What did going to the movies sound like back in the “silent film” era? The answer takes us on a strange journey through Vaudeville, roaming Chautauqua lectures, penny arcades, nickelodeons, and grand movie palaces. As our guest In today’s episode, pioneering scholar of film sound, Rick Altman, tells us, the silent era has a lot to teach us about why sound works the way it does at the movies today. And as our other guest, sound and film historian Eric Dienstfrey tells us, “What we think of today as standard practice is far from inevitable.” In fact, some of the practices we’ll hear about are downright wacky. 

Audiences today give little thought to the relationship between sound and images at the movies. When we hear a character’s footsteps or inner thoughts or hear a rousing orchestral score that the character can’t hear, it all seems natural. Yet these are all conventions that had to be developed by filmmakers and accepted by audiences. And as Altman and Dienstfrey show us, the use of sound at the movies could have developed very differently.

Film sound scholar Rick Altman and Mack after their interview at the University of Iowa.

Dr. Rick Altman is Professor Emeritus of Cinema and Comparative Literature in the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, University of Iowa. Altman is known for his work on genre theory, the musical, media sound, and video pedagogy. He is the author of Silent Film Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Film/Genre (Bloomsbury, 1999), and A Theory of Narrative (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Dr. Eric Dienstfrey is Postdoctoral Fellow in American Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Eric is a historian of sound, cinema, and media technology. His paper “The Myth of the Speakers: A Critical Reexamination of Dolby History” won the Society of Cinema and Media Studies’ Katherine Singer Kovács Essay Award for best article of the year in 2016.

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 17…

[low horn instruments play]

[CRIS]

The Sounds of Silents

[ERIC DEINSTFRY]

We think of going to movies as going to the movies but for a lot of audiences, they were going to hear a live concert that was accompanied by motion pictures. And there’s this great anecdote that Anna Windisch uncovered in their scholarship in Viennese practices from the turn of the century. And they found a series of films, I believe, where you had the motion picture printed on film, but you also had a visual recording of the conductor, conducting a score that was meant to go along with that film. So I believe it was sort of like a superimposed image. So when you screen the film, you’ll see the conductor on screen conducting. And then the orchestra that was live in the theater playing would take its cues from the conductor that was on screen.

[conductor taps baton, and orchestra plays]

[MACK]

It’s Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood.

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek. So what are we listening to here, Mack?

[MACK]

This is Eric Deinstfry. He’s a historian of sound technology and sound media working at the University of Texas, Austin. And he knows a lot about the history of sound in motion pictures.

[CRIS]

So what’s he talking about?

[MACK]

It’s this crazy story told me about the silent film era in Vienna. You know, back in the early days of film, people had to figure out how to combine music and film. And as you can imagine in Vienna they had this illustrious classical music today. With fame conductors, and it seemed like a good idea to just  put the conductor in the film and let the local orchestras where the film was being shown just sort of follow his conducting.

[CRIS]

Yeah, but I’m imagining this didn’t go so well.

[MACK]

No, it didn’t.

[orchestra music continues]

[ERIC]

And, like a lot of these practices, they’re fine. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t always work. like nothing ever really works the way that it’s supposed to. In this case, it definitely didn’t work. Because as films were distributed over time, with real changes and as pieces of the film are cut out, you lose seconds, or fractions of a second of the conductor moving his baton, which means you might actually you may lose the downbeat, you may lose various other cues or whatnot. So becomes very different to play as a symphony. When watching a conductor that’s missing frames.

[orchestra continues with occasional stops, as if parts have been cut out]

[CRIS]

So this is that sense that we all experience sometimes of the sound and the image being out of sync, right?

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah. Like if this film is kind of beat up and it’s missing some frames, then Suddenly the whole orchestra is off of the beat.

[CRIS]

Which is comedic.

[MACK]

It must have been hilarious. And that’s really what our show is about today. Where does the relationship between sound and images at the movies come from? I mean, it might sound like a weird question because it seems completely natural to us, right? You take a film class at college, you learn about diabetic sound.

