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Musicians' Conditions and the Arrival of the "Talkies"
In October, 1928, the Musicians' Union filed a log of claims for salary increases before the Arbitration Court. For picture show musicians, the claim was :
"Under the old award, picture musicians were paid: Weekly employees, six performances £5/5/-; for twelve performances £8/8/-; for each extra performance, 12/6d.; for each rehearsal, 7/6d.
"The new log calls for £7/-/- for a week of six consecutive performances; £8/15/- for solo pianists and £2/2/- for casual employees.
"The new log contains a special clause for musicians performing outside the pit or well. This is particularly important to exhibitors, because of the modern presentation vogue which takes players out of the pit to double on the stage for a special number.
"For this work, a musician required to perform on the stage in view of the audience is listed at 10/- per performance in addition to his weekly salary; and for playing solos, duets or music of a concert standard other than as a complete orchestra, 15/- extra per performance is demanded in addition to the rates fixed by the new award. If the work is done outside the pit, but not in view of the audience, the new claims are 5/- and £1 in the two classifications." [Everyone's, 17 October, 1928, p. 7]
It was at the end of 1928 that perhaps the most significant event in the history of the Australian film exhibition industry occurred. This event was announced on Boxing Day, 1928:
SYDNEY SEES FIRST SOUND FILMS.
STAGE BANDSMEN MAY BE HIT
"Synchronised films have arrived in Australia, and will be showing in Sydney cinemas on Saturday. Having heard them for ourselves we can predict that there will be no trouble for musicians in the larger houses, but if the cost of installation drops and the smaller theatres are able to bear the cost of the apparatus, there will be vital developments.
"Among the films we have heard were some showing bands at work. While the reproduction is splendid, it is not nearly as good as when the music is interpreted by an orchestra. This is the bid cudge in the hands of musicians, as, if "canned" music is imposed on audiences there will be a kick coming, from the public, which will not stand for the absence of the personal element.
"Musicians are anxiously waiting to see what procedure will be adopted by Hoyt's at the Regent on Saturday. How long Ernest Mitchell's orchestra will work, at what junctures, and what tactics will be adopted during the screening of the main feature, 'The Red Dance'.
"The next few weeks are pregnant with possibilities, and the rank and file of the Musicians' Union are anxiously awaiting the result of the conference between their representatives and circuit chiefs.
"According to the management of the third Sydney picture house which will show talkies in a few weeks' time, the Prince Edward Theatre, there is no intention to cut the orchestra. This combination is directed by Albert Cazabon, and is one of the most popular in town.
"On the surface, it seems that managements regard sound films more of a novelty than anything else at the present stage. The public has this idea also. Nothing concrete can be expected to emerge from the welter of controversy for at least a month." [Everyone's, 26 December, 1928]
Whereas "The Red Dance" at the Regent had merely a musical sound track, the Lyceum had secured the more innovative "The Jazz Singer", in which Al Jolson spoke and sang in short scenes:
"Yesterday the Lyceum screen came to life! From it poured the golden voice of 'Cine-Sound' - shadow shapes became living beings, singing, talking, playing as enthrallingly and naturally as if the actual performers walked the stage!... Warning! 'The Jazz Singer', with Vitaphone, will never be seen and heard in any other theatre in Sydney or suburbs, but is positively exclusive to the Lyceum." [Advertisement for Lyceum Theatre, Sydney, 30 December, 1928]
The following week, the trade press reported that:
"While the services of the Lyceum orchestra were called upon often during the showing of 'The Jazz Singer', owing to mechanical faults, the Regent band played cards during the programme, after the overture... It was essentially 'canned music'. The difference between the human element and the mechanical was emphasised during 'The Jazz Singer', when the orchestra filled in the gaps when the records were being changed. [The Vitaphone system employed a sound-on-disc process, with no mechanical synchronisation between the disc player and the film projector.] While synchronisation is wonderful, it cannot replace orchestras in big theatres... At present it seems that musicians in the big theatres are ensured of their jobs, but if sound goes to the suburbs, or to the country, then it is a different matter." [Everyone's, 2 January, 1929]
Sound films in themselves were nothing new; they had been around in one form or another since 1896, when the first sound film show before a paying audience was given by Oskar Messter in Berlin, using synchronised Berliner discs [Robertson, Patrick, The Guinness Book of Film Facts and Feats, Enfield, Middlesex, UK., 1980]. The first colour "talkie" had been shown in Sweden in 1911 [ibid.]. In Australia, talking films had been shown on numerous occasions previously. One typical example was at the Lyceum, Brisbane, in August, 1924:
"Singing and Talking Pictures - The mechanism that received a Royal Command in London. Perfect synchronisation by Patented Electrical Device. Positively the last word in motion picture novelties." [Brisbane Courier, 5 August, 1924 (Theatre advertisement)]
That final word, "novelties", summed it up, for the rest of the programme comprised silent films. The titles of the sound films were not even mentioned.
Now things were different. The whole industry and the general public sensed that this was "the real thing", that talking films were no longer just a novelty, a nine days' wonder, but something which was here to stay. And they were right. Few words can have summed up a revolution more concisely, their ungrammatical and alien sound enhancing their impact, than "You ain't heard nothin' yet" [Al Jolson, Dialogue from the first spoken sequence in The Jazz Singer, Warner Bros., Hollywood, 1927].
Whereas the future for cinema orchestras seemed uncertain, to say the least, for despite the assurances quoted above, it must have been obvious to all that it would only be a matter of time before the mechanical problems would be overcome and the sound quality improved, a new rôle could develop for the theatre organ.
