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|Volume 10 Number 2||
A unique part of American film history may soon be destroyed. And The Vitaphone Project has already mobilized to hopefully save at least a portion of it.
In 1907, J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith built their Vitagraph studios on an entire block that was then amid farmland in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, NY. It represented one of the first, if not the first, purpose-built film studio. Over the next 15 years, additional studios, glass topped stages, and vaults were constructed. The Vitagraph organization eventually expanded with distribution exchanges, theatres, and west coast studios. In Brooklyn, the studio's films starred such early favorites as John Bunny, Flora Finch, Maurice Costello and Florence Turner. Eventually, Vitagraph was overtaken by newer, more nimble studios like Fox and Paramount, who had bigger stars and larger outlets for their productions.
In April, 1925, the entire Vitaphone company was sold to the Warner Brothers, who saw the purchase as an opportunity to instantly expand their studio, distribution and exhibition capabilities. This purchase preceded WB's entry into Vitaphone by a year. The Vitagraph studios were built for silent pictures, not talkies. So when the initial Vitaphone shorts were made in the summer of 1926, the Brooklyn complex could not be used. Instead, filming took place at rented space at the New York Opera Company. Thin walls and glass roofs were not Vitagraph's only roadblocks to making talking pictures. The entire facility at East 14th Street and Avenue M was immediately next to the elevated subway, which rumbled by every few minutes. Conversion of the Brooklyn studio to making sound pictures was not completed until late 1928. During the next three years, additional sound stages (one with a swimming pool for water scenes) were constructed across the street.
It was this even larger film making complex, now the Warner Brothers Vitaphone East Coast Studios, that produced over 1,000 short subjects, with stars ranging from Fatty Arbuckle, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope, to Red Skelton, Shemp Howard, June Allyson, and hundreds of vaudevillians, opera stars, and popular bands. Two or three shorts would often be in production simultaneously, under the watchful eye of studio head Sam Sax.
Production at the Brooklyn Vitaphone studios ended in 1939, when a shrinking market for shorts led Warner Brothers to consolidate their remaining production in Hollywood. The facility remained dark until the early 1950's when NBC purchased a portion of the facility. Converted to television production, the Brooklyn studios were responsible for the network's many specials, like "Peter Pan" with Mary Martin, and series like "Sing Along With Mitch" and "The Cosby Show". By the early 1990's, half of the Vitaphone site was sold to JC Studios, which produced "As The World Turns" there, while buildings on the older side of the street were sold to The Shulamith School, a Hebrew High School for girls.
Unfortunately, the fate of the original 1907-39 complex, complete with the still-standing smokestack with "Vitagraph" emblazoned in brick, currently seems bleak. Following the sale to a private developer, the studio's lack of historic preservation protection leaves it vulnerable. In November, 2010, we learned --- unofficially --- that the whole block could be bulldozed by June, 2011. A sad fate for America's oldest standing movie studio. The Project immediately contacted Borough President Marty Markowitz, who has a history a caring about Brooklyn's theatrical past. Most recently he was instrumental in getting funding to restore the Loews theatre on Flatbush Avenue. Markowitz has mobilized his staff and historic development council to see what can be done. Additionally, New School Professor Melissa Friedling was just starting a documentary on Brooklyn filmmaking when the news broke. She is incorporating the drama into her storyline, and has already connected with key personnel at JC and the remaining Shulamith team. Producers of the cable series "Secret New York" have also gotten involved, and in addition to planning to do an entire episode on the Brooklyn Studio, have succeeded in connecting with a Shulamith manager who seems willing to allow breaking into the long-sealed tunnel under the street between the two sides of the studio. Bandleader Vince Giordano, who lives only a few blocks away from the studio, promises to bring a few of his Nighthawks to play "Jericho" when the wall comes down!
As of this writing, nothing is certain about the fate of the original Vitagraph/Vitaphone studio facility. We hope that at the least, the original 1907 Vitagraph smokestack can be repaired and preserved as a marker of where American film history really got started.
Click on the pictures above to go to the Warner Brothers site to order them!
Here is a summary of what is on the Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts 6 disk set:
Here is a summary of what is on the Vitaphone Varieties 4 disk set:
Special thanks to our preservation partners:
UCLA Film & Television Archive
Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation
and The Vitaphone Project
Your generous donations help to keep our Project going. Escalating printing and mailing costs make your support even more important than ever. While not tax-deductible, your donation allows us to continue spreading the word and seeking out disks and film elements for future restorations. Large donations for actual restorations go directly to UCLA Film and Television Archive (where support is tax deductible).