[CRIS]

That’s the sound,am I right, that comes from the world being represented in the images like a horn blowing in the street, or a clinking teacup in a Victorian palace?

[MACK]

Yeah, you the characters hear it, and the audience hears it. It comes from the world of the film. And then there’s what they call non diabetic sound.

[CRIS]

the sound that the characters don’t hear, like the orchestral score or pop soundtrack or the narrator the film talking to the audience.

[MACK]

Exactly. And this seems entirely natural to us that there’s music playing that the characters can’t hear. Right. But all of this is just a set of conventions. And these conventions are habitual to us. But someone had to invent them, right? Someone had to figure all of this stuff out and kind of the audience’s needed to buy into it.

[CRIS]

It’s a lot of trial and error. 

[MACK]

Yeah, exactly.

[ERIC]

What we think of today is just sort of standard practices is far from inevitable. And there were a lot of experiments going on ways to try and think of the merge of motion pictures and music as much more of a multimedia experience and So we’re we arrived at if anything is far more conservative in conventional than what was actually being practiced in that early era. And I think that’s why this early era attracts so many people, because you just see of just this. So many creative practices that, you know, have since been lost but that you know, there are records out for when you uncover them. It’s just really funny to see like, this is what cinema could have been maybe in an alternative universe.

[slow menacing music plays]

[CRIS]

I really liked that idea. And I hear it in many different kinds of disciplines. The sense that we’ve lost potential things that could have been really great to pursue have been put in put into the disciplined track.

[MACK]

Yeah. And so if you really want to understand the film soundtrack as we know it today, you need to go back to its prehistory in the so called silent era. Luckily, I got to talk with one of the OG scholars of the silent film era.

[CRIS]

I ask you what’s an OG scholar? It feels like it’s missing the M.

[MACK]

Original gangster. He’s an original gangster of silent film sound scholarship.

[RICK ALTMAN]

Hi, my name is Rick Altman, I used to teach at the University of Iowa. Now I am an emeritus faculty member, still teaching a graduate seminar on film sound.

[MACK]

Rick is the author of a lot of things. But most importantly for our purposes, he wrote this book Silent Film Sound that came out in 2004 and Columbia University Press. It’s this multiple award winning book full of archival finds and insights and really great pictures. It’s kind of a large format book. And in one poll, it was voted one of the top five books on film of its decade.

[CRIS]

He doesn’t sound like a gangster at all.

[MACK]

No, he doesn’t. Sounds like a nice man who lives in Iowa. But when Rick got started in his research, silent film sound was not exactly a hot topic. 

[RICK]

People seemed to think that everything that needed to be said about silent film, and silent film sound in particular, had already been said. I came along and thought to myself, this is going to make it very easy for me to write the first chapter of my general history of film sound.

[MACK]

So, you know, Rick thought that he was just going to be able to, like summarize all of this work that had already been done on silent film and silent film sound. And that was just going to be a chapter in this longer Opus about the history of sound and film. There was just one problem.

[RICK]

Unfortunately, when I went to the library, I found that the whole area was un-interegated.

[MACK]

Basically, Rick was gonna have to do this research himself. So he starts digging into historical materials, newspapers, trade magazines, technical documents ephemera from the silent film era. But as he did it, 

[RICK]

I kept running into confusion about what I was dealing with what I was reading about, I would be reading about sound effects. And they would be called, somehow music. Well, I didn’t understand how that was possible. But every time I would find this confusion of terminology, it sent me to a new domain and made me realize I was dealing with a much more complex situation than had been presented in my professional press.

[MACK]

So what Rick altman discovered is that the story of silent film sound was multiple. It was really the story of a whole bunch of other forms of 19th century entertainment.

[vaudeville music plays]

[RICK]

I worked a lot on vaudeville. I worked a lot on the history of magic lanterns. I dealt with the architecture of concert halls, I found that photography was absolutely central to the work that I wanted to do.

