When the Phonograph Met Moving Pictures

In the 1890s, many new technologies were being developed at the same time, and it’s no surprise that many of these fledgling fields would occasionally intersect. In the mid-late 1890s, several phonograph workers decided to experiment in the field of film, which had only just arrived to the United States a few years before. Many of these recording artists turned film enthusiasts didn’t pursue film, but provided some level of promise for others to join the field by the time silent films reached their zenith in popularity. An unexpected through line can be found from the earliest studio accompanists and those famous silent film accompanists in the 1910s and ’20s.

Films!!(1896) The Phonoscope

In the late 1890s in New York, film enthusiasts started popping up everywhere, as this was about the time Edison had just started experimenting with the medium. Much like phonographs were at this time, they were still very expensive, so very few could afford this hobby. A great source to track the growth of the phonograph and film businesses simultaneously is The Phonoscope. From their earliest issue in November 1896, they were writing detailed articles about new devices being exhibited at the time. In this issue there are several pages dedicated to new devices that project moving pictures, of which they specifically note being exhibited in vaudeville theaters. Moving pictures were still a very novel concept at the time, so it would make sense that these were relegated to these sort of places, theaters like Tony Pastor’s on 14th Street, and Proctor’s Pleasure palace on 23rd Street. And it was here where we can connect the phonograph to film in a curious way.

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In 1896 and 1897, Tony Pastor’s, Proctor’s, and Keith’s theaters were booming places for vaudeville, and some of the most skilled accompanists were employed to keep the music moving. It was here where many of the accompanists for the phonograph were also found. They would have been accompanists for some of the first film screenings in the United States. While we do not know exactly which pianists were playing for what showings, among those Proctor and Keith employed were Burt Green (later husband to Irene Franklin), Mike Bernard, Max Hoffmann, and Fred Hylands. It was here that Hylands was likely discovered by the Columbia Phonograph company, soon becoming their most valuable pianist.

Early film projection(1896) The Phonoscope

Hylands, after 1897, shows up in many subsequent issues of The Phonoscope, as he lived close to the location of its publishers. Also in many of these issues, there are advertisements for new film showings at Proctor’s 23rd Street theater. A majority of these films were on the subject of the Spanish-American war. Some of these could be considered to be the first newsreels. It is interesting to note that in 1898 Hylands wrote a piece about the conflict, perhaps playing it to accompany one of these films. While we do not know for sure if Hylands accompanied film screenings at Pastor’s or Proctor’s, it is likely that he did considering the circumstances, and that he did continue to work for them while Columbia employed him. We do not know if the phonograph or film came first for Hylands, it wouldn’t be the only time he was involved with film. It is also curious that right after the Columbia company left their famous 1155 Broadway address around 1903, the space became a kinetoscope parlor.

A kinetophone

We could speculate that some Edison phonograph workers were involved in Edison’s film department, but based on accounts of the time, Edison’s departments were well separated, which didn’t allow for much crossover, at least in the earliest days. By the late 1900s and early 1910s, Edison was seriously experimenting with creating a method for connecting film and sound. This concept had been played with in the past, but it was Edison that was able to create the first synchronized sound and film. The Kinetophone was an unusual triumph for its time, although not commercially successful. It was set up similarly to how Vitaphone shorts were made in the 1920s, though with large cylinders instead of discs. These cylinders and films were difficult to make, as there was no mobile amplification to capture the performers, and they had to stay on a stagnant shot for the entirety of the scenes. Most of these films however did include many popular recording stars of the day, such as Will Oakland, and even an uncredited appearance by Edward M. Favor.

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A Kinetophone phonograph apparatus with record on display at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. (courtesy Edison National Historic Site)

They were often recorded outside, utilizing the ample space the Edison laboratories occupied. They used the longest lasting spring phonographs for the recordings, a monstrous horn, and large diameter concert sized amberol cylinders. There is one of these machines with a record on display at the Edison national historic site, and without doubt it is impressive to see. The performers obviously couldn’t stand right in front of the horn when doing the scenes, so capturing their voices at an acceptable volume was difficult. Ed Favor luckily succeeded in this with his guest appearance in the film The Deaf Mute, as he was a seasoned stage performer known for his exceptionally well trained loud voice. The system for reproducing these motion pictures proved too difficult for theaters, as the theaters that projected such films were the same vaudeville establishments as those of a decade prior. Synchronizing the cylinders and film was near impossible for larger theaters, as the absence of any amplification made hearing the already muffled voices difficult. Somehow these experiments did produce a result. Only a few of these films and their accompanying recordings exist today, but they are a fascinating look into what was possible so early on in the history of the phonograph. You can find a few examples of them in various places online, and the quality for the time is astonishing to say the least.

An early Vitascope capturing both sound and moving image. (from The Phonoscope, 1897)

While the kinetophone was being developed, in 1909, Fred Hylands set up his own series of shows that included showings of films, a 1909 article from The New York Dramatic Mirror read thus:

Fred Hylands. a well known theatrical man, to introduce vaudeville over the Aerons Circuit In the Spring and Summer. This new feature will occupy the Eastern towns through New York and Pennsylvania. Mr. Hylands will furnish White Rat acts exclusively, and there will be from three to four acts and two reels of motion pictures on each hill, playing two shows nightly and two to three nights in each town.

This was also around the time that Hylands had become associated with William Fox. At this time Fox was doing exactly what Hylands was intending on, with his own theater, and it is likely that Hylands was inspired by Fox to do this in the first place. Another article from 1913 stated this regarding their relationship:

Only a couple of years ago he had charge of the orchestras in the various Fox vaudeville houses around New York City, retiring from this position only because of exceptional loyalty to the principles of unionism when the theater musicians and Mr. Fox had difficulties which could not be adjusted.

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As some might think, it seems that being an accompanist for the phonograph would translate very well to silent films. Based on the surprising amount of crossover, it was thought to be true within the era itself. Had many more of the earliest phonograph accompanists lived beyond 1920, they certainly would have found steady employment playing for silent films. Some of the remaining composers and publishers from the earliest period of recording ended up writing music for silent films; Fred Hager and Justin Ring famously wrote many pieces for this purpose. So, much like sheet music publishing at the time, it seems that film wasn’t so separate from recording after all, it was inevitable that the two worlds would collide at some point, though it took many trials and errors to be accomplished.

R. S. Baker has appeared at several Ragtime festivals as a pianist and lecturer. Her particular interest lies in the brown wax cylinder era of the recording industry, and in the study of the earliest studio pianists, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, and Frederick W. Hager.

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