It was at this dramatic moment that Frank Lanterman [who was sometimes billed as Frank Latimer in Australia] arrived from America to prepare for the opening of the organ in Union's new State Theatre, Melbourne, then under construction. He had seen the advent of sound films in America, and had no fears for the future:
"The new organist seems to adopt a blasé attitude in regard to sound. He refers to it as 'the gramophone stepped up a couple of notches'. He does not think synchronisation will harm Wurlitzers and other organs in theatres. With silent films audiences were being overfed with organ music to the point of biliousness, but sound has meant that the organ has become a solo instrument again, which is its proper place." [Everyone's, 2 January, 1929]
History, as we shall see, proved him right, and although in America the combined impact of "talkies" and the Depression sounded the death knell for most organs in theatres in the 1930s [Dr John W Landon, Behold the Mighty Wurlitzer - The History of the Theatre Pipe Organ, Westport, Connecticut, USA., 1983, pp. 87-97], the instruments gained in popularity in Australia, Britain and the Netherlands, where they were just beginning to "catch on" with the public.
Shortly before the arrival of sound films, the Director of Union Theatres, Stuart Doyle, had made comments in a similar vein:
SOUND WON'T OUST ORCHESTRAS AND ORGANS
"Recent arrivals from U.S.A have expressed conflicting opinions concerning the results of synchronised films on the orchestras and organists in cinemas. More than one has declared that sound pictures have pretty well killed the installation of organs.
"Stuart F. Doyle takes a different view. If fewer organs are being put in, it is because fewer theatres are being constructed. The building boom is over, and every worthwhile house is already equipped.
"In city houses complete orchestras are maintained, because a large percentage of the productions are still silent, the stage presentation must continue, and patrons regard talkies as simply something extra for their money, and not as an excuse for the theatre to economise on house music.
"The importance attached to the music at the new State Theatre, being erected in Market Street, Sydney, is stressed first by the fact that Will Prior has been induced to return to Australia as orchestral director there, and also that an exact replica of the organ in the Paramount Theatre, Broadway, has been purchased for the house. [The Paramount Theatre, New York, contained a four-manual, thirty-six rank Wurlitzer organ, equipped at that time with four consoles. This claim is therefore somewhat hyperbolic.] Organist Lanterman will be brought out by Union Theatres, to be followed by one of the most prominent players at the Balaban and Katz theatres in Chicago. Negotiations opened with him will be finalised by Will Prior. ["Everyone's", 14 November, 1928, p. 39]
There was indeed no lack of enthusiasm when Frank Lanterman and René Lees stunned audiences at the State Theatre, Melbourne, on 27 February, 1929, by playing duets on the only dual-console Wurlitzer installed in an Australian theatre. With four manuals and twenty-one ranks of pipes, plus a grand piano attachment, this was the largest, and only dual-console Wurlitzer ever installed in a theatre outside America. Lanterman was right - the instrument was to be featured and enjoyed by audiences for the next twenty-seven years!
Wurlitzer had, however, felt the chill wind of cancelled orders in America, and published the following very curiously-worded advertisement:
"THESE ARE HERE TO STAY, and we have the plant to stand for all TIME - and to be adapted to ANY change that comes along. ADVERTISING. NOVELTY. WONDERFUL MUSIC. SOMETHING TO GIVE THE PUBLIC are all here. You can use your own imagination, and get effects that will thrill your audiences - and next week -SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT! Ring and we will demonstrate this System, and give you a surprise. Compare it with other installations costing five times as much, and now drawing packed houses, and getting all Showmen worried about what to do. There is only ONE thing to do - follow the march of popularity, bring your house up-to-date, add advertising facilities, AND fill your theatres. The NOVELTY will be here for EIGHTEEN MONTHS or TWO YEARS at least (as it has in America, where it is still a novelty). Do not lose the opportunity while it is still a NOVELTY and consequently a big draw. Get down to big and regular installations in two years' time, when you can adapt this self same plant with only a little extra expense, and by then you will have accumulated your BIG PROFITS. We will Install upon such terms that it is within the reach of the smallest Suburban and Country Showmen, and yet will give the same performance as the biggest Installation. ANY theatre can be equipped with this Plant, regardless of size, and the price is less than the average cost of an Orchestra for a few months. We will guarantee every performance perfect. We Guarantee our installation and Service for Twelve Months FREE. Let us demonstrate to you, 'phone or write, and our executive will call you and make an appointment. We are open to any suggestions." [Everyone's, 13 March, 1929, p.45]
It is difficult to determine exactly what Wurlitzer was advertising. Could it have been an organ???
Hoyt's countered the State Theatre, Melbourne's Wurlitzer with a virtually identical instrument, but with only one console, at their new Regent Theatre, Melbourne, which opened on 20 March, 1929, with Stanley Wallace at the console.
"The popularity of the Wurlitzer organ in the chief theatres of the big cities of Australia has reached such a point that a programme without an organ number would be lacking to the majority of patrons. At the Capitol and Regent Theatres, Sydney, Regent and State Theatres, Melbourne, and other shows controlled by the big circuits, Hoyt's and Union Theatres, Wurlitzers are among the biggest mainstays of the entertainment." [Everyone's, 17 April, 1929, p.42]
The Regent Theatre, Sydney, organ referred to here is not the eight-rank instrument with which the theatre opened, but a magnificent fifteen-rank Wurlitzer which replaced it in March, 1929.
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