|Volume 2 Number 2||
Another "Lost" soundtrack has been found, but it's not just another soundtrack. It's the soundtrack to the legion of Al Jolson fans who, for more than six decades, have been unable to see and hear Jolson's first sound film.
This film, an early one-reel Vitaphone short titled "Al Jolson in A Plantation Act", was made while Jolson was at the peak of his Broadway career. It promises to give a rare glimpse of the stage Jolson, a form that has been lost except for fleeting memories. the film was made during a break in rehearsals for the 1926-27 tour of his Broadway hit "Big Boy". Jolson had agreed to make the one-reel short and signed a Vitaphone contract on August 25, 1926. His salary for the proposed ten-minute film was an astonishing $25,000. The actual filming took place at the Manhattan Opera House on Tuesday, September 7, 1926, and premiered exactly one month later. The premiere took place on October 7, 1926 at the Colony Theatre, New York, as part of Warner Brothers' second major Vitaphone presentation, and the Jolson short was singled out by critics as the highlight of the program.
Interestingly enough, the film element and the separate sound record were both considered lost until only a few years ago when a copy of the mute film was rediscovered at the Library of Congress. The short was already considered to be a lost film as early as August 1933, as clearly indicated by a Warner Brothers Studio letter, now in the Warner archives at USC. The 1933 correspondence stated that "As this short was made in 1926, there are no records or films available. We do not believe there is a print of this picture anywhere in the country..." And, while Jolson fans and collectors had been seeking the sound disc for all these decades, the search was renewed with vigor upon the news of the rediscovery of the now silent film footage.
So, naturally, when The Vitaphone Project was founded, the "Plantation Act" disc became one of several priorities. John Newton, one of the founding members of the Project and a long-time Jolson collector, made this particular disc his personal Holy Grail. John's quest of many years was begun anew and Vitaphone Project detectives were on the trail.
Over the years, rumors persisted that a cracked copy of the Jolson disc had survived and belonged to a collector in the Baltimore area. The collector died in the early 1980's, but further rumors led to a belief that the record had found its way into the holdings of the Library of Congress. John Newton and David Goldenberg, another founding member of The Vitaphone Project, had made a joint research trip to the Library a few years ago and had explored this possibility, only to find another dead end.
Help was later sought from Bill Cappello, an energetic researcher who has helped project members in tracking down relatives of performers and studio personnel. Cappello took what information the project members had and focused on relatives of the long deceased collector who supposedly owned the rumored cracked disc. With potential addresses, Newton began letter writing, ending months later with a telephone call from the former owner's daughter. Arrangements were made for a trip to the Baltimore area and the disc was "ransomed" from the family.
The sixteen inch diameter shellac soundtrack disc was severely cracked in several places. In fact, it had been broken into four separate pieces and had been "repaired" with epoxy years earlier. When the disc was now played for the first time in many years, the opening strains of "Red, Red Robin" came forth bold and clear. Again, and again, and again. The disc would not track. The decades-old attempt to reassemble the pieces had put the grooves out of alignment. Another member of the project team, Sherwin Dunner, suggested a California collector who was known to be able to work wonders with damaged or broken shellac records. A call went out to Jim Cooprider, a veritable wizard at working with such problems.
The record was carefully packed and shipped to the west coast, where Cooprider spent months painstakingly removing the epoxy and refitting the disassembled pieces of the record. One piece, however had to remain as it was, since there were further potential cracks in that area of the disc.
The re-assembled record, now back on the east coast in John Newton's collection, still has problems to be addressed. But, thanks to Cooprider, most of the tracking problems have been overcome. Plans are now in the works to proceed with attempts to record the sound at Shanachie Entertainment's facilities, and further attempt to resolve the remaining alignment issues. Following this step a digital recording will be made to piece together the sound, or at least allow a computer to do so. De-clicking will follow, and ultimately the sound will be re-married with the mute film held at the Library of Congress. UCLA's Bob Gitt and officials at the Library have expressed excitement over the discovery and have been in communication with Ron Hutchinson for details as the restoration continues.
