Exhibition: Talkies Change the Bijou

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Exhibition: Talkies Change the Bijou

The Demise of Prologue Presentations
The Talkies Spread Wide and Thin
The Tom Thumb Menace
The Depression's Toll

Prologue is dead! On with The Show of Shows.

From the film "prologue" to The Show of Shows, 1929

For exhibitors and for audiences, the coming of sound and the coming of hard times after 1930 caused permanent changes in the institution of moviegoing. In retrospect, it seems as though filmgoers abandoned with few regrets a cherished form of entertainment, the silent cinema. "This is one of the great mysteries of this part of film history," Alan Williams has aptly observed. "Why, with no previous indications of dissatisfaction, did audiences suddenly embrace the talkies, acting as if they had been dissatisfied with 'silent' cinema for a long time?"1 Perhaps the shift to sound films seems mysterious because it has been assumed that producers were pressing their wares on a passive public resistant to change. A look at exhibition during the transition will demonstrate the impact of audiences' selectivity as a factor precipitating the changeover.2

The Demise of Prologue Presentations

The case of the live prologue (see chapter 3) is a good example of how the film industry responded to consumers' heterogeneous tastes. Exhibitors initially had embraced the presentation as a way to establish their autonomy from producers and to differentiate their shows from competing theaters. A popular act could compensate for a bad film which, because of block booking, the exhibitor was obliged to run. The large film companies were also indirectly responsible for the rise of this form of stage entertainment because after the success of independent exhibitors, they had sponsored prologues in their own theater chains and organized vaudeville-like touring circuits. These live performances were quite successful, but producers and exhibitors alike began to regard them as a Pandora's box. Robert Sisk characterized the practice as opening the door to the talkies:

So there has grown up what is known as the presentation act in the big film houses…. When the great Publix theatres were ready to open, they found that the films wouldn't keep them filled. So they too let out a call for stage stars: "Hey, Paul—come on down and play for us!"

Mr. Whiteman, ever willing to oblige, drew $9,500 weekly for his orchestra. He was billed as being of more importance than the film feature. Sophie Tucker, another eminent star, sang in the picture houses. John Philip Sousa's band played; Gertrude Ederle swam. All of this cost a great deal of money. The picture became subsidiary. A big stage act saved a bad film. Soon the two became inseparable….

Then the talking pictures came along. (Robert F. Sisk, "The Movies Try to Talk," American Mercury, August 1928, p. 492)

When the Strand on Broadway installed Vitaphone, the management retained a few live acts to extend the program to its accustomed two hours. The critic Jack Harrower thought that "the general impression seemed to be that there was too much screen, and there was a noticeable lack of comedy to which all Broadway audiences have long since been educated. Looks as if they will have to work in some good short comedy Vitaphone stuff if they are going to make the new policy a success."3 These comments suggest that at least some customers had started attending theaters as much to see the stage material as to see the picture, and that on occasion they preferred the former to the latter. Though vaudeville was declining, the prologue challenged Hollywood's domination of theaters. It was an annoying form of competition which canned performances could easily make obsolete. The raison d'être of "virtual Broadway" was to move the performance off the stage and onto the screen. Sid Grauman, of the Chinese theater in Hollywood, speculated in June 1928 that sound equipment would eliminate prologues within two years. Kann, right from the start, pegged the rapid sound conversion as a reaction to exhibitors who were "pyramiding the presentation craze." He acknowledged that many forthcoming sound films would be bad, "but most of them will be far better than the vaudeville junk that trips over the boards of de luxe theaters all over the country today."4

Hollywood mounted an all-out attack against this enemy in the theater. United Artists' Joseph Schenck said, "Good pictures never needed acrobats or spangles in the past."5 Jesse Lasky, who had toured vaudeville before entering the movies, and whose company (Paramount) owned the Publix theaters, peppered his critique with a bit of history:

Prologues were introduced by exhibitors who felt that properly to show a picture they first had to put on a stage act which through dialogue and music, would create the proper atmospheric setting. This always struck me as being rather silly. Any well made picture carries its own atmosphere, put into the picture at the studio. It seems absurd that, after a studio has spent thousands of dollars on a production, the house manager of a theater, with his necessarily limited resources, should feel obliged to stage a brief act to interpret the picture to the audience. It would be just as sensible to expect the house manager of a legitimate theater on Broadway to stage a prologue to, say, [the plays] The Trial of Mary Dugan or The Racket. (Film Daily, 4 January 1928, pp. 3-4)

He declared that the film must always be the main attraction at a movie theater and that stage acts, if used at all, must not subordinate the picture.

