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The Vitaphone Project Turns 20

Twenty years ago, five avid collectors of vintage records, who also happened to be old-movie buffs, created an informal organization called The Vitaphone Project. Their goal was to pool (and catalogue) their resources, namely 16-inch soundtrack recordings for Warner Bros’ Vitaphone short-subjects of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and find archives that held the corresponding 35mm negatives. In other words, they wanted to make some long-lost short subjects “whole” again. They have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations—and we have been the lucky beneficiaries.

As co-founder Ron Hutchinson writes in the latest issue of the Vitaphone News, “Begun at a time when the Internet was just starting, virtually any discoveries of soundtrack disks occurred through word of mouth. Today, barely a month goes by without our receiving an e-mail from someone with a disk, or seeking information on a relative who was in a Vitaphone. Since the Project began in 1991 by five record collectors and film buffs—the late David Goldenberg, John Newton, Sherwin Dunner, Ron Hutchinson, and Vince Giordano—over 3,500 discs have been found, nearly 150 Vitaphone shorts have been—

Myrtle Glass and Jimmy Conlin (later a familiar face in Preston Sturges’ comedies) in the Vitaphone short Sharps and Flats (1928).

—restored, with many already on DVD and more to come, and nearly half a million dollars in funding developed. This issue attests to the fact that things are not slowing down as we enter our third decade. In this issue, you’ll read about nearly 100 more discovered soundtrack disks, the DVD release of 60 early restored Vitaphones, the saving (for the moment, at least) of the Vitaphone studios in Brooklyn, and the possibility of yet another Gold Diggers of Broadway fragment surfacing.”

If you haven’t yet sampled the latest four-disc Vitaphone Varieties selection from Warner Archive you’re missing out on more oddities, rarities, and vaudeville delights. Among the highlights are a 1926 musicale featuring the best-selling recording group The Revelers and the smash hit of recent Vitaphone shows, Sharps and Flats (1928) starring Jimmy Conlin and Myrtle Glass. It’s a vaudeville act that strips away the years with its disarming star duo and their unseen helpers. “Whoa!”

The new issue of Vitaphone News also casts a spotlight on a remarkable database, the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings, at victor.library.ucsb.edu/ . Overseen by Sam Brylawski (see below), formerly of the Library of Congress, this massive work has pulled together reference material from a variety of sources, including 1928-32 Victor recording ledgers that were saved from the discard pile at RCA some fifty years ago by Miles Kreuger, founder of the Institute of the American Musical. Miles’ personal collection, along with his Institute holdings, rival and in many cases surpass those of any major library in the world. Fortunately, he was willing to allow Brylawski and his research team to scan the precious RCA documents, which turned out to include valuable information about “soundtrack recordings, scoring and sound effects for silent shorts and features, dubbing of optical soundtracks to disks, promotional and trailer recordings, and other film projects,” according to Vitaphone News. Imagine having all of that accessible online.

The DVDs in the latest Vitaphone Varieties set from Warner Archive are designed to replicate the original 16-inch Vitaphone disks of the 1920s. What a nice touch!

From the moment they started working with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Library of Congress, the Vitaphone Project—fueled by passion, not profit—has brought a rich vein of film history back to life. There have been popular showings at film festivals, archives, and theaters around the country using newly-restored 35mm prints. Their success, and the attention they generated, inspired Warner Bros., which owns most of this material, to make a major commitment to restore even more of the shorts and release them on DVD. None of this would have been feasible, or imaginable, before the Vitaphone Project set to work.

If you would like to participate in this good work, or donate to the Project, you can choose from a tempting array of thank-you CDs…and if you contribute $300 you can get a genuine 16-inch Vitaphone disk to call your own. For more details, go to vitaphoneproject.com , the web page maintained by Patrick Picking. If you make any reasonable donation, you can also receive an old-fashioned printed copy of the Vitaphone News by snail-mail, as I do. Simply write to Ron Hutchinson, 5 Meade Court, Piscataway, NJ 08854.

POSTSCRIPT

Sam Brylawsky writes from University of California Santa Barbara,

“Thank you so much for the very nice comments on your blog about the Victor discography. I really appreciated them. However, my respect for my predecessors and colleagues causes me to write to also clarify a point. The Victor discography is not my brainchild. I wish it were, but in fact, I was only about ten years old when the project was conceived.

“Like the Vitaphone Project, the Encyclopedic Discography was conceived by private collectors, in this case Ted Fagan, a U.N. interpreter, and William Moran, a petroleum geologist. They were both Victor Red Seal (classical music) series collectors. When conceived in the early 1960s, the project was to document all of the Red Seal issues, but Ted realized that a listing within the context of the Victor's complete output would be of greater value. I won't recount the whole story but the men created two print discographies, taking Victor issues up to 1908. Ted passed away just as the second volume went to print. Bill was committed to seeing the project through and shortly before he died he passed it along to the Special Collections Department of Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a generous endowment. Bill had become acquainted with my boss, performing arts curator David Seubert, and knew that David was the guy who could see the project through. We've since received three NEH grants that supplement our endowment from Bill Moran.

“Like most good projects, the EDVR has many parents, but it is originally Ted and Bill's Excellent Adventure. It also falls into the pattern of so much motion picture and audio scholarship: it is the outgrowth of expertise of private collectors. We're proud, too, of projects related to the EDVR. We are now partners with the Library of Congress on its National Jukebox project. Most of the cataloging of discs in the jukebox derives from our data.”

To check out the National Juke Box, click HERE.

3 comments

  1. alan aperlo says:

    You do great work .

  2. JLewis says:

    It is funny… the day you posted this, I received my Warner Archive DVD of DON JUAN in the mail. I was a bit tardy getting that one, with the early ’26 shorts included, but already had the other sets you mentioned above… in addition to THE JAZZ SINGER with its own shorts assortment. Also have the Liebman book which catalogues them all… probably one of the few expensive books I bought a few years ago.

    Hard to believe that so many flms that were MIA before 1991 have finally made it DVD! Too bad there are still more missing… always was curious to see Jack Benny’s very first and only Vitaphone short from 1928.

  3. Kristine A. Cimmy says:

    Leonard :
    Your columns are informative. It was interesting reading about
    Vitaphone movie shorts Kristine

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