[CRIS]

So, some of this history goes way back. Right? I mean, the magic lanterns develop out of the camera obscura in the middle of the 17th century. The camera obscura goes right back to Leonardo. Those kinds of people were playing around a lot of painters were playing around with the camera obscura. 

[MACK]

So the camera obscura was like the pinhole camera that went,

[CRIS]

You could see what was going on outside projected into the wall. And the Magic Lantern introduces gradually a lens by which you can focus that image. So you know, you can write on glass, you can paint on glass, you can see those kinds of shadows moving around inside your house. I love to do that. I spend my days doing that kind of thing. And in the kind of late 17th, early 18th century, they began to adapt this technology for all sorts of purposes. Some of it was for storytelling, but also people began to use the magic lantern for lecture circuits, they began to use it scientific teaching and so forth.

[MACK]

And do you know what they use to create the light to illuminate the the slide and projected onto the wall?

[CRIS]

It became Limelight, right? Before then it was candle lights.

[MACK]

A burning piece of line. Which is where we get the term limelight from.

[CRIS]

Right, right. That’s right. That’s a really good connection to make. And, we actually don’t know the full history of the development of the magic lantern. Some of them are coming out of China size of complex history of the development of a technology. And I really like that, too, that it’s being used in various different contexts by various different people to diverse purposes.

[MACK]

Yeah, and I mean, I think what this shows us is that motion pictures weren’t born in a vacuum, right? There were already these technologies and different kinds of traveling shows and entertainment. And they all use sound in different ways. So people had already been projecting still images and telling stories. And of course, the song and dance and light poetry of vaudeville was a really dominant entertainment at the time, right. So when the motion pictures arrived, all of these different players see film as an extension of what they were already doing. They all have different conceptions of what this technology is and what it’s for, and what it’s even called. So Altman is looking at all of this and he realizes that he has to avoid This pitfall of thinking about the past that we so often fall into, it’s the way that we think that the present arrangement of things, the way we use sound in films today is the foregone conclusion. And he says, no, this really could have gone a different way. This was this crisis moment in the history of film. And so he says, what he has to do is something he calls crisis historiography.

[CRIS]

And that’s great.

[different vaudeville music plays]

[RICK]

Crisis historiography is something that I came up with, in order to explain to myself what I was doing. Most historical accounts are really aiming to explain a single phenomenon. I found constantly that I couldn’t deal with my materials as a single phenomena. There were Many different phenomena. When film is called advanced vaudeville. You realize, wait a minute, we’re not even sure what the topic is that we’re studying. So that it’s not film as we see it today, as we understand it today and trying to understand how film as we see it is existent today. Instead, it was a competition among various approaches to sound. So, we’re dealing with Wurlitzer organs. 

[organ music plays]

We’re giving a song sides, we’re dealing with lecturers and lecturers. We’re dealing with projectors, we’re dealing with ballyhoo outside the Nickelodeon. Come on, ladies, come down and check out our show. We’ve got a show that is really more important than anybody else’s. Only a nickel lady. Come on, come right in, come right in if you put your nickel right there. 

[sound of a coin going into a slot]

Think about this. Where were the first accompaniments to film? Well, they weren’t in the theater. They were outside the theater because the film was being accompanied by the ballyhoo sound. This is a technique borrowed from the carnival, you want to let everybody know on the Midway, that you’ve got a show that they want to see. And so it was only after having ballyhoo for your music, that you begin to realize, Oh, I guess we could use this same sound inside in the theater. So film sound, you gotta deal with the whole business.

[music ends]

[MACK]

So it sounds like a moment not that dissimilar from our own where we have all of these different digital fans that crop up, or certain apps that become a craze and then maybe disappear not long after, or, you know, one sort of social media website dies off and another takes over and seems to establish itself. And that, just like we’re still coming to terms with how to conceptualize all of these new digital media that we’ve had over the past decade or so, at that moment, there was this same similar kind of crisis or excitement, but also people not sure what to make of it, how to monetize it, and so on.