From the producers' vantage in 1929, prologues had become anathema, in part because they diverted potential film rental revenue to theaters and performers. Many theater owners were also turning against presentations. Live performances required high overhead, including maintaining a union orchestra. Hollywood devised specific strategies to kill off prologues. Distributors adopted the fee system based on attendance (a percentage of the gate) to replace the flat rental charge (which formerly left any surplus to the exhibitor, who could use it to pay his vaudevillians). The virtual Broadway concept supplied theaters with name entertainment that surpassed in spectacle and quality anything that a local exhibitor could book. Relatively cheap film rentals undercut live performers' salaries. As sound became established, audiences were eager to hear famous comedians like Eddie Cantor, with whom they were familiar from radio. They preferred watching a filmed Ziegfeld revue to sitting through twenty minutes of anonymous local hoofers on the stage. The beginning of the end of live prologues came in April 1929 when Sam Katz began replacing them with "selected short subjects" in Publix houses.6

Merger mania and the coming of sound hastened the decline of local exhibitors' power, though in sheer numbers they were always the majority. As vestiges of the old showman tradition, they had exercised considerable influence on what audiences saw. By controlling the content and the length of the program, they could respond to the tastes of the community.

The virtual Broadway in the early sound films was crafted to "poach" from entertainments which were enjoying success as stage acts and radio performances. Exhibitors had been profiting by presenting these live attractions, but not Hollywood. The studios corrected this imbalance by producing filmed facsimiles of the star performances that audiences wanted to experience. It may even be that the superabundance of early Hollywood musicals was in part an effort to make the live stage show pale by comparison. By using sound the producers were able to take charge of the structure as well as the content of the film program.

The Talkies Spread Wide and Thin

Hollywood converted to sound quickly, but for Americans living outside of big cities, the "Golden Age of Silents" dragged on while they waited for their local theaters to be wired. In the summer of 1929 Film Daily conducted a thorough census of movie theaters. The snapshot was especially timely since it caught the apex of the pre-Crash motion picture economy. It also shows how misleading the notion is that conversion to talking pictures happened overnight.

The number of theaters wired for sound had reached 5,251 on 1 July 1929, a year and a half after Hollywood's decision to sign with ERPI and RCA. This figure represented a bit less than one-quarter of all U.S. movie theaters. To no one's surprise, most of the cinemas were concentrated in the six cities with populations over one million.

CityWired Theaters
New York500
Los Angeles87

Table 11.1 shows that while Hollywood was the capital of production, New York was by far the film consumption capital. Almost 10 percent of all the nation's talking cinemas were within its boroughs. ERPI confirmed that "scarcely a theatre north of 42nd Street is not equipped for the showing of sound pictures."7

But the statistics also revealed that while most wired theaters were in metropolises, the dispersal of sound among other cities was also significant. As Table 11.2 shows, talkies were playing in numerous towns smaller than 100,000.

Population of CityNumber of Wired TheatersPercentage of All U.S. Theaters
Over 1,000,00095218
Under 100,0003,28863

The project's statistician, James P. Cunningham, was impressed by the penetration of the talkies into smaller towns. He concluded:

While naturally, the development has been more pronounced in the larger cities, the wiring of houses has not been confined to the large centers of population, many small towns being included in the line-up. These grade down to towns of but a few hundred population, the survey shows. Another interesting fact brought out is the unusual large number of small theaters which are wired. In many cases, houses that have capacities as low as 200 are fully equipped to show sound pictures. (Film Daily, 8 August 1929, p. 10)

In midsize cities like Madison, Wisconsin (population 47,600), wiring had already reached the second and third tiers of the smaller theaters, such as the Majestic (745 seats), which had converted on 10 July. The figures do not include Canada, which, it was also reported, had 135 (14.5 percent) of its 930 theaters wired.8

Sound exhibition not only had permeated every size of town but was also dispersed geographically. Cunningham found no exchange territory where sound was not being presented (see table 11.3).

