You’re fired: Silent film musicians & the talkie revolution

To coincide with our upcoming Silent Sundays screening of Eisenstein’s pro-labour Strike on May 1, we examine how the arrival of sound pictures affected the livelihood of silent film musicians.

The successful commercialization of synchronized sound films in the late 1920s was arguably the medium’s most important technological achievement since its invention. But often neglected is how the costly conversion to sound systematically put thousands of silent film musicians out of work.

In Toronto, sound films first arrived at the Tivoli, at Richmond and Victoria Sts., when the Fox Movietone film Street Angel premiered on October 5, 1928. As Luigi Romanelli’s  orchestra sat silently in the pit, the whirring strings and woodwinds from New York’s Roxy Orchestra emanated from loudspeakers in the Famous Players theatre.

As starlet Janet Gaynor danced away to the ghostly amplified music, some of Toronto’s best musicians felt a tug at their collar; the sound film was here to stay, and their future as silent film musicians now seemed uncertain.

Months earlier, Jack Arthur, the celebrated Famous Players musical director, told the Daily Star that the success of all-talking pictures was an “uncertain factor.”  He added, somewhat optimistically, that the synchronized sound film would assist the orchestras and organ players with sound effects.

The downtown palaces like the Loew’s Yonge St., Pantages and Shea’s Hippodrome would continue to feature elaborate musical revues before their nightly celluloid attractions, but the numerous  neighbourhood movie houses across the city, soon to make the switch, no longer needed to pay an entire orchestra or an organist to accompany the films.

By May of 1929, the Pantages, Oakwood, Capital, Runnymede, Palace, Parkdale, Loew’s Yonge St. as well as several others were also talking the talk.

The right to strike

On September 7, 1929, with a year remaining in a three year contract with Famous Players,  the twelve musicians employed at the Bloor and Alhambra theatres — both omitted from the original agreement for a variety of reasons — were informed that their services were no longer required. For the other theatres in the national chain, new conditions made the contracted musicians jobs as irritating as possible.

The company was trying to make monkeys out of musicians, claimed union president Bert Henderson. The following week, at a union meeting held at the Regent Theatre on Adelaide St., the conductor of the Parkdale Theatre read from a list of requirements received from Famous Players headquarters, later printed by the Daily Star:

“No playing in the pit; members of the orchestra to spend three hours in the pit; a 20 minute intermission to be observed; no lights and no stands to be used in the pit; orchestra members not to read magazines or books in the pit; pictures to be cued by the leader but no playing; two rehearsals a week at 6pm., Wednesdays and Saturdays, no substitutes allowed.”

One musician added that “sitting in the pit, listening to the talking machine and looking at the picture until your eyes get sore makes you sore in others ways.”

But Famous Players founder N.L. Nathanson believed the biggest burden was shouldered by his company, not the musicians. “We have no need for orchestras in our theatres, but I felt that there was a moral obligation on us to live up to the agreement, whether we needed the musicians or not, and we therefore agreed to continue to pay them salaries in all of our houses covered by the contract, until the expiry date next year,” he told the Daily Star. “If there is any hardship it is on us. For the next year we shall be paying for a full orchestra in each house, that we do not need.”

Indeed, Famous Players went to massive lengths in converting their theatres to sound. The auditoriums also required massive retrofits to help the sound circulate and not bounce off the reverberating plaster motifs decorating the walls. But despite the renovations, as well as the musician salaries — the contract was worth $128 000 annually — 1930 yielded historic financial highs for the country’s largest theatre chain.

Days after the meeting, projectionists from the affected Toronto cinemas, which also included the Park, Madison, Belsize, Bedford and Capitol, threatened to walk off the job unless the musicians contract was fulfilled. Luckily for them, the musicians union reached a temporary agreement with the exhibitors.

Settling and moving on

In October, 1930, the union settled with Famous Players in the sum of $41 921, benefiting about 90 local musicians.  The Daily Star reported that live, original music would no longer be heard in any of their suburban movie houses. “‘Canned’ music will supply all the requirements, and patrons will no longer listen to the overtures that a few years ago held such a prominent place in the programs.”

Many musicians went to radio and bandstands; some became teachers. Many would abandon the craft altogether.

Other chains and independent owners weren’t so quick to settle, prompting newspaper ads from the American Federation of Musicians, which represented 140 000 North American musicians. By resorting to synchronized sound, they claimed exhibitors aimed a “devastating blow at cultural progress” and insulted the intelligence of movie-goers by promoting a poor substitute — a “modern convenience, not an artistic triumph.”

Sources:

Toronto Daily Star, July 12, 1928; October 5, 1928; May 18, 1929; September 7, 14, 18, 1929; October 5, 1929; November 5, 1929; April 13, 1931.
Altman, Rick. Silent Film Sound, p. 392. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Images: Top, the Palace Symphony Orchestra, Palace Theatre, Calgary, Alberta. National Archives (courtesy of Paul Moore); Middle, Toronto Daily Star, October 1, 1928; Bottom, Toronto Daily Star, November 5, 1929.

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