Covering nearly half a city block, seven stories tall with three basements and sub-basements, and eighteen dressing rooms, the St. George Theatre in 1976, when we arrived, was a massive time capsule. Suddenly let loose in a 2672-seat movie palace, a theater that had, since its opening in 1929, seen a lot of action — both live and cinematic — we stumbled on something new and surprising, even historic, almost every day. I’m thinking now of a singular discovery we made in a storage space beneath the stage.
Barely five feet high, the space had originally been designed to hold the elevator for the theater’s 3/30 Wurlitzer organ. Behind that vacant space however, a friend found a megaphone-like device nearly three feet across. It reminded Dean of the loudspeakers once hung on telephone poles at his HS stadium. This one had a Western Electric logo at its base, and VitaPhone Sound imprinted on the bell. The logo jogged his memory; hadn’t we found some literature in a mezzanine-level storage closet?
According to those frayed pages, the Vitaphone dated back to the day the St. George Theatre opened with So This is College on December 4, 1929. The movie was an early “Talking Picture” — the hot new technology. A few years later, beginning in the early 1930‘s, all talking pictures would use an SOF (Sound on Film) format — an optical audio track on the film itself. But the first ever Talkie, usually credited as The Jazz Singer and predating So This is College by two years, had been, for all the hoopla, a primitive product. These movies had sound, yes: Al Jolson’s first words both seen and heard in a Warner theater in Manhattan, were “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” The film and its technology were a smash, a Vitaphone/Western Electric sensation.
This meant that the sound portion of the film was actually presented on a 33 1/3 16-inch record, amplified through one or more speakers like the one we found beneath the stage. Amazingly, projectionists in the late 1920’s had to first cue the film for a “talkie” to a specific marked frame, then cue the record to a white arrow painted on the disc itself. Hopefully both image and sound started at once. However, keeping the two tracks in sync was a mechanical process which the poor projectionist had to struggle with as each 11-minute reel spun out.
The evolution of Vitaphone involved an unlikely assortment of characters, including Lee DeForest (one of the fathers of radio who contributed the Audion Amplifier Tube in 1913), Will Hayes (whose Hayes Commission on censorship would trouble the industry for decades — nonetheless credited with the first spoken words “on film” — introducing The Jazz Singer), and Harry Warner, the film mogul, one of the Warner Brothers. Vitaphone also involved mega industries of the times, including Western Electric — later Bell Labs, and the Edison Company, not to mention Paramount Pictures — Warner’s competition. The race to good sound dominated the movie business in the mid-twenties and well into the thirties.
But I digress. Having found the scuffed and dusty battleship-grey speaker horn, with some cloth-covered electrical wires sprouting from its end, and a poster announcing the marvels of a “talking picture house on Staten Island,” we looked for the amplifier, the phonograph and other relics of the theater’s first sound system, but they were lost to time, perhaps in some sub-basement.
So it goes in an aging movie palace. Despite our inability to pay even the most basic bills in our year at the theater, we managed, by sleight-of-hand, to install improved sound behind our grape-soda-stained giant screen, importing two (state-of-the-art for their time) Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater speakers from a defunct movie theater we knew something about back in Cincinnati.
After seeing the five-foot tall VoT’s, I was stunned. “Amazing! — that that Vitaphone thing once managed somehow to fill this whole place with sound!” The Vitaphone hadn’t had to work very hard. We were accustomed to talking to each other center-stage to upper balcony, without in the least straining our voices, and not even a rumor of an echo. The St. George was and is (how miraculous that I can speak of our theater still in the present tense!) an acoustic grande dame of ever-increasing beauty.