Exchange TerritoryPercentage of All Wired Theaters
North Atlantic26
New England6

Even the sparsely populated mountain states had a few wired houses. Sound picture shows were especially widespread in the Midwest. The data suggest that, although theater saturation was very thin outside of urban centers, the talkies were distributed across wide geographical distances. Yet attendance was high—probably the result of a mobile population having access to automobiles.

To put the facts in another light, sound films were within driving distance for most middle-class people by the end of 1929. This fact illuminates an important change observable in the subjects of early talkies. Prior to mid-1929, most consumers saw films in big theaters in big eastern cities, so it is not surprising that these movies, even those made in California, reflected New York culture. Among the subjects were Broadway musicals, adaptations of legitimate theater, vaudeville, and revues, especially those with ethnic appeal. The data show, however, that in 1929 the situation was changing. The national audience was becoming vast. Moviegoers' tastes and expectations in general had always differed from those of the urban minority. The result was that, as the demographics for talkies shifted from an urban to a national basis, producers altered the content of the films to make them less culturally specific to New York and more like the genres that had been popular as silents. The virtual Broadway revue, opera, the sophisticated drama, and ethnic comedian comedy had to be rethought. Westerns, action films, slapstick comedies, and small-town stories (of the type Colleen Moore had starred in) were introduced into the sound-film lineup to respond to the growing diversity of consumers.

Before the poll, Film Daily had criticized the industry and ERPI for neglecting rural exhibitors. Red Kann reminded Hollywood that Will Hays, William Fox, and the promoters of Vitaphone had promised that "small towns were to be benefited principally. Until now, however, this has been so much hot air, and the only noises that the little fellow has heard have been his own squawks, punctuated with not a few groans." He recalled that talking pictures originally had been sold to replace presentations and thereby aid the small exhibitor. But "the subsequent stampede did everything but that. The result was that the de luxe theaters, fortified by the producer-ownership and massed buying power, captured the balm designed for the little man." After the poll, Kann was optimistic that "the balance is now slowly but steadily swinging the other way." He proclaimed that the first stage of talking pictures, with exhibition concentrated in large eastern cities, was over.9

The survey revealed that the 75 percent of theaters remaining unwired were in very thinly populated and/or economically depressed areas. These were owned by individual proprietors outside the control of the studios or the big chains. Hollywood had a conflict of interest. As producers and distributors, the studios relied on these small-time independents for substantial revenue. Executives (hedging, as we have seen) pledged to stand by them and keep them supplied with silent product. But as chain owners, the motion picture companies saw that one way to diminish competitive risk to their own theaters was for the studios to convert as rapidly as possible to a product which many theaters could not use, and to satisfy consumer demand for something the competitors could not supply—sound films. Whether the majors organized such a campaign to use sound as a means of gaining control over small exhibitors is unknown. But what happened is that Kann's rosy scenario of talking films saturating every nook and cranny of the country did not materialize. The silent exhibitor was forced to choose between being driven out by competitors, selling the theater to a chain, or converting to sound (probably with borrowed money). Many of the smallest theaters simply shut their doors. During a two-week period in March 1929—well before the October Crash—313 theaters closed. In the small towns surrounding Battle Creek, Michigan, patrons deserted their local movie houses for the talkies. "Good roads, enabling farmers and others to go to cities to attend sound theaters, are among the factors injuring the small town."10

The trade journals were full of discouraging news for the independents. The famous theater architect John Eberson pointed out that purchasing sound equipment was only the initial expense in a conversion. Ideally the owner ripped out the insides of the theater and rebuilt from the floor up. Items like new upholstered chairs were needed to absorb echoes. Silent air conditioning had to be installed.11 Albert Warner did not mince words about the recourse available to the "little guy" who hesitated to convert. "In the interim unwired houses will be compelled to play whatever type of picture is placed on the market. If the bulk of the market is composed of sound pictures, the exhibitor will have to run them minus the sound."12 This Machiavellian prediction suggests that producers and distributors knew full well that many of these marginal cinemas would go under when the supply of silent prints was cut off.

The talkies were welcomed by large exhibitors after it became apparent that customers would support those who invested in sound and punish those who did not. There was considerable resistance to the talkies, however, from small theater owners. The Allied States Association president, Abram Myers, publicized the bleak conditions for independents. Many out-of-the-way managers complained of bad sound tracks, bad pictures, high overhead, and no customers for silents. Sound prints cost more than silent ones, and "there just isn't that much more money." They griped that Vitaphone engaged in unfair business practices. In fact, Warners relied on commissioned salesmen in a manner similar to the use of "pluggers" in the phonograph and music industries. Exhibitors protested that Warners did not have a standard sales contract and let its representatives charge as much as the market would bear. They sold sound-track discs separately "from $7.50 to what ever the salesman can get." The conceptualization of sound as an optional accessory to the film fostered these dubious practices. The owners proposed boycotts of talkies and considered forming an alternative silent-film distribution combine.13

Exhibitors also disliked block booking, blind bidding, and having to sign forward contracts for features that were never delivered ("vaporware" is today's term for such promised software). One owner sued RKO. Realizing that millions were at stake, the studio brought in the celebrated attorney Louis Nizer, who was kept on retainer by the New York Film Board of Trade. He convinced the federal arbitrator that the producers were not liable for these phantom movies.14

Thomas Soriero, manager of the Rochester Theater, represented many exhibitors who doubted the value of the talkie investment: "Sound pictures have not been entirely a success, owing to so many inferior ones on the market. Large expenditures for the cost of installations have been necessary, and, as well, the pictures themselves are more costly." He pointed out that most small owners were glad they had not switched too soon, since only recently had the quality of sound films improved and their costs been lowered.15

It is unlikely that any tears were shed in Hollywood or Manhattan over the plight of these businessmen. Sound, or more precisely, the mass audience's demand for sound, had put the majors in the driver's seat. Small independents rightly felt that talking films were being used by studios to force them to buy something they could not afford. "It is my belief," Soriero concluded, "that a great mistake has been made on the part of the producers in not fully acquainting themselves with the exhibiting end of the show business."16

The Tom Thumb Menace

There was, however, one thing theaters could do that scared Hollywood—stop showing films. Film Daily's survey of theaters indicated that despite the buying binge of the preceding years, the six producer-owned chains still controlled less than 20 percent of U.S. houses. Publix (Paramount) operated 1,500, Fox 900, Warner Bros. 850, RKO 250, and Loew's owned 200 theaters. Universal still had 100 theaters but was trying to sell them. Revenues for these big houses remained fairly constant throughout the spring of 1930. But in the summer the industry entered recession and the smaller independents began closing. New theater construction went down 60 percent from 1929. When the entrepreneur B. S. Moss announced that he might purchase some independent houses to start a new chain, he received 150 offers from theater owners eager to sell their property.17

Falling attendance was by far the exhibitors' number-one problem. They tried many ways to entice their customers back to the theaters, beginning with dusting off their old ballyhoo publicity techniques. Among the most spectacular were probably the aerial flyovers advertising The Dawn Patrol (1930). Theaters playing the film could book a small squadron of planes provided by the Curtis Wright Flying Service. Other practices included adding matinees, midnight screenings, and Thursday night previews at which the new Friday feature could be seen for free following the regular show. Gift nights at which patrons received door prizes became popular again. Come-ons like dish night and vanity night were successful because the customer had to return regularly to complete the set, which was given out one piece a week. Everyone knew that these lures were at best a temporary salve. "Free lunch, free refreshments, free cigarettes, and various other gratuitous offerings are now being held out by some theaters as special inducements to draw patronage," Alicoate caviled. "Whether the bait is bringing any results worth mentioning, the records do not yet show…. If the show is poor, even the side offer of a free turkey dinner will not bring very many." The U.S. Post Office maintained that such gimmicks were lotteries and that therefore the postcards advertising them were illegal to mail.18

One novelty was theatrical television. The Lincoln Pavilion Park in Chicago was one of the first theaters to broadcast TV. The theater sent a program out over the airwaves to ten theaters, but only four were able to pick up clear images. In New York, Alicoate attended an AT&T press demonstration of television and was able to see his assistant in a studio a few miles away. "The effect was uncanny," he enthused. "Television is here. Not one shadow of a doubt about it…. It would be suicide for the big minds of this great industry to close their eyes to television and its unlimited possibilities." Alicoate must have known that Harry Warner and Adolph Zukor were investigating television, and that David Sarnoff was already heavily invested in TV research and development. First National, Universal, and probably the other majors had been routinely inserting clauses into their literary property contracts that gave them television rights. In June the Federal Communications Commission (its name—significantly—changed from the Radio Commission) designated five 100-kilocycle bands of the frequency spectrum for television transmission.19

Mickey Mouse clubs began at the Fox Modjeska Theater in Milwaukee as a "kid stunt on the Disney-Columbia cartoons." The gimmick proved to be a powerful force in cultivating return audiences. The children gathered on Saturdays to sing the club theme song, "Minnie's Yoo Hoo," to watch cartoons, serials, and low-budget films, and to buy concessions. The Columbia press release explained the success of the club: "Like their dads, the average youth likes to be identified with social organizations, and the latest Mickey Mouse stunt is a darb to satisfy that yen. It is a membership card in the local club, a green card with a red imprinted number, that makes it look official and important."20 The clubs grew explosively. In March 1931, Walt Disney took over Howard Hughes's former Caddo offices at 1540 Broadway to administer them. It was claimed that more than three million kids belonged to the six hundred Mickey Mouse clubs. Disney and NBC talked about a club radio program.21

Another method of attracting moviegoers was to upgrade the auditorium and its sound system. The trade press put theater owners on notice that "Bad Sound—is synchronized murder":

When in place of ordinary even projection you have a constant rain storm on the screen and instead of pleasing voices and tuneful melody you get from the loud speaker a symphony of squeaks, scratches and air pockets, the effect upon the customer regarding his future and continued patronage is apt to be most discouraging for the exhibitor…. In former days an old print was bad enough but under the new order of things bad sound from either print or records is nothing short of synchronized murder. (Film Daily, 2 January 1930, p. 1)

While these sentiments echo the ERPI sales pitch, there is evidence that acoustics could indeed be pretty bad. The SMPE heard reports that the "marvelous realism" heard in Broadway theaters had room for much improvement outside of town. Clarence Brown, the MGM director, felt that 75 percent of the sounds quality was lost by the time the film was shown in theaters.22 One independent observer thought that

the actual talking picture is at present an utter failure. The picture with synchronized music is better, but no one with an appreciation of tone can say that even this branch of the synchronised production is successful. In spite of all the claims of perfect reproduction, the fact remains that the quality of the sound is inferior to that of the radio or of the better grade phonograph. However, as there is every reason to believe that American science can overcome this defect, it is one which should not enter into this discussion. (Herbert McKay, "Home-'Talkies,'" Photo-Era, January 1929, p. 55)

But even on Broadway reproduction was not perfect. When What a Widow! (1930) played at the Rialto, "the utterances of the players were more often than not quite indistinct, and when Miss Swanson sang poor synchronization added to the faulty tonal quality." The Metropolitan soprano Grace Moore sang in A Lady's Morals (1930) at the Capitol, but "the sound reproduction was so poor that it spoiled a climactic song and also caused the dialogue to be so muffled that it seemed as though one's ears were filled with cotton."23

One solution was to buy new improved equipment, especially if the installation was two years old or bootlegged. Several showcase theaters revived the discontinued system of running the optical track separately on an interlocked sound reproducer. MGM equipped the Astor on Broadway with such a double system for its two-dollar shows. The film was free from the intermittent motion required for the image, so there was supposed to be less wow and flutter.24

The Earl Carroll Theater in New York hired an "attaché" who sat in the audience and monitored the show's volume.25 ERPI urged this practice as an ideal. Some movie houses instituted theater-style rehearsals—for the projectionists. Film Daily's technical columnist described the procedure:

The projectionist cannot accurately judge the volume of sound in the theater. Rehearsals enable the theater management to determine fairly well the proper volume adjustment for each scene. Too often audiences suffer from monotony by listening to sound, the volume of which is either too loud or too soft. To obtain the correct effect it is necessary to maintain the volume at a level which is most natural for each subject. A close-up should be somewhat louder than a long-shot, and the voice of a single person should not be louder than the cries of a mob. (Film Daily, 19 October 1930, p. 7)

The local operator had the responsibility of ensuring that the level of sound matched the visual scale of each shot.