And so, you ain't heard nothin' YET, but very well may in the not too distant future. Further progress toward full restoration of this film will be reported in the next issue of Vitaphone News.
Our mailing list for Vitaphone News is now over 300, and the postage costs are paid exclusively from our pockets, and with the assistance of some of you who have generously contributed to the cause. One of the reasons for our success is the fact that we are not a big company or governmental agency. But that means we can really use your financial support, no matter now small. If you've contributed already, thanks. If not, please consider it!
The previously announced film festival at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Long Island, NY will now take place next spring - expanded from one weekend to a full month. We have submitted a list of suggested shorts to truly show the full gamut of output of Vitaphone from 1926-39. We'll keep you posted on details in the next issue.
Tom Althoff, whose grandfather Charlie appeared in vaudeville and in Vitaphone shorts, has developed a computer database that allows searching over 36,000 old radio shows all at the press of a button on your IBM-compatible PC. Includes search/retrieve/print software. Lets you search by actor's name and then brings up all the shows he or she appeared on. Ideal for motion picture fans or oldtime radio buffs. Requires 10 MG hard drive space, and 512K RAM. Provides actors, dates, sponsors, plot summaries, etc.
Cost is only $30, and Tom will donate $15 of each purchase to The Vitaphone Project to help support its work in restoring America's film history. Make check for $30 payable to Thomas Althoff, P.O. Box 1259, Greenwood Lake, NY 10925. Be sure to mention The Vitaphone Project and disk format (3.5" or 5.25") when ordering.
Do you attend film or music collectible shows? If you do, and you would be willing to put some of our flyers on the tables usually provided free near show entrances, please tell us. This is a great way for us to reach out to people who might have discs or related Vitaphonia. If you can help us on this, we'll send you a stack of our flyers, which describe the Project, what we're looking for, and how to contact us. Thanks!
Much to tell this time regarding the many people we've been in contact with since the last issue. We met great thirties pop singer Sylvia Froos at the annual collectors' cookout at Kathy and Alan Cooperman's. Sylvia mad two Vitaphone one-reelers in 1927 at age 12, then appeared in four more in the thirties, including Georgie Price's '34 musical, "Soft Drinks and Sweet Music", "Eddy Duchin and his Orchestra (also '33), and a 1932 installment of "Rambling 'Round Radio Row". This 80 year-young performer regaled us with recollections of every radio and stage great you can imagine... Thelma White starred in a dozen Vitaphones with heavy-set commedienne Fanny Watson and vaudevillian billy Wayne for the '31-'32 season. We visited her at her Century City home in April. Like many Vitaphone performers, she pleasantly recalled studio head Sam Sax. A still of her being directed by comedy expert Alf Goulding hangs on her wall. Her sister, Marjorie, appeared in early Fox musicals, Wheeler & Woolsey's "Diplomaniacs" and the Stooges' "Woman Haters".. Leonard Maltin, vitaphoniac Deluxe, graciously had the Project's Sherwin Dunner and Ron Hutchinson over to his home for dinner during the April trip. He and his lovely wife Alice and daughter Jessie made the visit a real treat!... Bill Cappello, our tracer of lost persons, has tracked down the family of Vitaphone star and premiere monologist Jack Osterman (very Bob Hope-like in his delivery). This was not an easy task. Osterman died at age 37 in 1939, his wife jumped out of a window in 1950, and his daughter died recently. Once heard, Osterman's performance is unforgettable... Pat Timberg, granddaughter of great vaudevillian Sammy Timberg, was happy to get dubs of her uncle Herman Timberg's performances in shorts. The Timbergs were consummate vaudevillians, doing comedy, jazz violin, eccentric dancing, and more. They made shorts for Vitaphone, Educational, and other studios. They also wrote many songs for the Fleischer cartoon studios, inlcuding "It's a Hap, Hap Happy Day"... Turner Classic Movies cable network directory of programming, Dennis Millay, has contacted the Project for ideas on programming their wealth of Vitaphone