen. Because of the space taken by the sound track, the image size of sound-on-film prints was smaller. Behind Machine No. 1 on the floor is a spittoon.
The Brenograph F-7 contained two slide projectors which allowed for glass plates to dissolve from one to the next, as for singalongs. The machine could also provide still or moving scenic effects, the latter with the attachment of a rotating disc.
The third Front Light was a Hall and Connolly "HC" High Intensity spotlight which, with its intense beam, was used to pick up the orchestra leader or the organist.
|Courtesy Tom Wilson|
That lamp was a variation on its immediate predecessor, designed for the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, who knew what they wanted.
"Cheaters" were pin holes drilled into the top front of a Front Light lamp house, which shown a tiny beam of light on the wall above the portal window. A small chart showing the stage would be drawn there, and pointing the beam to a given mark would allow blind and precise pickups. Below a Hall & Connolly EF-4 in an unknown booth.
All carbon arc lamps emitted poison fumes which had constantly to be purged from the booth via exhaust fans. Once the carbon rods had burned down until they were too short to use, they would be removed with pliers and dropped into sand buckets provided at each device.
Western adapted the Simplex brand of projector for conversion to sound. Below, the silent Simplex Model M (left), with Movietone sound head added (right).
The improved Simplex "Super" model which was installed at the Atlanta Fox eliminated the outboard shutter whose unguarded rotation could easily cause bodily harm to the operator.
A closer look at the inboard shutter, which immediately became the industry standard.
The inboard shutter also vastly reduced temperature at the film gate, as an excerpt from this Basson & Stern advertisement reveals.
35MM motion picture projectors were precision machines whose works were sprayed and bathed with oil during operation and which could be viewed through glass (right). Running at a speed of a foot and a half per second, film improperly threaded would be torn to shreds in a instant. An automatic fire shutter (dowser) would not open until the machine was up to speed, or otherwise the still or slow-moving film would be ignited.
The Fox Super Simplex machines were equipped with Hall and Connolly FR-10 lamp houses. Viewing the burning arc directly could result in blindness, so a small glass UV peep hole was placed in the door so that the flame could be monitored. All of the Fox lamps were equipped with motorized carbon rod feed motors. Projector lamp houses included a heat dowser which would not be lifted until just prior to usage, so the extreme heat could not melt the works.
|Courtesy Tom Wilson|
Constant speed within a very close tolerance was provided by the electronic controller for the synchronous motor. Selection could be made between "REG" (sound) and "VAR" (silent), with a variable range for the latter of 75 to 112 feet per minute.
The head for sound-on-film nestled between the projection head and the lower film magazine.
Sound-on-film threading, on the one hand, was business as usual for the operator.
|Courtesy Kevin Wheelan Screeing Room|
|Loew's State, Louisville, KY, Courtesy Ben Hall|
If the disc did not sync at the top of the reel, or if sync was lost during a reel, everyone was out of luck.
From the instruction booklet: "Set up record on turntable as shown in Figure 13. In doing this, following method must be strictly observed so as to avoid risk of imperfect synchronization. Motor must never be turned while adjusting record on turntable. Hold record with both hands, lay it on turntable so that starting arrow is about at the place where needle comes. Wipe off record lightly with cleaner provided..."
|Courtesy Kevin Wheelan Screening Room|
|Courtesy The Dawn of Sound|
|Loew's Jersey Theatre, Courtesy filmadvocacy.com|
|Courtesy The Dawn of Sound|
Each machine was equipped with a third shutter or dowser (after fire and lamphouse), this one for changeover between or among projectors. A foot switch activated solenoids which lifted the change dowser in Machine No. 2, and at the same time dropped its counterpart in Machine No. 1.
With his hands free, the operator changed the projector audio outputs. Western Electric faders were designed neither as an A/B switch nor as a cross-fader, but rather the output from one machine would be faded completely out before the other brought in. The "master" contained the rheostat, the others "auxiliary" dummies were mechanical slaves connected together by a slim shaft. "Never move fader from zero before motor has reached full speed, as this will completely spoil beginning of speech or music."
The prototypical amplifier racks for Western utilized stock parts from their broadcast devices.
In production, the dual racks were condensed into one with three amplifiers (41, 42, 43) and horn controls.
"Cases have occurred where persons having some radio experience have experimented with the equipment and made changes and substitutions. Not only is this expressly forbidden in the contract by which the equipment is leased to the theatre, but also there will almost certainly be serious ill effects on the quality of reproduction and the life of the equipment."
Western Electric had many light-weight contenders in theatre installation, including (counter-clockwise from top) Cinephone, Dramaphone, Moviephone, and De Forest's own Phonofilm. None survived.
The only serious competition was RCA's Phonophone which came too late to equip any studio except its parent RKO.
Western Electric got out of the theatre equipment business in 1937, but continued to service the studios for several decades more. Below, a gallery of their trade advertisements.
Stage loudspeaker horns and the picture sheet will be addressed in a subsequent chapter.
To contact us,
To read Chapter I: Hub Switchboard Operating Manual, click here.
To read Chapter II: Audio and Electro-mechanicals, click here.
To see Sources, click here.
To read the Western Electric ERPI operating instructions for synchronous reproduction, click here.
To read the Super Simplex operating manual, click here.
To read the Brenkert Brenograph operating manual, click here.
To read more about musical accompaniment of silent films in Atlanta, click here.
To read the Western Electric operating instructions for broadcast speech inputs equipments, click here.
To read about the history of electrical recording, click here.
To read more about motion picture sound from a technical vantage, click here.
Updated November, 2018.