Vitaphone View: THANKS FOR COMING – NOW SCRAM!
It is hard for modern audiences, often sitting with just a few dozen other patrons in a multiplex, to realize that in the twenties and thirties 3,500 seat movie palaces filled their seats three or four times a day. Movie-going then went far beyond the feature. The program could include a concert by the theatre’s 40-piece orchestra, a newsreel, short, cartoon and coming attractions. Larger theatres boasted massive Wurlitzer, Robert Morgan or Moller organs and music libraries that filled rooms.
The 5000+ seat Roxy theatre boasted four house conductors for their massive orchestra. They provided music for overtures, exits, live stage acts, and special music programs often tied to a feature’s theme.
As audiences first entered, the organ would often be playing appropriate “audience entrance music” to build anticipation for the upcoming show. Just before the main feature began, the orchestra would play an overture – often written for the specific film, as the lights dimmed.
And with the need for theatres to empty the seats and refill them quickly after the feature was over, the orchestra or organ would play some type of audience exit music, with patrons encouraged to head to the exits by ushers with outstretched arms pointing to the doors. In other words – they were told to get out, but nicely, and with musical accompaniment.
This 1929 program for Manhattan’s massive Capitol Theatre demonstrate the full program of live music, shorts and a feature that patrons could enjoy.
While the talkie revolution began with The Jazz Singer in late 1927, by the end of 1929 silent films were essentially gone for good. So were nearly 35,000 theatre musicians. By then, most theatres had eliminated live music. Only the largest movie palaces retained them, and by 1932 even those were largely gone.
But how to welcome – and then move out – their audiences?
Vitaphone came to the rescue. Beginning with The Jazz Singer, many films with sound were shipped with a 16-inch disk of an overture, or “audience entrance” music. These contained tunes selected from the soundtrack or were in a mood that reflected the feel of the feature. Warner Archive’s deluxe The Jazz Singer DVD and Blu-ray, for example, contains the film’s overture. Many, but not all, Warner Bros features with synchronized scores were provided with these overture disks. For the exit of the audience, often the studio provided a separate disk with similar music. As my sample links below for MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929 demonstrate, the exit music could take on the beat of a march, all the better to move the audience out quickly.
A page from a 1928 NYC Roxy Theatre program, showing that there was much more to a film show than just the feature.
A complete list of early sound films for which overture or exit music was provided does not exist. But a cursory check of The Vitaphone Project’s disk database included the following features as having been issued with them:
Noah’s Ark (WB/’29)
The Show of Shows (WB/’29)
Time, the Place and the Girl (WB/’29)
Dynamite (MGM ’29)
Dancing Sweeties (FN/’29)
Watch Your Step (WB/’28)
The Desert Song (WB/’29)
Don Juan (WB/’26)
Weary River (WB/’29)
Lilac Time (FN/’28)
Under a Texas Moon (WB/’30)
Most musicals of 1929-30 had both overture and exit music disks. The sample below for the still largely lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (WB/29), demonstrates the studio’s creativity in crafting a smooth medley of the film’s popular tunes, including “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, “Painting The Clouds with Sunshine”, and “In a Kitchenette”.
The studio supplied 16 inch Vitaphone disk of overture music for Gold Diggers of Broadway (WB/’29) included the film’s hits “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” and “Painting The Clouds With Sunshine”.
Overture and exit music disks waned after mid-1930, concurrent with the almost total elimination of movie musicals. By that time, the genre had worn out its welcome, and would not see a resurgence until 42nd Street in 1932. But some special musicals were still being made during this lean period. Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! (UA/’30) had two versions of overture and exit music, running about 9 minutes each. And as late as 1932, Paramount issued entrance/exit music (by now on an optical 35mm track) for Maurice Chevalier’s One Hour with You. This one (listen to the sample below) has that distinctive Nat Finston-led Paramount orchestra “sound” that is unmistakable.
Poster for Eddie Cantor’s 1930 Technicolor musical Whoopee!, which United Artists supplied with not one, but two, overtures that could double as exit music.
More generically, during the thirties, several companies issued “For Theatre Use Only” 33 1/3 and 78rpm 10-inch disks with non-vocal versions of pop tunes. These could be used as the booth operator chose, to welcome and exit audiences. While even Warner Bros had abandoned the direct disk recording of their sound films by around March 1930, the turntables often remained in the booth. Others added inexpensive 78rpm players if they did not want to convert the old Vitaphone turntables to that speed. These generic theatre-use music disks were primarily made by the American Record Company (ARC), which at the time owned a number of commercial 78 rpm record labels including Oriole, Melotone, and Perfect. They even had a Fox Movietone label. The content of these disks was from ARC’s band recordings. During a session, the band would sometimes record a separate non-vocal version of a pop dance tune. It was these that were used for their “For Theatre Use Only” series. At least 200 such sides were issued through the late 1930’s.
Label fore a mid-thirties “Theatre Use Only” 78rpm disk, which operators could used generically for overture or exit music and featured non-vocal pop tunes of the day.
MGM’s all-star Hollywood Revue of 1929 was supplied with disks for theoverture, intermission, and audience exit.
Examples of Vitaphone and other recorded overtures from my collection:
No, No. Nanette (WB/1930):
Gold Diggers of Broadway (WB/1929):
Hollywood Revue of 1929 (MGM/1929): Overture, Intermission and Exit Music:
One Hour with You (Paramount/ 1932):
Overtures, of course, were still being supplied to theatres by studios into the 1980’s, but only for the biggest productions, and by this time on 35mm film. Ben Hur (MGM/’59) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (UA/’63) are just two examples.
Today, the jaunty, custom recorded overtures of the early days of sound have been replaced with local ads for restaurants, plumbers, and gutter replacements. A decided come down indeed.
– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub
Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.
And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon: