Category Archives: Leeds

Claude Hamilton Verity III

I have drawn attention to the Leeds inventor Claude Hamilton Verity and his efforts to develop a sound-on-disc system for the synchronization of image and sound in two earlier posts that can be accessed here and here. This week I bring to your attention some other references to Verity I have come across recently.

First, an article by Frank H. Lovette and Stanley Watkins, titled ‘Twenty Years of “Talking Movies:” an Anniversary’ and published in the 1946 volume of Bell Telephone Magazine, refers to Verity as someone who made a notable contribution to the development of talking pictures alongside such illustrious names as Thomas A. Edison, Pathé Freres, Leon Gaumont, and Orlando E. Kellum. The article can be accessed here.

The authors clearly do not take The Jazz Singer in 1927 to be point at which pictures began to talk, and instead choose as their starting point the demonstration of the Vitaphone system on 6 August, 1926, for the screening of Don Juan, starring John Barrymore. This is unsurprising given that Bell was itself involved in the development of this system, but they do describe this screening somewhat poetically:

Before the applause could die away, the dramatic sequences of Don Juan unfolded against their synchronized musical background. Scientists, public officials, prominent figures from many walks of life sat in amazement until the last crescendo and finale of this scientific marvel. The men who brought it into being by their refinement of existing arts were hailed as having made possible “the greatest invention of the twentieth century.” And Dr. Michael I. Pupin was led to exclaim that “no closer approach to resurrection has ever been made by science.” The pioneers of Western Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories and their collaborators of Warner Brothers and Vitaphone experienced that night a measure of accomplishment which few men of science ever live to taste or see.

We can forgive the authors a touch of hyperbole when writing about Bell-developed technology in a Bell-funded journal, but this raises an interesting question about when we should date the earliest successful demonstration of synchronized sound in cinema. There were other inventors to successfully demonstrate the synchronization of sound and image prior to 1926, including Kellum’s Photo-kinema system and Verity’s system both of which were demonstrated in 1921. D.W. Griffith used the Photo-kinema system for Dream Street, which premiered on 2 May, 1921, with two sound segments; and we have reports of the demonstration of two original shorts produced by Verity in Harrogate on 30 April, 1921 (see the first link above). We also know that in November 1923, Verity sailed to New York to meet with J. Stuart Blackton of the Vitagraph Film Company and gave an interview to The New York Times regarding the synchronization of sound and image in January 1924 (see the second link above). We do not know what impact Verity’s work in England had – if any – on the development of ‘the greatest invention of the twentieth century.’

The article refers to Verity’s system as Veritiphone, but this term appears only infrequently in other articles.

Second, two articles in the Wellington Evening Post from 1921 and 1923 refer to Verity’s efforts. These articles are available from Papers Past at the National Library of New Zealand, and rather wonderfully, they can be reproduced under a creative commons licence.

The first article was published on 3 June, 1921, and is largely a direct quote from an earlier article published in The Daily Mail. I have not found this earlier article, but given the timing I assume that the demonstration referred to was the one that took place in Harrogate in April 1921.

TALKING FILMS

PERFECT VOICE MOVEMENT CLAIM

Talking kinema films, it is claimed, have definitely advanced a stage as ‘the result of the invention of a synchroniser by Mr. Claude H. Verity, a Harrogate engineer. With this instrument in the projector-box, it is stated, an operator, by simply sliding a knob quite independently of watching the screen, can work synchronisation to 1-24th of a second.

In a Harrogate building where secrecy has been maintained for nearly five years of experimenting, writes a correspondent to the London Daily Mail, who has witnessed a straight drama and cross-talk comedy exhibited in conjunction with a gramophone. “There was no mistaking the accuracy of voice and lip movement. If it should vary a tenth of a second it would be due to the fact that the actors were so much out in repeating for the gramophone recorder what they had done for the screen. These processes are separate and are linked up by an expert stenographer.

“The synchroniser does away with the necessity for stopping the action of a picture to introduce worded explanations; indeed, dialogue becomes a distinct part of the picture.

“For operas with singing and music a child could work it because there is a fixed tempo. Should the film break the speaking can be stopped and taken up again.”

A great advantage of the invention, it is urged, is that with the apparatus in projecting-boxes the synchronised film could be circulated in the ordinary way.

The two films referred to above would be The Playthings of Fate (the drama) and A Cup of Beef Tea (the comedy). I would assume that this is the first time the term ‘cross-talk comedy’ is used in reference to the cinema.

The second article was published on 1 September 1923, and is only a passing reference to Verity as part of a much larger piece.

Synchronization of the film and its musical counterpart seems to be solved by the “Veritphone,” an invention of Claude H. Verity, of Leeds, England. It aims at the alliance of sound and movement by the combination of a double set of “super-gramophones,” and an ingenious indicator, which shows when the film and the sound record are together.

