|Volume 4 Number 4||
Rumors of a tunnel running under East 14th Street in Brooklyn between the old (Vitagraph) and 'new' (c.1929-31) parts of the Warner Brothers Vitaphone studios first surfaced during the Project's 1992 visit to the site. At that time, Project founders Dave Goldenberg, Sherwin Dunner, Ron Hutchinson and John Newton visited the Shulamith School for Girls which now occupies the former 'old Vitagraph' side of the studio complex. Built beginning in 1907, the buildings were designed for silent film production and were clearly inappropriate for sound shorts production. Warner Brothers acquired Vitagraph in 1925, and their initial sound shorts were made at the Manhattan Opera House because the Vitagraph studio needed soundproofing. New buildings were constructed on the west side of the street beginning in 1928 and continued at least until 1931. Following talks at Shulamith, the Project members, accompanied by Nighthawks bandleader Vince Giordano (who lives a few blocks away) stopped in the Mobil Service station immediately across the street. Several men in their seventies and eighties were talking in the office, and it became clear that they gathered here regularly to reminisce. All had grown up in the Brooklyn neighborhood surround the Vitaphone studios. Several had even appeared in shorts as extras.
One gentleman (who erroneously told us Laurel and Hardy filmed shorts there and was likely remembering Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John) said there was a tunnel running under the street between the two studio complexes, and that it had been used to transport props, sets and costumes. This would be a logical approach, as the carpenter and costume shops were known to be located on the 'Vitagraph' side while the bigger soundstages were on the newer Vitaphone (until recently NBC Television) side.
Years of inquiries failed to turn up anything until Vince Giordano's relentless detective work led him to the Brooklyn Department of Housing & Buildings archives. He was able to secure a set of 1955 documents which clearly showed the location of the rumored tunnel. The paperwork was for a permit to seal up the obsolete tunnel. Included in the file were extensive records on work done at the Vitagraph and Vitaphone studios over five decades. This included demolition of a film vault in 1931 (what was in it ???), construction of stables in 1911, many new buildings, extensive new studios in 1931, and much more.
As the accompanying print shows, the tunnel extends underground through the foundation wall of the cellar of the old Vitagraph building. Despite its classification as a 'pipe chase', the design is clearly one for a tunnel which would serve the purposes described earlier. Initial checks in the NBC basement reveal only brick walls which could conceivably hide the tunnel's opening. We hope to visit the site soon to see if the location of the tunnel on the Vitagraph side can be determined.
Ironically, the NBC soundstages have just been extensively renovated following their recent sale to JC Studios. We were contacted by Chief Engineer Ron Bernknopf who is overseeing the renovations. They include installation of all new Ikegami cameras and other studio equipment. All the hallways throughout are being recarpeted and the actors' dressing rooms have been redone. Taping resumed on January 4, 2000 on 'As The World Turns', roughly 93 years after Vitagraph first used the site for making motion pictures. Ron contacted us without knowing our interest in the tunnel, and has been asked by the engineers' union SMPTE to write about the history of the Brooklyn studio. He is very interested in studio's past, and has promised us a full tour of the site early in 2000. We hope that a method can be found to open one of the tunnel's ends to at least look inside. We'll keep you posted!
Film Forum in New York hosted three all-Vitaphone shows on September
12th, which featured the first public viewing of a number of shorts in
over 70 years. All three programs were SRO, with long lines at each.
Each program began with an original Vitaphone piano medley by novelty
pianist Alex Hassan. Through the generosity of Bob Gitt and UCLA, the program included beautiful prints of the recently restored
GEORGIE PRICE in DON'T GET NERVOUS (1929),
BUTLER & BRENNAN (1929)
and the bizarre and historic THE FOY FAMILY in CHIPS OFF THE OLD BLOCK (1928).
Other hits of the show included HORACE HEIDT & HIS CALIFORNIANS (1929),
BLOSSOM SEELEY & BENNIE FIELDS (1927),
LOU HOLTZ in IDLE CHATTER (1929),
BEN BERNIE & HIS ORCHESTRA (1929),
HAZEL GREEN & COMPANY (1928),
GUS ARNHEIM & HIS ORCHESTRA (1927),
THE INGENUES (1928),
and BERGEN & McCARTHY in THE OPERATION (1929, their first film).
This program also produced several underwriters for new restorations, including the all girl band short, HARRY WAYMAN'S DEBUTANTES (1928). Film Forum's director, Bruce Goldstein, hopes to present future Vitaphone programs in partnership with UCLA and The Vitaphone Project. We hope that some of the 1931-39 shorts now being preserved by Warner Brothers eventually can be seen again in a theatrical setting.
Among the first to film for Vitaphone was the noted bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn, who was recording for Victor at the time. Kahn was the son of banker Otto Kahn, but early on decided that music, not banking, was to be his career. He began making records in 1925 while playing at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. Today, he is remembered for many of the great jazz musicians who played in the band during the twenties and thirties. For example, Jack Teagarden recorded one of his first trombone solos with Kahn on "She's A Great, Great Girl" in 1927. Kahn also filmed YACHT PARTY for Vitaphone in 1932, featuring Gertrude Niesen and Artie Shaw, and another Vitaphone under his name in 1936.