[RICK]

Let me tell you just how similar it is these crises. They, they don’t last forever, but they always get replaced by another crisis. Eventually, for example, what’s a computer? Well, computer something that computes, isn’t it? When’s the last time you use your computer to compute anything? No, no, we don’t do that. Because we are borrowing the identity from a previously existing system. But yes, we used to have computers that actually computed now we have computers that do different things. And we have iPods, we have iPads, we have iPhones, we have all kinds of things that are constantly in confrontation, one to the other.

[digital music plays then fades out]

[MACK]

So in his book, Silent Film Sound, Rick altman tells us that new media technologies aren’t simply born and given a name. They begin nameless in a crisis of identity. And there are three components to this identity crisis.

[RICK]

One is multiple identity.

[MACK]

The second one is jurisdictional conflict.

[RICK]

Constant competition among the various approaches to sound And then eventually,

[MACK]

An overdetermined solution arises.

[RICK]

There is an agreement among these systems that makes it possible for everybody to come out doing well.

[MACK]

So let’s talk about this multiple identity concept. 

[older upbeat music plays]

The movies are said to have been invented in 1895. In 1896, no less than six different film projection technologies all made their debut in the market at once, each one at a different name.

[different names are listed off in an over the top manner]

It wasn’t just these technologies that were competing. with each other, this is where this concept of jurisdictional conflict comes in. 

[CRIS]

This is like Betamax and VHS.

[MACK]

Yeah. And but they were also like, totally different visions of what the technologies were even for. Like, is this a visual aid that you’re going to use on those lecture circuits you were talking about? Is that a prop for vaudevillians to us? Is it a replacement for vaudeville itself? Some people call it views. Some people call it advanced vaudeville. In the first couple of decades of their existence, no one was even calling these things motion pictures.

[CRIS]

And I bet as things getting mixed and remixed and scrambled and confused. You get some really peculiar arrangements and practices in those situations.

[MACK]

Yeah, definitely. And the Chautauqua is a perfect example of that.

[RICK]

Chautauquas were organizations usually rural. They started out in upstate New York that were dedicated to the lecture circuit.

[My Country Tis of Thee played by a band plays]

And the lecture circuit started in the mid 19th century in Boston, but before too long it took over the entire country. Sometimes these lectures were illustrated, they were often illustrated by magic lanterns. But then the makers of these magic lantern slides decided that during the summer, they would travel to Europe, to Fiji Islands, to the new national parks in the United States. This would give them every year product differentiation, they would have stuff that nobody else had because they had spent the summer taking pictures. It may seem strange to think, well wait a minute. You’re studying lectures. Why are you studying lectures if you’re talking about film? Well, because lectures and film were part of the same routine, they can’t be thought of as entirely separate as we would normally think of them today.

[MACK]

So in this sort of practice, then there would be documentary film being shown. And someone would literally be narrating the film lecturing over it about the locations that we’re looking at.

[older narration is heard]

[RICK]

Absolutely, and they were really good at that. And they had been well practiced in it.

[MACK]

But the way the film was used in Chautauqua was completely different from the way it was used in say the Nickelodeon.

[CRIS]

So, as we move into the early 20th century, kind of somewhere around 1905 ish, we get post the peep show and into the Nickelodeon era.

[MACK]

Well, I think maybe we should explain peep shows because you might have just scandalized people.

[CRIS]

There were kind of they were Penny Arcade peep shows.

[MACK]

I thought those were those the kinetic scopes. Are the ones that can fit inside the machine to see the film. 

[CRIS]

You’re right. It wasn’t a whole bunch of people. And what made the kinetic scope specific is that it was one person.

[MACK]

One at a time. And so yeah, the motion picture or what would come to become the motion picture was,

[CRIS]

The Nickelodeon’s was a whole bunch of people at a time, often in a kind of storefront or a converted storefront. With hard seats, a varying repertoire of material in predominantly working class or kind of emergent middle class locations and neighborhoods. You paid a nickel right? You paid a nickel to go into the Nickelodeon. And the odean bit is from the Greek meaning that it’s a kind of a roof in theater.

