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 my husband and partner, 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 the Warner Theatre, October 6, 1927 in Manhattan, led the way: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The film and its technology were a smash, a Vitaphone/Western Electric sensation. Two years later at the St. George on opening night, sound was the norm, proving, as always, how quickly new tech changes expectation.
But how did it actually happen? How did word and image manage to coincide?
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. Projectionists in the late 1920’s had a lot to do: amazingly, they first cued a “talkie” to a specific marked frame, then cued it’s 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. That’s right: the poor guy had eleven minutes till the next possible glitch!
Who made this transition possible?
Vitaphone ‘s evolution 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 original 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. They were, alas, 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 triplex back in Cincinnati.
After seeing the five-foot tall VoT’s, I was stunned. “Amazing! — this 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.
- My knowledge of acoustic perfection has been refreshed several times in the last fifteen years, as a patron. The St. George under its current management is all about live performance, including, on at least three occasions, Tony Bennett, who loves the theater. The first time I heard him, from what once had been our balcony, he asked that the sound system be silenced, then, hardly shy in his late eighties, belted out “I Left my Heart in San Francisco,” a capella. Bennett knows a “sweet” house when he finds one...
- When I say the St. George is currently “all about live performance,” the theater does, from time to time, present movies, though it lacks its big – grape-soda-stained as I recall it – screen. Those big screen days, I suspect, are over, in a post-movie palace era. Yet there are former palaces, like the United Palace (the old Loews 175th St.) in upper upper (Washington Heights) Manhattan, presenting epics on a wide screen. Nothing like Lawrence of Arabia in the format worthy of its original vision.
- Both theaters mentioned above, like all theaters everywhere, are threatened by Covid-19 closures that seem to go on and on. It’s up to you to support them, both now, with a donation, while they’re in their dormant stage, and when we come out on the other side of Covid, finally, wanting to sit together under a great dome. Let’s make sure those domes are still there to sit under.