Details of Verity’s patents that give a more detailed explanation of how the system worked can be accessed in my earlier posts.

Third, and slightly confusingly, there is another reference to Verity derived from an article published in The Daily Mail in De Sumatra Post published on 11 November 1922. I have no idea what this says because it is in Dutch. The complete issue of De Sumatra Post can be downloaded as a pdf file here (it’s about 7.1 MB and I think it is from the Dutch equivalent of Papers Past), and the short piece referring to Verity is at the bottom of page 14.

Fourth, a notice in The Electrical Review 90 1922: 416 announces the successful demonstration of Verity system at the Albert Hall in Leeds in 1922 (the date is given as 3 March whereas other articles give the date as 3 April), noting that

By experiment over a considerable time past, Mr. Verity has provided an apparatus which certainly yields co-timing of the lip movements of the persons on the screen with the sounds emitted from the electrically-controlled gramophone, …

By the time of his 1922 demonstrations, Verity had spent at least 5 years and (by his own estimation) some £7000 of his own money developing his synchronisation system.

Finally, and a good deal less wonderful than anything from New Zealand, is a reference to Verity in an article published in Political Science Quarterly in 1948. The full reference is Swensen J 1948 The entrepreneur’s role in introducing the sound motion picture, Political Science Quarterly 63 (3): 404-423. I do not know how this piece refers to Verity – it may be only as a name in a footnote, possibly derived from the Bell Telephone Magazine article referred to above – because the article lies behind a paywall at JSTOR. There is no good reason why an article from 1948 should be behind a paywall in 2011.

 

 

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The Crossgates Picture House

The local history section of the central library in Leeds holds many interesting items relating to the history of the cinema in the city, including the share prospectus issued by The Crossgates Picture House Limited. This document provides a picture of the expectations of the theatre owners going into business.

The issue of 10,000 ten per cent cumulative participating preference shares at £1 each and 100,000 ordinary shares at £1 each opened on 29 November 1919 and closed on 8 December 1919. The directors of the company are listed as Richard Charles Oldham, a dramatist from Scholes (he worked as a scenic artist and wrote pantomimes at the Grand Theatre), and two insurance brokers – Owen Arthur Jepson of Ben Rhydding, and Arthur Gawthorp Thomas of Knaresborough, the company secretary.

The site of Picture House in Crossgates is land leased from the North Eastern Railway Company, with a lease agreed for 21 years beginning 4 July 1919. The 1911 census cites a population of over 13,000 for the area, but this information is almost 10 years out of date by the time of the issue. The crucial development is the purchase of land adjacent to the site leased by the Picture House directors by the local authority for the erection of 2000 houses under the municipal housing scheme. The directors observe that there are no similar entertainments in Crossgates – although there are plenty of cinemas in Harehills and Leeds city centre to the west – and that there is growing demand for a picture house. They state that the Crossgates Picture House will be the ‘sole properly constituted place of amusement and entertainment for the district,’ and that their aim is to provide ‘first-class entertainment at popular prices.’ The use of the phrase ‘properly constituted’ may imply that there are some ‘improperly constituted’ places of amusements and entertainment in the area. I have not, however, found any reference to illegal picture shows in Crossgates. The architect engaged to provide ‘a thoroughly up to date building, well ventilated and arranged on modern lines throughout and lighted by the company’s own electrical plant’ was J.P. Crawford. Crawford designed many of the early picture houses in Leeds, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the design of picture houses in the city between 1914 and 1930. The total cost of construction (including furnishings, electrical, appliances and equipments) was estimated to be £9000. This is roughly the equivalent of £340,000 in 2009.

E. Rudland Wood was employed as a consultant, and he is listed as an electrical and mechanical engineer as well as being the manager of two well-known cinemas in Yorkshire. It is his testimony that appears in the prospectus to reassure potential investors that the earning capacity and expenditures included are ‘well within the figures they should attain.’ It is the estimate of earnings and expenditures that is the most revealing part of the document. The income of the Picture House is estimated to be £364 (£14,000 in 2009 prices) per week if it were full to capacity at each performance, and to be £158 (£6,000) per week if attendances were ‘moderately average.’ The definition of ‘moderately average’ is the Picture House being one-half full during winter and one-third full in the summer. This would provide an estimated annual income of £8,250 (£310,000). The working expenses of the Picture House are estimated to not exceed £85 (£3,200), or a total £4,420 (£170,000) per year. The annual return for investors with preference shares that paid a dividend at 10% is £1,000 (£38,000); and, once other costs are taken into account, the director’s estimate of the total annual expenses is £6,220 (£240,000). This would leave an annual profit of £2,030 (£77,000).

The Crossgates Picture House opened on 5 August 1920 and closed on 16 May 1965. Unfortunately, it is not known if the share issue was successful. Nor do we have access to the company’s accounts to see if their estimates of revenue and expenses were accurate.