[MACK]

Yeah. And the Nickelodeon was the site for one of these kind of strange technological arrangements that didn’t really survive to our day.

[RICK]

Almost every Nickelodeon had a magic lantern as part of its system. But starting around 1898 something new happened and it was very important that they figured out a way to add what was called a motion head in front of the magic lantern. The motion head had the system for introducing a film. And the same sound source could be used for both the Magic Lantern and the motion head. So in the same theater, you would actually have slides showing alternately with films, the films would go through the motion head, the slides would be in the slide transport for the magic lantern. And there you see the beginning of a way in which these two very different systems, film and slides, were able to share the same space. And that’s the kind of thing that happens in a crisis is two things that are entirely competitive, will eventually find a way to live together, maybe not the way they had originally expected. But eventually in a way that satisfies both sides.

[more older music plays]

[MACK]

So in these spaces like vaudeville houses and the Nickelodeon, we have practices that would seem pretty unrecognizable to us today as going to the movies, those Magic Lantern slides that you were talking about. They were often used for something called illustrated songs. So you’d have a good singer belting out the latest pop tunes, while different painted images inspired by the songs were projected behind them.

[music fades out]

[RICK]

These illustrated song slides were glass slides, which were based on photographs, which slides were then colored by teams of women. In vaudeville, there were hand colored slides, and sheet music that served the purpose of illustrated songs. But they were props that were used by individual vaudeville performers. So there was only one copy of them just as well. Let’s say if you had a dog show in vaudeville, you’d have to bring in the dogs, you’d have to bring in the hoops you’d have to bring in the stands. Well, this was a little bit different. You had to have the magic lantern. And in the Magic Lantern, you put these hand covered slides. They weren’t mass produced at that point. They were simply a vaudeville prop.

[CRIS]

So I’m interested in this whole thing of the hand colored slides and the teams of people doing the hand coloring because it begins to sound like an animation studio.

[MACK]

Yeah, but what you’re saying about like, these slides being like part of something like a big animation house today actually comes into fruition after the advent of the Nickelodeon, because then the role of the slides and the illustrated songs really changes.

[different older music plays]

[RICK]

Starting after the turn of the century, and particularly after 1905. There were companies who decided there was money to be made by making their slides because they knew that if the slide was made to accompany a recent song, then Tin Pan Alley would be happy to pay them for the slides because it became a good way to advertise their sheet music and sheet music was a big deal in those days. Virtually everybody had a panel and the sheet music sold not just thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands and even in one case or to multiple millions. So we’re talking big money. The slides were eventually distributed through exchanges, as were the films. So what we have here is a situation where you have Laville performers. You have slide makers, you have the distributors, you have the exhibitors who use these illustrated song slides to attract an audience.

[MACK]

Yeah, I just love this story because it reminds me of like, radio or MTV and what that used to do for record sales.

[CRIS]

Absolutely. Yeah. And I’m thinking about the explosion of video, pop integrations.

[MACK]

Yeah, this kind of synergy or, you know, cross platform synergy was a thing even back in the early 1900s.

[CRIS]

I mean, it’s part of the generation of effect, right in terms of bringing people towards the music and making them feel excited about it is that they associate that listening experience with seeing that sequence of images.

[MACK]

Yeah, and you’ve got like, all of these little, like you said, these little middle class, Nickelodeon’s that are hungry for content. The motion picture industry really hadn’t been quite created as we know it yet. You know, it was just on the cusp of being there. And so these Nickelodeon’s were just hungry for content and the illustrated songs really filled that gap.

[RICK]

At the beginning, Nickelodeon’s didn’t have enough product there might be four Nickelodeons on the block, or relatively smaller, like mom and pop shops. But the problem was that all four of these Nickelodeons were playing the same films, because there was not enough production. So the theaters really went for the illustrated songs, because that made up for the time that they might have been showing the films.

[CRIS]

I’m thinking the proliferation of the video store in the 1980s.