On February 14, 1927, his orchestra filmed two shorts at the Manhattan Opera House on 315 West 34th Street in New York:
Roger Wolfe Kahn & His Orch.- VITAPHONE #468
"Popular Victor Recording Orchestra assisted by the Mound City Blue
Blowers. Scene: Night Club."
1) El Tango Del Perroquet
2) Following You Around
3) Telling the Birds (Mound City Blue Blowers)
4) Blue Skies
Roger Wolfe Kahn & His Orch. - VITAPHONE #469
"Popular Victor Recording Orchestra, assisted by Henri Garden (tenor)
and the Williams Sisters (singing and dancing youngsters). Scene: Night
1) Indian Butterfly (Kahn's Orchestra)
2) My Heart is Calling You (Henri Garden)
3) Thinking of You (Williams Sisters)
4) Yankee Rose (Kahn's Orchestra)
The Warner Brothers Archives at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has a file folders for these shorts. In addition to the usual music permission forms, there is a page of Kahn musicians, each of whom has provided their signature, address and phone number. A paragraph above the signatures states "We the undersigned consent to the use by The Vitaphone Corporation of our photographs and likenesses in any manner in connection with its business." Here are the musicians who signed:
The Mound City Blue Blowers were William "Red" McKenzie, Dick Slevan, Jack Bland and Joe Humby.
What is startling about this document is not only the array of great jazz names in the band, but the implication that all Vitaphone shorts must have required a similar signoff sheet. It can be assumed that a diligent search through these files at USC would produce the exact personnel of any Vitaphone short, provided of course that the documentation has not been destroyed.
The Vitaphone sound discs for both Kahn 1927 band shorts are at The Library of Congress. Unfortunately, the film elements for both are missing. The Vitaphone Project is seeking the film for these and many other shorts, and any help in finding them would be greatly appreciated!
Soundtrack disc discoveries continue unabated. Since our last issue, the following discs have been found:
Eddie Cantor's first Paramount sound short, THAT PARTY IN PERSON (1928) has been considered a totally lost film (sound and picture) since the 1930's. Another of his early sound shorts, ZIEGFELD'S MIDNIGHT FROLIC (1929) was similarly lost. Cantor's first known sound short, A FEW MOMENTS WITH EDDIE CANTOR was filmed for DeForest Phonofilm in 1922, although evidence suggests a second short was filmed simultaneously but does not survive.
Film buff Allen Hauss contacted the Project during the summer to report he had a number of soundtrack discs inherited from his father (who managed Warner theatres in the Philadelphia/Trenton area). In addition to discs for other films reported in our "Disc-overies" column, Allen reported having a disc for THAT PARTY IN PERSON. This has since been transferred by the Project in the hope that the film portion may eventually surface.
In the short, Cantor phones up "Mr. Paramount" ("hello, is that you Parry?). After explaining people don't work free since Lincoln freed the slaves, Cantor auditions with a rousing rendition of "Hungry Women". He then attempts to explain the acoustics of talkies and finishes with a peppy version of the current pop tune, "Here's That Party Now In Person", silently accompanied in dance (we believe) by shimmy dancer Bobbe Arnst.
This summer discovery represents a significant find, and we hope the picture portion of this film is found soon.
Well-to-do familes of the 1929-31 period could show their own talkies at home with a device such as this Visionola. It synchronized the same 16" shellac discs used in theatres with a 16mm film print. The Vitaphone Project currently knows of at least five similar units in use by private collectors. This exact Visionola turned up recently in San Francisco.
Charlie Chase film buff extraordinaire Don Brockway recently advised us that his father-in-law trains racehorses for a living. He recently named one of his horses "VITAPHONE", and it ran at Saratoga, NY this summer. VITAPHONE is stabled at Belmont Park, NY. The horse's owner's dad had been a pit drummer in Chicago during the early talkie period. He recalled being backstage when the Vitaphone speakers 'kicked-in'.
The short includes all the standard short subject standby's: a Fairbanksian dream sequence, chases, a slimy competing boyfriend, a nightclub scene, and a pie fight. Carpenter seems inspired by the Charlie Chase school of embarrassment comedy. Seeing several scenes accompanied by authentic 1928 Vitaphone-type discs heightened the enjoyment tremendously. John is now working on finishing the editing, titling and scoring. We'll keep you posted!
As we begin the next millenium, we thought it would be appropriate to list The Vitaphone Project's top ten most wanted items. There are many more, but we thought this would be a good goal setting exercise
While the liklihood of finding missing nitrate film elements continues to diminish with time, a recent major discovery proves it can still happen.