If you've sent in a donation lately, thanks! If you are receiving Vitaphone News and have not made contribution lately --- or ever -- please consider doing so now. In addition to thank-you audio CDs listed below, we are adding a few new items:
Our latest offering for a $50 donation is a DVD, not a CD. It contains twenty band, singing and vaudeville excerpts from 1930-39 British Pathetone shorts. Includes the bands of Billy Cotton, Harry Roy and Jack Hylton (recording at HMV in 1932!), plus Sophie Tucker, two clips with Al Bowlly, and many fun muscal hall and vaude acts. Just request our PATHETONE DVD when contributing! Any donation, big or small, is greatly appreciated! There is no minimal amount to donate!
GET YOUR OWN SOUNDTRACK DISK!!
For donations of $300 or more, we will send you an actual 1928-32 16 inch soundtrack disk (our choice) from the Vitaphone era. This offer is for a limited time only.
For donations of $50, you can choose from one of the listed CDs, or you can receive a great Shaw and Lee caricature T-shirt.
And the following audio CDs are still available as thank-you gifts. These are unique, non-professional (but highly listenable) recordings of rare early talkie material. No fancy notes or packaging, but we are sure you'll enjoy them. Just let us know your choice (number of CDs is in parentheses)
If you wish to send a check (not tax deductible) please make it payable to RON HUTCHINSON (NOT The Vitaphone Project) and send it to:
Past issues of VITAPHONE NEWS have covered the quest for the lost 1933 WB feature comedy, "Convention City". Starring Adolph Menjou, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Mary Astor, and a host of stock Warner comedians like Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh and Guy Kibbee, the film has vanished with a single known print. Along with Lon Chaney's "London After Midnight" (1927), the WB comedy is one of the most sought lost films. Much myth surrounds its disappearance, and hope remains that a print may one day be discovered.
Project friend David Garrick has created a website totally dedicated to "Convention City"! Brimming with photos and ads, the site also includes a recent article by the Project's Ron Hutchinson. The latest news includes proof that, contrary to rumors of the film's destruction n the mid-1930's, it was playing a Madrid theatre in August, 1942. David has even included Peter Mintun's wonderful recreation of what the film's opening credits might have been like.
Checkout the site at: http://www.jazzage1920s.com/conventioncity/conventioncity.php
And if you enjoy Pre-Code films, you'll enjoy a brand new site, The Chiseler, which features articles, bios, lots of photos, and great quotes from these racy films. Check it out at: http://chiseler.org/rss
The Project has worked for years with Art and Kylie Pierce who run Rome, NY's historic Capitol Theatre. Each August, the theatre hosts a multi-day "Capitolfest" featuring silent and sound films in 35 mm. Art and Kylie always like to include Vitaphone shorts on the program, and looks to us for suggestions. Early talkie features are also a festival mainstay. This past August, the all-star 1930 feature "Paramount On Parade", was included on the program, using the restoration done by UCLA a few years ago. Bob Gitt and his team actually recreated the missing opening titles, incorporated several Technicolor scenes, and added footage where available. Several sections of the film have picture, but no sound. This includes Dennis King's singing of "Niachavo", which Bob remedied by using a commercial 78 rpm record by King of the same tune. It actually matched somewhat.
Another mute passage was an almost fuill reel with Jewish comic actor Harry Green singing "I'm Isadore, The Toreador". During a pre-show screening to check out the film, Art and his projectionist Bob Hodge, saw the unexpectedly silent Green segment. Art checked with the Project and learned no sound was known. When told of this, Hodge almost matter-of-factly said he had the disk himself. Not a big disk collector, he had no other "Paramount On Parade" disks, but he had this one.
Within a day, the news was spread, UCLA volunteered to restore the disk with the picture, and the Capitolfest audience heard Harry Green warble the now somewhat politically incorrect tune for the first time in 80 years.
Visit the Capitolfest website here!