[MACK]

I could see the parallel today. So you would plunk down your nickel at the Nickelodeon. And you might hear an illustrated song, and then they would play a silent film. And then while they were getting the next film ready to go, you could hear another illustrated song. And I think, when we picture this in our minds were picturing like, an old timey piano blinking along. But Rick said it wasn’t always like that. In fact, sometimes there was

[RICK]

No sound at all.

[crickets chirping]

Now come on, that can’t be. Where did you get that idea? Well, I got that idea by reading a whole lot of biographies and reading a whole lot of reviews that made it clear that there was a period when films were shown without any sound whatsoever. So what was the piano doing there? Well, the piano was doing what it had to do to solve the needs of the theater. The theater had illustrated song slides. So when the slides were being projected, it was absolutely necessary for the pianist to be playing. But when the pianist had finished playing for the illustrated song, the pianist was told that this is the time when he can go and spend a little time to have a cigarette and he’ll be called back later for the next illustrated song slot. So what we find out is that the fact that these were Multi Purpose theaters that they had films as well as illustrated songs, suggests that we’re dealing with a situation where constantly the theater changes from one face to another. It’s a film theater, or its illustrated song theater.

[CRIS]

Yeah, I’m people would be making sound they would be talking. They would be expressing in relation to what they were seeing.

[MACK]

Laughing shouting at the screen.

[CRIS]

Absolutely, yeah, exactly.

[MACK]

So at this time, you know, it probably felt like the crisis was resolved, right. Like, you knew what, what these films were. They were they were something that you went and saw at the Nickelodeon and, you knew what to expect for your nickel. 

[CRIS]

It was cheap. You got a half hour, you had fun.

[Mack]

Yeah, half hour of some illustrated songs and some silent films.

[CRIS]

And maybe it kind of collect a strange, collective, responsive interactive environment.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, a little, you know, lowbrow fun.

[RICK]

But little by little, the makers films started providing more product. And when they started providing more product, well guess what the filmmakers were wanting more and more to take over the portion of the program that was being run by the illustrated song slides. So we get rid of the illustrated song slides in 1913. Literally, they just dropped off the map entirely in 1913 because the film producers wanted to take back a portion of the program and they were able to do that, in part because they now had enough product from an increasingly large park of film producers, so there’s a situation where the illustrated song it lives about two decades. It serves the vaudeville purpose to begin with. It serves the Magic Lantern purpose. After that, it eventually has to be pushed out in order to serve the purpose of the film producers. And it really isn’t until that point that film starts being called moving picture and having a very clear existence, no longer called us no longer called Advanced vaudeville.

[CRIS]

So the entertainment industry applause a vacuum. I mean,I could have said capitalism, but that’s a little too strong. When are we going to be able to say with some certainty, though, that what we’re seeing resembles the movies that we know today.

[MACK]

Well, by this period, when the Nickelodeon starts to wane, and the big movie palaces start to rise, so we’re talking about, by 1915 or so, the movie theaters are getting bigger and the motion pictures are getting longer. And this is when the term feature film is coined. And we get these incredible movie palaces. And in the smaller and mid sized theaters, pianos and tiny orchestras are still common, but in these grander venues, we might find Wurlitzer Oregon’s or 50 piece orchestras. But you know, even at this point, that we’re still practices that might seem quirky from our perspective today. So here’s another story that film scholar Eric Deinstfry told me. [ERIC]

There’s another interesting practice that I read about in William Paul’s book When Movies Were Theater, and there’s a theater in Detroit, he writes about where I believe it was like a duplex, and you had two theaters that shared the same wall and that’s where the screen was. And what that allowed for was allowed for the same Symphony. Orchestra, it wasn’t full Symphony to move back and forth in the same pit space.

[sound of people walking, then an orchestra playing, then walking, then music]

Basically, the orchestra would walk under the wall and play for one movie then move back under the wall and play for another movie was kind of like this weird watching the symphony orchestra move and sort of do their work was also part of the attraction of going to the movies there.