The necessity to "ride" the volume was caused by the varying levels of gain on the sound track (film or disc). (Modern reprints and some archival restorations of films from the period routinely eliminate the high variations in the originals by electronic equalization of the scene-to-scene changes in gain.) Obviously the solution was to equalize the output by adjusting the sound track in the recording lab, not by depending on the ears of the nation's projectionists. But before 1931 "timing" the sound track for level output by re-recording it had the objectionable side effect of introducing even more background hiss and scratching. Until noiseless recording improved the signal-to-noise ratio and made re-recording feasible, the best solution was to control the sound in the projection booth and to place the responsibility on the projectionist, who frequently could not hear the results of his adjustments. It is likely that only the most dedicated operator rehearsed or monitored the sound very meticulously. It was not until 1938 that the industry agreed on a standard for audio output.

The simplest way to improve sound reproduction was to turn the volume down. "The ground or surface noises that are part of die talking picture, as the phonograph needle's scratching is part of the talking machine, is emphasized by volume. This is especially true where there are many silent stretches in the picture. Lower volume, on the other hand, tends to obliterate these noises." Loudness was still the most frequently heard complaint. Fans complained of headaches. One auditor in Arizona claimed to have been deafened by a trip to the movies. The problem was so serious that the New York City Board of Health amended its sanitary code to require theater owners to tone down their movie speakers or remove them. Engineers advised projectionists to start the volume low and fade up. Otherwise, "sensitivity is deadened, with the result that the listener is satisfied with the volume before it has actually been diminished to a level that should be used."26 Joe Weil of the Universal theater chain laid the blame on management. In 90 percent of the complaints about sound, "the real trouble can be laid to lack of proper supervision of the sound reproduction by the manager of the theater…. The manager must monitor the show and telephone the projectionist when adjustments are required."27 Kann claimed to have seen "secret figures proving what bad business rotten talkers are doing."28 He told anecdotes (possibly apocryphal) to show that poor-quality sound was no longer tolerated:

One night last week, an audience in a New York neighborhood theater walked out. Couldn't stand such rotten sound. Recently, a distinguished star's first talker had a nice New York opening. Everything there but the sound. Then there was a certain picture, handicapped to begin with because it was terrible, that had an unfortunate premiere not long ago. The reproducer squawked against performing. What a night that was! All over the land, bad sound is driving dollars away from theaters, many of them never to return…. The public demands a good show and doesn't give a hoot in L what troubles have to be waded through to give it. (Film Daily, 1 July 1929, p. 1)

Jack Alicoate picked up the fight in an editorial against "the universally bad reproduction of sound and dialogue in the small and medium-sized houses." He said that "the main reason for poor or spotty reproduction is cheap, bootleg or home-made equipment. Close behind comes lack of intelligent inspection, tardy replacement of worn parts and the employment of cheap and untrained operators."29

In addition to upgrading the sound system, another strategy for boosting attendance was to improve the decor and ambience of the auditorium. Loew's theaters, for instance, removed sheet-music stalls from the lobbies. "A wise move, it seems, this eliminating of the music stand which in many instances has impaired the beauty and attractiveness of numerous de luxe houses," Alicoate editorialized. "The hawking of pop corn and music may be within the bounds of etiquette in small theaters but it's out of place in the modern up-to-the-minute Picture Palace."30 Exhibitors who might have considered trying this would have found themselves in the difficult situation of having to sacrifice a few dollars of needed ancillary income to pay for "class." Most continued to sell concessions.

The talkies made theaters cooler in summer. In the old days many theaters closed in July and August because of the heat and humidity. This practice changed in the late twenties when "refrigerated air" became a selling point. The coming of sound necessitated acoustic control inside the theater, leading to the end of opened doors and noisy ventilation fans. Quiet air conditioning not only improved the noise level but enabled theaters to remain open year-round. This increased the demand for more movies, led to the cancellation of the traditional winter recess in Hollywood, and opened the door for more independent product.

