Vitaphone View: The View from the Vitaphone Projection Booth
The life of the early Vitaphone projectionist was a tough one. Although well compensated at an average $150/week (about $2158 in 2018 dollars), it was not an easy job. In the silent days, there was normally just one projectionist and no worries about disks, adjusting sound during the film, loss of synchronization and then dealing with it promptly, or a myriad of other issues.
Parts of a Vitaphone sound-on disk projector
While the talkie projectionists’ job was a little easier with the sound-on-film Fox Movietone system (no disks), we must remember that most theatres were equipped to show sound films in both disk and optical systems. So while the man in the booth might get a brief respite when a Movietone feature was playing, the next one might be from Warner Brothers or First National, and with disks to deal with.
We must remember that until 1930, the sound quality of Vitaphone disks was significantly superior to sound on film. All the major studios issued their features in both formats in order to accommodate as many theatres as possible. Early on, it became obvious that at least temporarily, there needed to be both a projectionist and an assistant in the booth to handle all the duties and ensure a smooth and crisis-free program. Consider all the early talkie projectionist had to do….
Vitaphone projection booth and cue-ing up a disk.
• Soundtrack disks, in duplicate, were shipped to the theatre in advance of the program. These were shipped in heavy wooden boxes along with the 35mm nitrate picture element. Duplicate disks were shipped both in case there was any breakage as well as if additional screenings went beyond the 20 (or 40) recommended plays of each disk. Disks for each reel were carefully placed in a steel storage cabinet designed for that purpose (see photo). Keep in mind that if a program consisted of a feature, a two-reel short, a cartoon and or travelogue a newsreel, and trailers for coming attractions, a single shipment might include 32 or more disks including the duplicates. It was expected that all disks would be returned to the local film exchange immediately after the play date was over. Otherwise, a $3.00 per disk change was supposed to be assessed. It is unclear if those penalties were ever actually enforced, and – fortunately for film preservation – many were not and survive today.
A steel Vitaphone disk storage cabinet, this one in the booth of the Loews Jersey booth.
Note there are enough slots to accommodate about forty different disks.
• In the Vitaphone disk system, there were at least two projectors. If you look at some of the accompanying photos of the booth and projectors set-up, imagine that one projector has the picture and disk for Reel 1 of a feature ready to go. The other projector is set-up for Reel 2. As soon as the first projector has completed showing Reel 1 and the projectionist has switched over to Reel 2, then the first projector must be cued-up for Reel 3. This process would continue throughout the entire program. The 16” disks were pressed such that two-sided disks had alternate reels, for example, 1 & 3, then 2 & 4. A one-reel short had just one single-sided disk while a two-reeler required two disks, one with reel 1 and the other for the other projector with reel 2. It is around this time that studios began printing changeover marks at the end for each reel.
• The projectionist and his assistant were not idle once the projector was cued-up and running. Most features came with detailed instructions on how to adjust volume and the fader (front & back sound) DURING each reel. It was highly recommended by the studio that the projectionist rehearse the adjustments in a trial run prior to the first screening. An example of why this time-consuming practice was needed can be seen in MGM’s instructions on The Rogue Song (’30). The booth personnel had to ride herd over the entire soundtrack and make adjustments. MGM warned: “ The desired volume during certain parts is considerably louder than has ever been considered conventional.” For most early talkies, any on-screen gunshot required a prompt lowering of the volume to avoid alarming the audience or harming the Western Electric equipment.
A packet of Paramount needles for use on Vitaphone projectors.
• Ensuring synchronization, of course, was essential. Contrary to Singin’ in the Rain, problems with keeping Vitaphone disks in synch with the picture were relatively uncommon. However, it did happen. The Western Electric manual gave guidance on how to handle problems. If the film broke, the disk, of course, continued to play. Immediate shutdown of that projector was advised, with fast splicing and re-threading of the film. Fully aware the rest of the reel would be out of synch, the guidance directed just living with it until the end of the reel. For shorts, no attempt was to be made to address the issue. Just switch to the next reel was the advice. Under normal circumstances, the projectionist placed the needle at the precise starting spot, marked by an arrow in the disks’ area around the label then placed the precise single starting frame in the projector gate. As one motor drove both the turntable and the film, all would stay in sync.
Projectionist cue-ing up a Vitaphone disk by carefully placing the needle at the precise starting spot noted in the disk shellac with an arrow.
The Vitaphone disk system deficiencies were inherent in the system of synchronization, so sloppy presentation could yield disastrous results. A Chicago reporter in 1929, viewing The Broadway Melody noted that “the reproduction was fairly passable until the final reel began, when the synchronization suddenly went bad, the spoken words being several seconds behind the lip movement on the screen.” The audience began clapping, and the projectionist stopped the show, rewinding the reel and starting over, “repeating action we had seen before. A girl behind me giggled and said — referring to the entry of Charles King into a room, ‘ I guess he went out and came back in again! After fifteen seconds, it was obvious the synchronization was off again, the picture was stopped, and shortly thereafter, begun for the third time.”
An Australian projection booth, equipped for Vitaphone.
Unionization through IATSE expanded during the transition to sound. Because Vitaphone projectionists were in such tight supply and so essential, to theatre operation, their demands for higher pay, and one or even two assistants were readily met. Once the industry moved away from disks and the Depression deepened, the assistants disappeared and the pay scale ratcheted down.
The gravy train, with sound, was over.
Actual Vitaphone projector, in the booth of the Loews Jersey theatre.
– 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.
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