CONVENTION CITY was a late 1933 Warners Vitaphone feature starring Mary Astor, Adolph Menjou, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee and a host of other studio stalwarts. It was a highly risque pre-Code film which garnered much wrath from censors at the time of its release. It is the only missing post-1930 Warner feature, and no trace of it had turned up until recently. The just published "SIN IN SOFT FOCUS" by Mark Viera conjectures that once CONVENTION CITY was classified as a "Class I" picture (i.e. unreleasable even with cuts after its initial release) that its fate was sealed. Jack Warner allegedly was pestered by conventioneers wishing to rent the film, and ordered it destroyed rather than get in trouble with the Breen Office. This theory is questionable, but nothing has turned up in 66 years. That is, until John Leifert of Archive Films advised the Project of their discovery of silent outtakes totaling nearly 45 minutes. The shots include scenes in Atlantic City where the film's convention takes place. Sadly, no sound footage for CONVENTION CITY has surfaced (it was claimed to have aired on British television, but this hasn't been confirmed). Nevertheless, this is a welcome development after so many years.
A second discovery of major historic value is the accompanying soundtrack cylinder for what may be the earliest surviving sound film. The experimental film has two male Edison employees dancing together while a third plays the fiddle in front of a horn cylinder machine. The mute footage of this test has been included in film documentaries over the years but always with the statement that the sound was long lost. The cylinder was found at the Edison Historic Site in West Orange, NJ.
The Project was recently contacted by an author working on a book about the ghosts of New York City. During her research, she learned that some people claimed to have seen the ghost of Fatty Arbuckle roaming the old Brooklyn Vitaphone studios where soap operas are produced. Arbuckle was allegedly seen by several cast members of one soap. If one believes that ghosts haunt places where they had unfinished business, the old Vitaphone studio building would certainly qualify. Arbuckle made a series of highly successful "comeback" Vitaphone two-reelers for the 1932-33 season, following eleven years of being banned from on-camera work due to the 1921 Virginia Rappe scandal. While acquitted, Arbuckle's performing career was essentially over until Vitaphone studio head Sam Sax signed him for sound shorts in 1932.
Arbuckle had just signed to make features for Warner Brothers, but sadly died on the night following completion of TOMALIO (1933), his last Vitaphone short. With things finally going his way, Arbuckle clearly was not ready to leave this earth yet. We are pursuing these rumors with camera and engineering folks we know who work at the old studio building on Avenue M in Brooklyn.
In our last issue, we reported that a copy of the 1931 exhibitors' catalog of available Vitaphone shorts contained numerous rubber stamped letters "Sold PRM" over certain titles, apparently very selectively but without any discernable pattern. We asked readers to let us know if they knew what "PRM" stood for, or at least represented. Turner Entertainment's Senior VP George Feltenstein wrote to shed light on the "PRM" mystery. George writes...
"PRM was the holding company which changed its name very soon after its formation to something known as AAP (Associated Artists Productions). So references to PRM mean AAP, which became UAAA which became UATV, then MGM/UA then MGM, then Turner Entertainment Company (TEC). What the letters "PRM" stand for is a mystery. Elliot Hyman was the owner of AAP and he was financed by Manufacturers Hanover Bank. PRM is noted at the purchaser of the WB library and the Popeye cartoons from Paramount, so they must have changed their name to AAP in late 1956. Hyman sold his stock in AAP to United Artists in 1958 after making back his investment (and then some) in just two years, and UA called the division United Artists Associated, then merged it into United Artists TV. MGM bought UA in 1981 and then when Turner bought MGM in 1986, including the pre-1949 WB library, Popeye cartoons, and limited rights to the RKO library. Time Warner now owns Turner, so the journey back to its aegis for that library has been long and circuitous.
Another irony is that Hyman formed Seven Arts in 1958 with the money he made selling AAP to UA. Eventually, Seven Arts bought Warner Brothers from Jack Warner in 1967."[Ed note: this means that indirectly Vitaphone shorts allowed him to buy the whole Warner studio!]
While we still do not know exactly what the letters "PRM" stand for, the stamps over certain shorts titles in the Vitaphone catalog clearly signified their selection for release to television by AAP. Nevertheless, certain early titles stamped for television release and presumably preserved in sound-on-film in 1956 are currently not known to exist. These include:
The Vitaphone Project's main expenses are for the printing and distribution of this newsletter, which helps spread the word on our efforts and to uncover discs worldwide. When we hear of potential donations large enough to underwrite a restoration, we arrange for the funds to go directly to UCLA. While not a not-for-profit organization, your non-deductible donations to the Project are both appreciated and necessary to keep us going. If you've contributed recently, thanks! If not and you receive this newsletter, we hope you'll consider a donation! Send checks (payable to Ron Hutchinson) to:
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 owners.
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
|VITAPHONE NEWS||ISSN 1066-5951|
|Corresponding Secretary||Ron Hutchinson:||5 Meade Court|
Piscataway, NJ 08854
FAX: (732) 336-2603
|Data Base||Sherwin Dunner:||P.O. Box 1992|
New York, NY 10013
|Newsletter, Advertising, Publicity||David Goldenberg:||840 Winter Road|
Rydal, PA 19046
|and John Newton:||P.O. Box 7191|
Wilmington, DE 19803
|Vitaphone Project Web Page:||http://email@example.com|