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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - Sound Comes In, Vaudeville and Silent Pictures Go Out


On August 15, 1926, the Warner brothers introduced an experimental process to New York audiences that brought synchronized sound to movie theaters. Movies were already a thriving business. Although the early movies did not talk, the audiences made vocal comments on the picture before them and cheered, clapped, and laughed in appropriate places; live or separately recorded music accompanied the film, so silent films were not really shown in quiet settings. The Warner brothers put the sound track directly onto the film and thereby offered something new to an already lively medium. The August 1926 program included a filmed speech from former postmaster general Will Hays, some music recitals, and a silent performance by distinguished actor John Barrymore as Don Juan with a recorded orchestral accompaniment. Audiences marveled at how clearly Hays’s words came through and how faithfully the sound process reproduced the musical tones. “The resonance and clarity of the tones seemed to put life into the shadows on the screen,” gushed the New York Times. It was as though the audience “had a front row seat at the Metropolitan Opera.” The upscale audience was reportedly spellbound: “Only those who had to catch trains to go to their summer homes left before the feature came to an end.”

The Warner Brothers and the Movie Industry

The four Warner brothers were typical of the men who made the movie business. They were Jewish, the sons of a Polish cobbler who immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland. The peripatetic family eventually settled in Youngstown, Ohio, where the father worked first as a cobbler and then as a grocer, with the sons doing what they could to help. The second son, Albert, went on the road for the Swift Company selling soap. In Pittsburgh in 1904 he saw his first movie at a “nickelodeon,” an early storefront movie theater so-called because of its cheap admission price. The family decided to go into the movie business, obtaining a motion picture projector and a print of a short film called The Great Train Robbery. They showed it in halls near their home base as part of a complete program that included a piano solo by Rose Warner (a Warner sister) and songs from Jack Warner. Then they opened their own nickelodeon in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. Starting without enough money to buy necessities for their small storefront operation, they had to borrow chairs from an undertaker down the street.