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An Interview With the Team Behind That's Vitaphone!: The Return of Sound-on-Disc

April 25, 2024

TCM has become well-known for the innovative, unique special presentations they stage at the yearly TCM Classic Film Festival. From the 2013 performance of The Donovan Affair (1929), which returned missing dialogue to Frank Capra’s first sound film with the help of live actors, to 2015’s event Return of the Dream Machine, which starred a 1909 hand-crank Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine, the network is committed to bringing fans extraordinary, rare programs they’d be hard-pressed to experience anywhere else.

 

And this year’s festival was no different.

 

As someone who prioritizes these special events, I jumped when I first read about That’s Vitaphone!: The Return of Sound-on-Disc. Vitaphone was the only widely used sound-on-disc system utilized during Hollywood’s transition from silents to talkies. Shorts and features produced by Warner Bros. and First National from 1926-1931 employed the system; by the mid-to-late 1930s, Vitaphone fell out of use in favor of sound-on-film technology.

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The tech stars of the TCMFF Vitaphone presentation: A synced 35mm projector and turntable. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

As part of the program, six 1920s Vitaphone shorts were presented the way audiences saw them almost a century ago: with the images projected on 35mm and audio played on a separate turntable from original 16-inch discs. It was a remarkably exceptional event. What made it even more special to me was the opportunity to interview all four participants: Warner Brothers Post-Production Sound Engineers Bob Weitz and Steve Levy, Film Forum Repertory Artistic Director Bruce Goldstein, and Vitaphone expert Shane Fleming. They shared how the event came to be, the process involved in bringing a century-old experience back to life, and the elements that make the event so unique.

 

The ground level work for this project was set in motion long before the idea for the TCMFF program emerged. About four years ago, Weitz was approached by John Yanez, the Director of the Archival Mastering Department at Warner Bros., to complete some Vitaphone disc transfers for archival purposes. While Weitz knew of the format, he had never worked directly with it; consequently, the endeavor required deep-dive research into 1920s disc recording and the specifics of synchronization. The end result was the design of a new turntable crafted to “sync to modern electronic sync signals, so that we could make correctly timed digital recordings for preservation and restoration,” Weitz said.

Weitz collaborated closely with Levy on the project, especially during the research phase. Levy, who had serviced Western Electric sound reproducing equipment and was familiar was disc mastering, found his knowledge beneficial when it came to working out the technical details required for such a complex undertaking.

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From left to right: Bruce Goldstein, Bob Weitz, Steve Levy, and Shane Fleming at the TCMFF Vitaphone presentation. (Picture courtesy Warner Media) 

Once the machine was up and running, they started performing transfers of old Vitaphone records to positive results. “Not only did the audio stay in sync with picture, but we were reproducing the audio with the correct characteristic response,” Weitz remarked. It wasn’t long before Levy and Weitz recognized something else unique: The system could also be used to present a 35mm film from the 1920s or 1930s along with its original Vitaphone disc. They decided to utilize this method to showcase the new system to archive clients, and a demonstration for TCM was also arranged by Warner Bros. Executive Vice President of Worldwide Post Production Services Kim Waugh. “The first thought I had was that it would be a great tribute to Sam and Harry Warner to show that the risk they took introducing talking pictures when all the other studios were satisfied with the status quo of silent pictures not only paid off but would allow audiences 100 years into the future to see and hear entertainment of the 1920s,” Levy remarked.

 

Just as the Sam and Harry Warner faced risks back then, the team bringing this technology back to life today faced risks, too. The equipment didn’t pose much of a challenge, but the discs did in several ways, despite being incredibly well-preserved for their age. First, tracking down clean, playable discs and prints without missing frames was no easy task. Second, simply transporting and handling the 95+ year old original discs posed a hazard. While shellac discs are “very durable from a standpoint of playback,” Levy explained, they are also delicate and easily cracked or broken. 

 

The first thing Weitz did when he received a disc was to digitize the audio, which involves inspection, assessment, and cleaning to make sure they capture the best quality transfer. The corresponding film reels had to be transferred to safety stock, and a leader was appended. From there, it was time to match up the first frame on every reel to the start mark on the disc. Luckily, all the shorts the team reviewed have synced beautifully.

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Here's an example of a start mark on a Vitaphone disc. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

It’s been almost a century since films have been screened this way, which made me wonder: Did they use period technology and equipment to restore the turntable the discs played on? The answer was no. “The turntable that Bob designed and engineered did require new technology to make it operational,” Levy confirmed. “The drive system is based on a bi-phase signal from the projector therefore differing from the original method of coupling the film projector and the turntable to the same drive motor. Custom buffering electronics had to be designed to minimize vibration from the drive motor to the platter. The turntable also employs a dual pivot tone arm that Bob custom designed based on many hours of geometric modelling to minimize the arc of the tracing angle. This unique dual pivot tone arm also permits synchronization between picture and sound to within 2 film perforations.”