An image of the Crossgates Picture House in 1937 can be accessed from the Leodis website here.  The Leodis website provides a detailed photographic history of Leeds, and has many photographs of cinemas in the city and the surrounding area along with the recollections of many people who attended these cinemas. There is also a great picture of Louis Le Prince’s 16-lens camera. The home page for the database is here.

N.B. The conversion of 1919 prices to 2009 was performed using the widget at safalra.com.

From the career of Louis J Mannix

Louis J. Mannix, Memories of a Cinema Man. Leeds: Associated Tower Cinemas, 1987.

(Page references refer to this volume).

The local history section of the Central Library in Leeds holds an interesting volume that provides a unique, personal history of the film industry in the UK in the form of the memoir of Louis J. Mannix. This volume, titled Memories of a Cinema Man, is Mannix’s recollection of his career in the film trade in Leeds. It is a career that began in 1916 as assistant to the projectionist at the Hyde Park cinema and witnessed the major upheavals of sound, war, strikes, and trade organisations until Mannix’s retirement in the 1970s.

It is not a volume that is widely available – this is a personal memoir and only 250 copies were printed (there appears to be no copy listed by the British Library) – but it does provides an interesting take on the history of British cinema because it is the memoir of someone who worked as a projectionist, ‘technical director,’ and cinema manager for the Leeds and District Picture Houses. This is a perspective that is certainly missing from the history of British cinema and it will reward the historian of British cinema. Mannix also spent some time in Drogheda, Ireland after 1916, and this period is also covered giving a brief snapshot of the state of cinemas prior to the creation of the Irish Free State.

Here I note some highlights from the career and memories of Mr. Mannix. Three areas are broadly covered by his memoir: the technology of the cinema from the point of view of the exhibitor; the day to day running of a small chain of provincial cinemas in a major British industrial city; and the experiences of a cinema manager in the industry during the twentieth century.

Mannix was trained as an electrical engineer, and he initially worked as a projectionist on a part-time basis only. His interest in technology and the cinema was apparently piqued as a young boy when he was given a toy projector/magic lantern to play with. As an engineer, he subsequently pays considerable attention to the practices of exhibiting a motion picture from a practical point of view with considerable detail given to the technology involved. Thus we learn the advantages and disadvantages of different types of screens and the problem of light loss, arc lamps, and projectors, and so on. This is always tempered by a consideration of what was right for the audience, because Mannix was not just the ‘chief engineer’ for a chain of cinemas (though as he points out he was the only engineer) but also the manager of a cinema in that chain. We have therefore a detailed firsthand account of the technology used by a provincial cinema chain with some assessment of its commercial impact. Some examples follow.

An interesting problem for film archivists and restorers, and for analysts of film style, is the duration of intertitles in silent films: how long should the titles of a silent film remain upon the screen? Mannix provides us with a first-hand account of a projectionist faced with precisely this problem:

The conscientious projectionist would always slow down for subtitles – particularly the longer ones – because not everybody could read quickly and there was nothing more frustrating to the patron than for the subtitle to disappear before he or she had read it (11).

The correct projection speed cited by Mannix is 60 feet per minute or 16 frames per second.

As a projectionist and all-round technician for a chain of cinemas in Leeds, Mannix was intimately involved in the installation of Western electric sound systems at the Lounge and the Crown. Western Electric brought over engineers from America to install the sound equipment – a Mr. Hudeck is appreciatively recalled, though his supervisor is described as the ‘brash, arrogant type of American.’ Western Electric also sent specially trained projectionists to instruct Mannix and his fellow projectionists in how to run the projectors, but apparently he was drunk and could not keep the image in synch with the sound. The local Warner Brothers’ manager was roused from his bed, and a second projectionist with a new copy of the film had to be brought in. The Crown opened on the Bank Holiday Monday of 5 August, 1929, with The Singing Fool. The Lounge opened a week later with The Doctor’s Secret – an amplifier at a cinema in Manchester had broken down, and the one for the Lounge was the only replacement in the country, so Western Electric decided to install this in Manchester, thereby disrupting the company’s big opening. Mannix’s account is mostly concerned with the practical problems of introducing a new and complicated system into an existing building, and deals largely with necessary alterations to the wiring, structural changes to the buildings, and the relocation of the organs and orchestra pits. These changes sometimes resulted in the loss of seating, thereby increasing the economic burden on the exhibitor. All in all, this process appears to have been a mixture of tension, farce, and a considerable amount of joinery – but what we have is an account of the coming of sound like no other I have come across in the history of cinema.