[music continues, then applause]

[CRIS]

I love this sense of an interrupted watching and listening experience where all sorts of other kinds of people who are on the sidelines maybe even the woman selling ice cream, and the person taking the tickets and so forth are all part. They’re all indicated into that experience.

[MACK]

Yeah, you know, it reminds me a little bit of, what I read about opera and the way it functioned early on where it was an entertainment where there would be a lot of stuff going on. Prostitutes plying their trade in the balcony, people drinking, carousing, having a good time. And then after the Romantic period, the way people started to treat classical music, in a period where religion had kind of started to wane, and we get this more humanist version of spirituality, where you go to the classical music concert hall, and sit in silence, and meditated on the music and have this kind of inner rich experience. And I feel like we’re learning that a similar transition happened with film where it used to be this fun, interactive entertainment that wasn’t taken that seriously and then it became high heart.

[CRIS]

That’s right. And maybe now. I don’t know. You go to the movies now and there’s people getting up and going to the bathroom, they’re eating their popcorn in the middle of the kind of the, the most dramatic moment in the narrative, they’re looking at their cell phones as the opening and the closing of the light in the door from the lobby. So it sounds like by the 1920s or so the crisis had been resolved and some kind of not necessarily solutions, but onward developments have been found and settled on.

[MACK]

Silent film, as we think of it today has finally evolved and film kind of enters this golden era until the talkies emerged. It’s a crisis all over again. By the late 1920s, relatively reliable technologies like the Vita phone, which was a sound on Disk System start to appear, and then we get this entirely new crisis.

[RICK]

So you’ve got a silent film theater, and you want to turn it into a sound theater. Okay. Let’s dismiss the musicians. We don’t need them anymore.

[music is suddenly cut off]

We can use the sound on disk.

[music from a disk plays]

Now, wait a minute. What about my projectionist?

[sound of film reeling]

He says he wants to be in charge of everything, including the screen and the sound system and the electrical system but the electricians want to do that. Oh, wait a minute. It’s not just the electricians and the projectionist, it’s the stage hands and the IATSE Union. What we find is that all kinds of conflicts are operating in such a way as to each be counter posed to the others. And it’s only after a strong and interesting period of competition, that we settle into a situation where the various unions, the various specialties, the various companies all get their own way.

[MACK]

I don’t know if they all got their own way to me. 

[CRIS]

I think I think quite a lot of people got stuffed. 

[MACK]

Yeah. Not sure about that happy ending.

[CRIS]

You know, the studio’s made a lot of money. And then there were an enormous number of technicians who didn’t get paid so well.

[MACK]

Yeah. And you’re paying one orchestra to play the score one time instead of orchestras FROM the country.

[CRIS]

Yeah, it’s putting a huge number of live musicians out of business.

[MACK]

Well, be that as it may, what I really like about Rick Altman’s work is just This focus on the crisis and this sort of indeterminate nature of these things that they really could be different.

[CRIS]

I like it and to wonder whether we are in another crisis moment, and we don’t even yet know the constituent parts of it.

[MACK]

I think that’s definitely happening right now.

[CRIS]

Well, viewing habits and cinema going habits and what’s going on with the movies and the fact that everyone’s watching series, and what can be played out through a bunch of episodes on TV that’s totally different from how you could structure a film, and how domestic viewing habits and listening habits have changed because of the mobility of technology around the domestic sphere and so forth.

[MACK]

I think for our time period, the question is, will the crises ever be resolved? Or are we just in a period of endless crises I mean, I guess that’s what Rick’s work really tells us is that it has always been us.

[vaudeville music plays]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thank you to Rick Altman and Eric Deinstfry for being on the show. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we talked about at Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you would rate and review us on Apple podcasts, pretty please. or tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook or give us a shout out on Twitter at Phantom Pod. Today’s show was edited by Craig Ellie and me, Mack Hagood. Our intern is Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is made possible through the generosity of the Miami University Humanities Center, the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney, endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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