New York's Film Forum has hosted nearly a dozen Vitaphone shorts programs, always to packed houses and enthusiastic responses. The last program was in July 2010, and included 12 of the most recently restored 1926-30 shorts. The two biggest hits seemed to be JIMMY CONLIN and MYRTLE GLASS in "SHARPS AND FLATS" (1928) and the previously unknown comedy team JACK BORN AND ELMER LAWRENCE (1928). The Conlin short truly convulsed audiences, and had a fresh and almost off-the-cuff feel to it. Conlin is best known as a character comedian in countless films, including those of Preston Sturges. Born & Lawrence, who seem to have made only a few Vitaphones, had a deadpan delivery not dissimilar to Shaw & Lee. Both were big hits at UCLA's own Vitaphone show (see article) the following month. Relatives of the team of Val & Ernie Stanton, who appeared in their own 1928 Vitaphone, were in attendance, having flown up from Florida just for the Film Forum show.
The next Film Forum Vitaphone program is planned for early May, 2010. Check their website at www.filmforum.org for details and show times. The tentative program will include even more of the recently restored shorts:
Film Forum's Repertory Director Bruce Goldstein is planning to pair the Vitaphone shorts program with the 1930 feature "Showgirl In Hollywood", starring Alice White.
At the July Film Forum Vitaphone show, two audience members volunteered to fund some future restorations. Among them are a 1928 Daphne Pollard comedy and the remaining 1926 singing short by The Revelers. Meanwhile, work is wrapping up on the WB-funded restorations of 53 1926-30 Vitaphone shorts, some of which have already been screened at Film Forum and UCLA. Bob Gitt of UCLA has been an advisor on this massive undertaking, and funding of the projectable 35mm prints was provided by Dudley Heer. Upon completion, UCLA will then resume restorations using donations developed by the Project. Titles include shorts by Xavier Cugat, Eddie Peabody, Raymond Hitchcock, Nan Halperin and others.
The Library of Congress is finishing up work on the restoration of six 1929-30 Columbia-Victor Gems one reel, disk-recorded shorts. These were among the first films processed at LoC's brand new lab in Culpepper, VA.
The hit of each of UCLA's Festivals of Preservation is always the Vitaphone Program. But their August 2010 show reached a new level. Thanks in part to a big article in the LA Times, the August 21 program boasted long lines and unfortunately the need to turn away over 100 people. Lines for 1929 films, many with people no one ever heard of? Such is the draw of Vitaphone!
Audience reaction was enthusiastic, with the west coast's reaction to the wild CONLIN & GLASS short mirroring that at Film Forum. Mark Cantor, who has researched many of the jazz Vitaphones, was surprised to see Robert Downey, Jr. seated in front of him, enjoying the vaudeville acts with the rest of the packed Billy Wilder Theatre.
While we don't have the exact dates at press time, UCLA will be holding two more Vitaphone programs with over 20 more newly restored vintage shorts, sometime in the March - April 2011 time frame. Checkout their website at:
And if you are planning to go, it is essential to buy your tickets in advance!
In the east, UCLA will be stopping at Lincoln Center in NYC sometime around May to present a program of Vitaphone restorations. The shorts being shown will be different from those being included in Film Forum's May program.
What are the chances that one of the streamlined 1936, specially built, Warner Brothers sound trucks would survive at all, much less in beautifully restored condition? But photographic proof was included in an email the Project in December from Blake Dumesnil, who restored it with his father. Documents with the truck indicate it was #15, and actually serviced the Brooklyn Vitaphone studios. There is no sound equipment remaining inside, unfortunately. Blake is hoping to learn more about this and the others in the WB fleet. It is possible the trucks made some on-screen appearances in some shorts or features with a filmmaking theme.
After this issue went to the printers, a 2nd WB Sound truck was found in Texas! This truck is undergoing a full restoration at this time.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles to attend Cinecon in September I was able to catch the wonderful show of Janet Klein. Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys keep the tradition alive of playing old music from the early 20th century, including many Vitaphone songs. If you're ever in the Los Angeles show I highly recommend catching her act. She plays at the Steve Allen Theater regularly. See her schedule at her website here: http://www.janetklein.com
I found these items for sale on EBay.com
Movies and books mentioned in this issue can be purchased through Amazon.com and Warner Brothers by clicking on the items here!
|VITAPHONE NEWS||ISSN 1066-5951|
|Corresponding Secretary & Editor||Ron Hutchinson||5 Meade Court|
Piscataway, NJ 08854
FAX: (732) 463-8521
|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://firstname.lastname@example.org
|Leonard Maltin's Site||http://www.leonardmaltin.com|
|Jeff Cohen's "Vitaphone Varieties" Site||http://vitaphone.blogspot.com|