 

The modern methods utilized also made for a gentler experience for the discs. “The turntable and tone arm system that I designed plays the records with a fraction of the tracking force that the old machines used,” Weitz confirmed. “We can confidently say that these old shellac records barely know they're being played, compared to the rather rough treatment they received in the old days. None the less, we are always aware of the fact that these are irreplaceable disks, and must be handled with the utmost care. It is truly amazing to be able to dust off these nearly century-old elements, and have them work like they did when they were new.”

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Weitz's new turntable was positioned in the theater so festival goers could get a glimpse of it during the presentation. (Picture courtesy Warner Media)

Aside from all the research, knowledge, and work that went into building the new turntable and syncing the discs, presenting this program was a special event in itself. For one, fans don’t normally see the projector in the theater, but that wasn’t the case here. “In order for the audience to fully appreciate what we are doing, we decided to set up the 35mm projector and synchronous turntable in the auditorium so that the old technology can be seen,” Weitz said. “If we had just projected from the booth in the conventional way, no one would have been able to actually see us load the discs and run the film. This will be a totally unique arrangement.”

 

When it came to emceeing and leading the pre-show conversation, TCM reached out to Bruce Goldstein. The long-time TCMFF presenter has regularly exhibited Vitaphone programs at New York City’s Film Forum, working for years alongside the late Ron Hutchinson, co-founder of the Vitaphone Project. (To date, the Vitaphone Project has found about 6,000 discs and helped studios and archives reunite different elements from approximately 140 Vitaphone shorts made from 1926-1930). “We have to thank Ron for a lot of this presentation, too,” Shane Fleming added.

 

Goldstein was the one who recommended asking Fleming to join the panel discussion. The 20-year-old historian has been interested in movies and sound recording since he was young. “Vitaphone, being the combination of those two things, is my niche dream come true,” Fleming said.

Fleming also shared a fascinating fact about one of the shorts screening, My Bag O'Trix (1929), starring Trixie Friganza. The long-thought lost film was restored by Ron Hutchinson, and the disc was found by Bob Furmanek, who at the time was Jerry Lewis’s archivist. Lewis actually uncovered the disc in a theater that was being demolished, and once he saw Friganza’s name on it, whom he worked with on the stage, he knew he had to keep it. Furmanek reached out to Hutchinson, and the disc was reunited with the sound-less film Hutchinson had!

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This wasn't one of the films we saw at the presentation, but I was happy to spot many Vitaphone discs and pressbooks on display at Club TCM. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

As for the lineup, only shorts with discs in playable condition could be screened, which is a feat in itself for these almost century-old objects. “As luck would have it, what I personally consider the crème de la crème of early Vitaphone vaudeville shorts all had runnable disks and those are the films in the show,” Goldstein commented. “So the program is not only a technical triumph for Bob and Steve and Warner Bros., but a truly entertaining re-creation of a live vaudeville show from the 1920s. I’ve seen these films many times with audiences and the reaction is like that of an audience watching a live performance. The TCM Classic Film Festival is the perfect showcase for these shorts.  On television or video, they seem primitive, but with a TCM festival audience, they’ll come alive.” Indeed, everyone involved was excited to present such a unique program to the TCMFF crowd. “These films haven’t had a better crowd since 1928!” Fleming remarked. He was certainly right.

 

The program kicked off with the “perfect opener,” Goldstein remarked: the first Vitaphone sound picture, a four-minute introduction to the system by MPPDA President Will Hays from 1926. The disc we heard is actually the only known surviving copy, held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Back in 1926, this short and others preceded Don Juan, the first feature film with a synchronized Vitaphone soundtrack (but not dialogue), and those full sound shorts proved more popular than the feature. That’s one way Warner Bros. knew they were onto something with Vitaphone.

 

The other shorts, including Sharps and Flats (1928), The Beau Brummels (1928), and Lambchops (1929), provided an entertaining grab bag of classic vaudeville comedy duos. While many of the teams are largely forgotten today—to the general public, not a TCMFF audience!—the humor largely remained as fresh and funny as ever. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard old movies sound so good. The acoustics emanating from the updated Vitaphone system filled the theater and enveloped the audience, placing us right in the middle of the action. It felt as if I was transported back into the 1920s, enjoying these shorts just as they were screened almost a century ago—in a theater with an enthusiastic, appreciative crowd.

 

 

Thank you to Maggie Riley for coordinating this interview.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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