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When the Talkies came to town

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 23 2012 07:16:04 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 26 2012 04:53:46 PM CDT

In the spring of 1928 Lehigh Valley newspaper readers might have noted a wire service story by Louella Parsons, the leading movie gossip columnist of the day, writing from a place that nobody had yet thought to call ‘Tinseltown.”

In the spring of 1928 Lehigh Valley newspaper readers might have noted a wire service story by Louella Parsons, the leading movie gossip columnist of the day, writing from a place that nobody had yet thought to call ‘Tinseltown.”

Her subject was the “talkies” as everybody in Hollywood was calling the new talking movies, and the question was would the “latest novelty” last or just be a passing fancy.

Although some in the big studios were saying talkies were here to stay that view was far from unanimous. A majority opinion among directors, including cinema icon D.W. Griffith, Parsons reported, was that they would pass, “and by fall Hollywood will be back to making silent pictures again.”

The directors were wrong, of course, but today, 84-years later, the recent sweeping of five Oscars at the Academy Awards by “The Artist” -- a largely silent black and white film about a silent star whose career is ruined because he accent makes him unsuitable for the age of sound -- has revived the debate about the role of silent movies. Although “The Artist” has failed to be exactly, as the trade paper Variety used to say “buffo at the box office” it offers a look back to that time in the 1920s when theater organs went silent and the actors couldn’t stop talking.

The age of the talkies came to the Lehigh Valley on Thursday, December 15, 1927. That evening Allentown’s Earle Theater on North Eighth Street off of Hamilton was to have its grand opening as the first movie theater in the region to have talking pictures.

Under the headline “City’s Newest Theatre Ready To Entertain Public: Will Mark First Local Showing of 'Talking Motion Pictures'” the Morning Call gave the particulars.

The Earle had been built by William Seitz who had leased it to Equity Theatres Inc. which operated a “chain of forty-three theatres in Philadelphia, Reading and several New Jersey cities.”

It was Equity Theaters that decorated the theatre in and gave it a style. “Spain lends her charm to the newest of Allentown’s picture houses….From the attractively designed marquee over the entrance to the stage everything harmonizes in color and design,” the paper stated.

The Earle offered two talking movie systems Vitaphone and Movietone, both products of Western Electric. “Prince of Headwaiters,” a feature film by First National Productions, a studio that later merged with Warner Brothers, would be using Vitaphone. Movietone would be used for what later became known as selected short subjects.

“A full carload of equipment was necessary for the presentation of the pictures,” noted the newspaper. “There are generators, horns, faders, electric tables, switchboards, amplifiers of sound and a specially constructed screen. The latter, although not necessary, was selected by the management to insure the best possible visibility for the spectators.”

The theater was scheduled to open for 6:30 that evening. With 900 seats and extensive standing room it was expected to be quite adequate for the demand. But once the doors opened a steady stream of movie fans came pouring into the Earle. It was not long before all 900 seats and the standing room spaces were taken and the ushers, dressed in snappy uniforms, were forced to turn them away.

As the crowd arrived they admired the lobby with its stucco walls that suggested a Spanish mission in California and the carpet of red, black and gold. As they headed toward the theater space itself they were greeted by baskets and baskets of flowers. Many of them had been sent by the contractors who worked on the Earle, almost all of them local firms.

As people of the day expected organ music the Moeller organ took off with selections from Victor Herbert. At the keyboard was “Professor” Marsh McCurdy whose concerts over WHN radio in New York were heard nationally. He also appeared at the Lexington Avenue Opera House in New York.

Finally the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. As the theater went dark the projectionist George Kessler got things rolling. Suddenly on the screen was the then very familiar now almost forgotten Will Hays, former Postmaster General of the United States and in 1927 president of the Motion Picture Owners and Distributors of America.

As Hays opened his lips and began to give a greeting to the movie goers here was a gasp from the audience, who was hearing some one talk on a movie screen for the first time.. Even the reporter of Allentown’s Chronicle and News newspaper was impressed. “There was synchronization between motion picture and sound that made it plain that Mr. Hays was speaking,” he wrote.

With that the “sound barrier” had been broken. Words and sounds began to pour from the screen. There were opera tenors, ukulele players, cheerleaders at the Yale Army football games, Baltimore and Ohio steam locomotives blowing their whistles and last, but not least Niagara Falls.

“The Prince of Headwaiters.” star was Lewis Stone, better known as “Judge Hardy” the father to Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy films of the early 1940s.

The plot revolves around the daughter of a proper New England family who runs off and marries Pierre (Stone) a Paris art student.

Her father forces them to separate but later she gives birth to a child who crosses paths with Stone when he is the headwaiter at Paris’s Ritz Hotel who later rescues his son from the clutches of a gold digger.

The public turned its back on silent films as theaters across the Lehigh Valley and the nation rushed to install sound systems.

But the critics that loved “The Artist”  argue that movies lost their soul when they discovered sound. As former silent star Norma Desmond (played by former silent star Gloria Swanson) says to the man who tells her she “use to be big” in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard,” “I “am” big. It’s the pictures that got small.”