shorts. We've developed an extensive proposal including a regular weekly series and specials like "A Night At The Palace" (vaudeville), "Vitaphone Jazz: A Celluloid Celebration", "Hollywood in Brooklyn", and others. Keep your fingers crossed!... We mentioned the delight in finally meeting Hugh Hefner, a real fan of jazz, Crosby, Columbo, and British crooner Al Bowlly. His support for restorations of four Vitaphone shorts demonstrates a real commitment to preserving this material... Mel Torme, who we also met at the UCLA screening, continues to search for the film element for the 1929 Vitaphone Varieties, "Buddy Traps", starring 6 year old Buddy Rich... George Feltstein, who produces those great MGM/UA laserdisc sets like "Dawn of Sound, Vols. 1-3" called to assure that no additional discs to the 1929 Universal part-talkie, "Showboat", existed. We knew of reels 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 13. George has assembled a box set with the '29 (part talkie), '36 and '51 versions of the film...Richard Bann reports the new set of pristine Little Rascals tapes (22 volumes now) are selling great - over 1 million to date! Included are early disc only soundtracked Our Gang shorts "Bouncing Babies" and "Boxing Gloves". Hal Roach switched to sound-on-film in 1930.
This April's trip by Sherwin Dunner and Ron Hutchinson to attend UCLA's screening of the restored Baby Rose Marie and Ben Bernie Vitaphone shorts was jam packed with great moments and very supportive people! While the trip lasted only five days, a lot was accomplished. We finally met Bob Gitt of UCLA face to face. Bob kindly took us on an impromptu tour of old studio sites including those of Keaton, Chaplin, RKO, First National, and Paramount. Sam Gill, chief librarian of the Motion Picture Academy Library gave us a personal tour of this awesome facility - truly a film researcher's dream. Dick May, VP for Turner's film and Tape division, took time from his hectic schedule to give us a tour of the huge Culver City facility that houses turner's vast safety film holdings. After a two hour tour, Dick surprised us with the gift of unique metal stampers for MGM Vitaphone soundtracks!
April 13th saw the screening of the restored 1929 Baby Rose Marie, "The Child Wonder" short, with the great lady present! This is the first time this film has been screened in 65 years, and it was truly a magical moment when 4 year old Baby Rose Marie stepped onto the screen again to sing three hot numbers. Audience members constantly looked over to her watching herself. She kindly spoke to attendees after the screening, and recalled that the dress she wore in the short was given to her by legendary Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw. The 1929 Ben Bernie short was also wonderfully received, with its huge deco sets, risque comedy, and Helen Kane-esque vocalist.
These two shorts preceeded a screening of the recently restored 1929 Tiffany feature, "Lucky Boy", starring Georgie Jessel. Bob Gitt worked miracles on this film, combining several sources. However by the fourth rendition of "My Mother's Eyes", Jessel was getting laughs rather than tears.
The audience was filled with celebrity fans of this stuff: Hugh Hefner, Mel Torme, Dick Bann, Leonard and Alice Maltin, as well as friends of the Project like Jeff Hieze, Mark Cantor, Brad Kay, Rusty Frank, Richard Halpern and others.
It was very rewarding to see "The Vitaphone Project" logo appear on the screen before the Bernie and Baby Rose Marie shorts, along with others who made these restorations possible. we even got some applause!
A midnight visit to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel caught the Richard Halpern revue, which features great twenties and thirties music. A la Ed Sullivan, we were recognized in the audience and asked to stand. This followed a wonderful dinner at the Maltin's, whose beautiful home is chockful of film memoribilia. Leonard has been a real booster of the Project from the beginning.
While it all ended too soon, it looks like the UCLA/Vitaphone screenings will become an annual event. Bob Gitt is already planning to recreate the second original Vitaphone program from October 1926, which included shorts by Jessel, Willie and Eugene Howard, The Aristocrats, Bruce Bairnsfeather and others. Add to this the Jolson short, those funded by Hugh Hefner, and others in the works, and it sounds like a must-attend for any Vitaphone fan!
