The first theatre in the South to include talking picture apparatus as an original installation was the Atlanta Fox which opened on Christmas Day, 1929.

"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

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.
Talkies did not transform the film business overnight, because so few sound pictures were available to run.  The New York Roxy, with a sound-equipped booth from its start in March, 1927, opened with a silent.  Patrons had to make do with the 110-piece pit band.
Warners released only three talkies in 1926, six in 1927, and twenty in 1928.  In 1929 with new east and west coast facilities up to sound speed,  they released a staggering roster of seventy features.  To satisfy the short-term hunger for sound, Warners produced some 600 Vitaphone one-reelers during those years.

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.

Silent features were scored and orchestrated by the studios.

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.
Courtesy fingerlakesmucicaltheatre.wordpress,com
Fox unveiled the first talking newsreel at the Roxy in April, 1927, and in December Fox Movietone News commenced regular release.  

In November, 1927 Fox released the first feature film utilizing the Movietone process.

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. 

Pit musicians and organists were dropped off payrolls like flies, and ads such as below (left) placed by national musician's union did nothing to stanch the flood of firings.  The careers of countless players abruptly ended, and boys who knew radio "took their place."

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.
In January, 1929, the first all-talking Movietone feature coincided with the end of silent production on the Fox lot.   What had begun as a flake had become an avalanche.  However, the leading man appears to have everything well in hand.

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 Electric sought further commercial applications for their amplifier, first concentrating their efforts on public address, for which they had to invent both a practical microphone and a loudspeaker.  First demonstrated in 1920, the PA was touted in the 1923 ad.

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.

With microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker in commercial use, Western turned to disc recording.  In 1925 they perfected the first electric recording, as opposed to the primitive acoustical method then in use.  The two major recording companies immediately licensed the Westrex recording process, and horn recordings became a thing of the past.
In 1925, Warner Brothers whose new radio station KFWB, equipped by Western Electric, was given a demonstration of the synchronized sound process, and in June the Vitaphone Corporation was formed as a joint venture.  In Warner's newly-acquired Brooklyn Vitagraph facility, they worked together to adapt the recording equipment to the demands of actual motion picture production.
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.

Some theatres, such as the built-for-silents Chicago Paradise (1928-1956), gave projector speed control to the orchestra leader so he could adjust the film's tempo to that of the band, rather than vice-versa.  Inset shows the indicators for each of the three machines on the leader stand.
Courtesy, Ben Hall
A closeup view of the Leader Stand from the Chicago Granada (1926-1990), showing the Peter Clark lift controls and the three speed indicators, one in closeup on right.
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
The Atlanta Fox, designed during the transition from silents to talkies, included a preview room and fully-equipped projection room for the purpose of rehearsing the orchestra as the film unreeled.   The booth contained two Simplex machines with incandescent lamp houses, rewind table and film cabinets, but no sound apparatus.  From the start, the Fox ran only talkies, so it is likely that the booth was never utilized.

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
What later was termed a transcription disc is lovingly held here by Mrs. Irving Thalberg a/k/a Norma Shearer.
Westrex recordings which were produced on lathes anchored to heavy bases to obviate vibration were hardly suitable for use in a chaotic studio.
The process was cumbersome, to say the least.  From a 1929 trade article about New York City sound stages:

Western determined that all sound recording must be made in a location remote from the stage where the film was being shot. 
The mixer man on the set depressed a button which started and brought into synchronization the film camera and the disc recorder; silenced ventilation systems; muted telephone bells; and activated flashing warning lights outside the stage doors.  In about three seconds, sound speed was attained, and the mixer man would exclaim, "speed!"
Courtesy, MGM
The Western 1-B microphone was initially utilized, seen here above Al Jolson.
Courtesy The Dawn of Sound,

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.

Courtesy MGM
Western Electric engineers Henry Stoller and Harry Pfannenstiehl with a prototype of the first commercial motion picture projector equipped for synchronized sound.  In January, 1927, Western formed a subsidiary named Electrical Research Products, Inc. (ERPI) to manufacture, lease, install and service these machines.
Courtesy aes,com
Western Electric equipped all of the studios and about half of the theatres.  In order for Western to guarantee its installations, they called the shots with potential lessees. Both studios and theatres were altered at the owners' expense to accept the apparatus, and there could be no argument.

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
Before talkies, booth wiring was a snap.  This wiring plan was published in May, 1929 and shows the many and precisely located conduits dictated  by Western Electric.  For a PDF view, click here.

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.  

Asbestos was a suitable fire-proof insulator for wiring.

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.
Prints were received by the theatres "tails up," that is backwards on the reel. The operator would wind the film onto house reels, check for improper splices and make repairs where required.  35MM projectors had no rewind mode, and prints were returned to the exchange tails up.   After inspection, the reels would be placed into the fire-proof file (below) in playing order.

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 three Front Lights at the Fox included two Brenkert C-15 Spot Projectors.

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.

To "strike an arc," the operator moved the positive rod to meet the negative in an instantaneous movement, which created the arc.  If the rods drifted too far apart, the light would fade out.  The Fox HC spotlight in 2013:

"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 principal behind projection was the combining of a pull-down sprocket (the geneva gear-driven intermittent) and a shutter which would conceal the pull down motion from view. 

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
The ERPI Simplex projector equipped for both Vitaphone and Movietone.

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
On the other hand, Vitaphone, which most probably was never used at the Fox, was arduous.  Driven by the same motor as the projector, the reproducer (turntable) was located behind and to the left of each machine, with work light and knee-guard.
Loew's State, Louisville, KY, Courtesy Ben Hall
To synchronize the film with the disc, the operator threaded the print to a cue mark within the leader and set the needle on a white dot painted onto the disc.

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
A new needle was inserted before each play, but the discs were good for only twenty playings, and each block ticked off properly.
Courtesy The Dawn of Sound
Because the average theatre played a film a minimum of  twenty-eight times a week, two sets of discs were required.  Both cumbersome and fragile, they required special storage cabinets within the booth.  "Keep all records in the envelopes they come in, when not in use.  Put each record in its envelope with the playing side next the felt [sic], and facing you.  Keep the records in correct order for next show." 
Loew's Jersey Theatre, Courtesy
Vitaphone disc time controlled the projection reel sizes.  The discs did not have sufficient playing time for the operator to "double up" to 2000 foot reels (twenty minutes), so standard eleven minute reels were utilized, requiring twice as many changeovers and doubling the opportunity for sync error.
Courtesy The Dawn of Sound
Changeovers were hit or miss because of the vagaries of written cue sheets, so operators began marking their own cue dots.
By 1931, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE) had issued directives for a standardized release print which changeover cues included.   The number "8" is centered in the film gate when threading, allowing about five seconds from start to changeover.  

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."
The wall-mounted 46B was part of the Fox installation and represented a further reduction in size from the previous version.
The fabric-covered wiring was bundled with meticulously tied string, then lacquered.  
By the time of the Fox installation, an improved stage horn design obviated "other horns."

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.

March, 2014
Updated November, 2018.