One telling change in film-going behavior not usually associated with the coming of sound was the shift in audience snack preferences. In February 1929, the National Theater Supply Co. introduced its peerless popcorn and peanut machines. Whereas hard candy and peanuts-in-the-shell had been the treats of choice in silent film days, talking film audiences would not tolerate the munching and shell cracking sounds. Relatively noiseless popcorn quickly replaced peanuts at the concession stand.31

Exhibitors also tried altering the time-tested structure of the movie program. The most controversial strategy was the double feature, running two films (usually an "A" and a "B" picture—that is, a high-low rental combination) for the price of a single admission. This practice was common with independent theaters in out-of-the-way areas where the features were short and cheap, but it had never been a serious factor in big-city exhibition. "The major producers and distributors fought the double feature vigorously until 1934 when the National Recovery Administration denied the majors the right to ban it," according to Paul Seale.32 Exhibitors sometimes ran double features as an alternative to renting several expensive shorts to fill out the program. At its April meeting the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America pleaded with producers to make longer features because shorts cost more per minute than features. Alicoate commented on the effect of sound on the projection time of features:

Personally we have always preferred quality to quantity but that won't suffice as an argument to an irritable and squawking customer who has been used to two hours of amusement for his two-bits and feels cheated if turned out ten minutes earlier. Formerly a small exhibitor could kid his gang along, and frequently did, by slowing his machines to sixty or seventy [feet per minute]. Now with machines timed to run ninety that simply can't be done. Today a sixty-minute feature runs just that and no more. For a two-hour show the little fellow needs plenty more film or another feature. (Film Daily, 20 May 1930, p. 1)

A few months later he published the running times of several new features that exceeded eighty minutes, purporting to show that producers were responding to exhibitors' complaints.33

Sometimes nothing worked and the manager faced the prospect of no longer showing movies. Rather than shutter the theater, many enterprising independent owners and a few national chains explored an alternative amusement, miniature golf—or as it was called then, Tom Thumb golf. In the spring of 1930 operators began ripping up the movie seats and installing putting greens. By summer even the Fox, Publix, and Warner organizations were turning their unprofitable houses into miniature golf courses. Warner Bros. refitted at least twenty-five Stanley theaters for golf. Even the Apollo on 125th Street in New York was converted to a golf house. The trade press lamented the "Tom Thumb menace" and chastised exhibitors who succumbed to it. But the craze passed with the summer; by September 1930, Film Daily noted satisfaction that seventy-five courses were for sale in Los Angeles, and that "takers are few and far between."34

Perhaps the scariest thing about the mini-golf fad was that the industry's unshakable belief that audiences would go to the movies no matter how bad things got was badly shaken. The public was willing to spend its dimes and quarters on cheaper amusements. Desperate exhibitors were more than ready to abandon movies if a more lucrative use appeared for their big buildings.

The Depression's Toll

Adolph Zukor, a staunch economic Darwinist, proclaimed in an advertisement that

to us in the motion picture business, one of the outstanding lessons which 1930 has driven home repeatedly is that the public, no matter what general conditions may be, will patronize good pictures. Good pictures! Nothing in this business can take their place, nothing is so absolutely necessary to the continued prosperity of all phases of the industry. Week after week, when other businesses have been languishing, when poor pictures have been starving, we have seen good pictures draw thousands of people to boxoffices. The record has been so plain that the wonder is anybody ever could have been deluded with the idea that there was a substitute for good pictures. (Film Daily, 2 January 1931, pp. 9–11)

His optimism could not cover up a fundamental truth: in 1931 and 1932 the audience did not show up. All the good pictures could not put disposable cash into the pockets of jobless workers or prevent bankers from foreclosing on mortgages. Realizing the effect of severe unemployment on admissions revenue, exhibitors sponsored National Motion Picture Week, 18–25 November 1931. Theater patrons were urged to make donations for the national relief effort. "Give him a lift," appealed the ads. Retrenchment hit the local Bijou hard and devastated the big movie palaces and chains. The Roxy Theaters Corporation made a small profit in 1930 but lost $163,571 in 1931.35 The Roxy itself had been sold by Fox to a consortium of investors who cried loudly when the management attempted to shut down the theater for four weeks in an effort to stop the cash outflow. A federal judge sided with the bondholders and prevented the closing.36