The following elements are being sought by individuals, archives, copyright holders, or researchers. Please let us know if you have any of these items in your collection, or know someone who does:
Greenwood Press has just released "The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville", an awesome reference about this American institution. Meticulously researched by Anthony Slide, the book contains a massive guide to over 500 vaudeville personalities, circuits, theatres, trends and genres. For individual performers, each entry provides complete information on birth, death, type of act, and often excerpts from their performances. Libraries and archives with vaudeville holdings are also listed. This is unquestinaly the most comprehensive book yet on vaudeville, which was preserved in its waning days by Vitaphone Varieties.
Slide not only provides the reader with historical data, he also gives us the often bizarre highlights of performers' exists from this world. It appears many died on stage or, like acrobatic bicyclist Joe Jackson, in the wings right after taking his bow. Big money headliners often died in poverty just a few years after the coming of the talkies.
Top names like Cantor, Jessel, Tucker, Pat Rooney and Georgie Price are covered in depth, but so are such forgotten greats as Rose's Royal Midgets, Eddie Leonard, Harry Rose, Jay C. Flippen and James Barton.
"The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville" has 24 pages of photographs, a detailed index, and individual entries that run from a single paragraph to several pages each. We heartily recommend this book to all readers of Vitaphone News!
"The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville", by Anthony Slide, Greenwood Press, March 1994, 656 pages, $75.00, ISBN 0-313-28027-4. Click on the link above to order direct!!
MGM/UA's new four disc boxed set of laserdiscs, "Calvacade of Vitaphone Shorts Volume 1: Swing, Swing Swing:1931-1944 (Cat. #ML103928) contains 402 minutes of great jazz and swing performances. If you haven't yet purchased a laserdisc player, this set should help convince you to do so! Here's a breakdown of the set's contents:
The following soundtrack discs have been uncovered since our last issue:
"Al Jolson In A Plantation Act" (Vitaphone #359, shot a year before "The Jazz Singer". See our cover story... Rudy Vallee Vitaphone from 1930... a great 1930 band short starring Horace Heidt and His Californians... reels 3, 4, and 5 for the 1928 music and effects score of "Naughty Baby", a first National Feature with Thelma Todd. Previously, the only known copy of disc 5 was at UCLA and was broken in pieces. All discs for this feature are now known... disc for St. Louis Blues, apparently for a Paramount short from 1930, although no record of such a title has been found. It says "Paramount Screen Service/Long Island Studios" in the wax, and the performance is hot. Does anyone know about this series?... disc for a second MGM Movietone Act from 1928 starring the great Jan Garger And His Band.
Perhaps inspired after viewing Baby Rose Marie and Ben Bernie Vitaphones at the April UCLA festival, Hugh Hefner decided to fund the restoration of four great Vitaphone shorts himself. Now in progress are three 1928 Gus Arnheim band shorts (#2136,2584 and 2585), all with legendary crooner Russ Columbo in his first screen appearances (he also appeared in "Wolf Song" (1928) with Lupe Velez), and #710, "Green's Twentieth Century Faydettes" (1929), featuring the most successful all-girl band of the twenties. This represents a real partnership between the Library of Congress, which has the prints and some discs, UCLA, which has some discs and will do the actual restoration, private funding, and the Project's role in generating interest and support. Thanks Hugh! And thanks also to richard Bann, who has continued to keep him posted on our efforts.
Progress continues on the restoration of shorts for which both mute film and disc elements exist, albeit separately. Now in progress are:
and John Newton:
Do you have film soundtrack discs (Vitaphone, Paramount, MGM, etc.),
production information, stills, or other ephemera on pre 1940 short films?
We urgently need this data for a major film restoration program.
Replies will be kept confidential. Project endorsed by copyright
THE VITAPHONE PROJECT
To contact The Vitaphone Project write to:
5 Meade Court
Piscataway, NJ 08854
or email Ron at email@example.com
or project member Bill Cappello at firstname.lastname@example.org