The fortune of the Warners' Theatre on Broadway is emblematic of exhibition at large. Like all Warner houses, it was reconfigured with a wide Vitascope screen in January 1931. Unfortunately, this event coincided with the decision by the majors to halt all widescreen production. Soon the former flagship theater began operating as a second-run house. An event which symbolized the distance the talkies had traveled occurred in March 1931, when The Jazz Singer was re-released for a two-week exclusive engagement at the Warners'. The revival flopped so badly that the theater canceled it after three days. "Reaction to the pioneer sound film," according to the trade postmortem, "was that it appeared tremendously out of date in the face of the fast progress made by talkers." But current releases fared no better, and in April 1932 the Warners' Theatre closed. On the West Coast the newly built Hollywood Warner Bros. Theatre was also shuttered for several months. It reopened in May 1931 with Svengali (1931) but soon became a grind house (that is, giving continuous performances at popular prices).37

Theater managers, of course, tried to hold the profit line. They slashed ticket prices. In many regions the cost of admission, already down from around thirty-five to fifty cents in 1930, reached ten cents. Matinee prices were extended to 6:00 p.m. to draw workers into the theater. Many independents successfully renegotiated contracts which returned them to the more advantageous flat rental system except for "big situations"—pictures from which the studio expected to make more money. To reduce their taxes, most businesses used accelerated depreciation schedules. The Internal Revenue Service ruled that it would allow depreciation of theater organs only if the units were physically removed, thus providing a valuable tax incentive for the wholesale destruction of these historic instruments.

The years 1931–1933 were dismal for most business, but for show business they were particularly harsh. Construction of movie palaces halted. As Film Daily tersely concluded, "The day of the de luxers is virtually over."38 In general, the more theaters they owned, the more the production companies suffered. Paramount received help from Lehman Brothers in refinancing its theater debt in 1931, but this biggest of the studio-theater combines went into receivership anyway. It emerged reorganized in 1935. The Fox Theaters Corporation and the Balaban and Katz Circuit went into receivership in 1932. Balaban and Katz, which operated thirty-five theaters in the Chicago region, claimed that Paramount had saddled it with $2.5 million in rental obligations. Sam Katz himself had been forced out of Paramount Publix. Fox's Wesco subsidiary was reorganized in 1933, eventually to became National Theaters. Harley Clarke's General Theater Equipment went into receivership after losing $900,000 in 1931. Loew's survived the Depression because it pared itself to a small chain of about 150 big-city theaters. Warner Bros. refused to go into receivership and sold 300 of its 700 theaters. RKO at first seemed to be a lucky scavenger, acquiring distressed theaters when their owners could not pay RCA for its sound systems. But these became albatrosses when RCA stopped its subsidies to the film company. RKO went bankrupt in 1933 and did not recover until 1940.39

This glance at exhibition illustrates that the producing and consuming functions of the film business were separate but ultimately codependent. Obviously neither component could exist without the other, but since each wanted to maximize profits, inherent conflicts erupted from time to time. The coming of sound was a period marked by a lack of harmony. Exhibitors who could afford to convert to sound seem to have done so willingly in order to satisfy their customers. But those whose revenue base was insufficient to support the investment were reluctant, and some of them spoke out against the unfairness of the talkies and their distributors. Perhaps it is here that the idea arose that audiences did not like the talkies and big studios forced them on consumers. More likely it was the owner of the local theater, who did not wish to turn over a substantial portion of revenue to convert the house, with an aversion to talkies. For all classes and locales of theater owners, however, the primary issue surrounding the coming of sound was the decreased sovereignty of the local manager.

As for the question of why audiences seemed to forsake the silents, perhaps one answer is that embracing the talkies did not necessarily imply a rejection of the films of seasons past. The talkies succeeded not because they replaced silents, which had inexplicably gone from popular to despised, but because audiences of the time looked at the sound film as an improvement on silents. They selectively evaluated the talkies against other competing forms of entertainment, such as music concerts (especially jazz) and miniature golf. Before 1930 audiences might have attended theaters to participate in several locally specialized forms of entertainments, whether stage shows, talent contests, or sing-alongs. Increasingly, the movie house showed sound movies and nothing else. The most probable reason is that live participatory events became poorly attended, while talking pictures held interest. Because of the imperative to survive the Depression, these structural changes in the program were perhaps inevitable. It may have been a sense of something lost by the local community with the passing of home-town-generated entertainment that contributed to the later nostalgia for the silent age.