Mannix notes that not everyone in the trade was enthusiastic or sensible about the coming of sound:

Yet there were many important members of the trade who decried it [sound] as a ‘flash in the pan’ and settled down smugly, convinced of their own omniscience. One such was an important member of the local branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association; he engaged the services of a well-known band leader and larger than usual orchestra, advertising the fact that his cinema would continue to show pictures in the well-tried, traditional way without ‘gimmicks’ and with a wonderful musical accompaniment, ignoring the fact that every picture coming out of Hollywood was now all or partly sound-recorded, and that he was not equipped to play them. He was not alone in this attitude (62).

The introduction of sound technology added a new role to the projection role – that of the sound watcher, whose responsibility it was to listen and signal if the level needed to changed up or down. Apparently, this role was fulfilled by the organists, who obviously would have previously been accompanying the film.

Mannix goes on to discuss the introduction of Cinemascope (107), which he notes caused considerable upheaval and expense that the exhibitors could have done without. Cinemascope not only required exhibitors to purchase anamorphic lenses, but also to invest in new screens and screen frames. Again, there is the matter of joinery – theatres were not built for Cinemascope and so changes had to be made to buildings and this also resulted in the loss of some seating. Problems were created for double bills, with the need for movable masking due to the fact that not all films were shot in Cinemascope and this had a negative impact on the picture quality of non-widescreen films. (There follows from this a discussion of the merits of different types of anamorphic lenses and problems of screen lighting that I shall not relate). Cinemascope is typically discussed by film historians form the point of view of producers, and this exhibitor’s account provides an interesting corrective to that.

As Mr. Mannix’s memoir is a firsthand account of the day-to-day running of a provincial cinema chain we get an intimate picture of the people and practices working there. We have Mannix’s opinions of his fellow projectionists, his fellow managers, the members of the board (especially Mr. Denham, whom Mannix appears to spend most of his time arguing with), and other members of the cinema trade in Leeds. This gives a much more human angle to the film trade than we typically find in historical accounts, and it is certainly more detailed than more academic histories. For example, we have an account of the organisation of the Leeds and District Picture Houses, where each director was responsible for a single cinema in the chain. We learn that the attendants were paid 12s for six nights, with 1s-6d per matinee, but did not receive an annual increase in their wages (Mannix describes this as ‘appallingly low’); that the pianist at the Beeston cinema, a Mr. Brooksbank, was paid £4-10s; and that the musical director was paid £6.there are also detailed descriptions of the orchestras, their directors, and their popularity with audiences.

One interesting observation quoted is attributed to a Mr. Matthews, who appears to have been at one time the Chief Constable in Leeds (and was therefore responsible for the inspection of safety measures in theatres on behalf of Leeds City Council’s Watch Committee):

The Cinematograph Regulations are like the Bible – it’s a matter of interpretation. That’s why there are so many crackpot versions of them both.

A curious story regarding the transfer of the (now closed) Lounge Cinema in Headingley from Charles Metcalfe to Harry Hylton is related:

[The Lounge] had been taken over from Mr. Charles Metcalfe and the original directors during the latter part of the 1914-1918 war. Mr. Metcalfe told me that he signed the transfer deeds for the Lounge in the trenches in France, because, as he said, ‘The war wasn’t going to well and it looked as if we would lose’ (108).

Finally, numerous theorists have remarked upon the importance of unofficial discourses in the promotion of a film. Few, however, have remarked upon the role of Sid Haddock, a Leeds fishmonger, who apparently had considerable ability to sway the audience with his opinions on the fare available at the Regent.

In 1926, the UK was hit by a general strike. The response of the film industry was to maintain the supply of films by the same means that they had operated during World War I.  A film dump was set up at Charles Metcalfe’s theatre at King Charles Croft and stand by films were stored at cinemas. Mannix notes that the major change that resulted from the 1926 strike was that, because the railway workers joined the strike, road distribution became much more important to the industry.

Another major social change to affect the exhibition market in Leeds was the improvement of living conditions is come of the poorer parts of the city, particularly in Burmantofts and Wortley. These were the main catchment areas for many of the city’s cinemas. Mannix notes that the Regent in particular was adversely affected by the loss of its audience.

Mannix was a manager at the Beeston and later the Regent for Leeds and District Picture Houses, and became involved with the Cinema Managers Association (CMA). He describes himself as resolutely not a union man, but his is committed to improving the working conditions and pay of cinema managers. This is of great interest: this is a group of employees in the film industry that rarely (if ever) finds itself the attention of scholarly inquiry in film studies and there is clearly a great deal to be learnt from the records of the records of the various institutions involved. This is all the more surprising given the politics between the CMA and the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), which was determined not to allow the former to become established. As before, this is a personal account and so we get lively descriptions of meetings and the persons involved.

The CMA had arisen from the National Association of Theatrical and Kinematograph Employees (NATKE), but was not recognised by the CEA who regarded the cinema managers who tried to form their own association as malcontents: Captain (later Sir) Sidney Clift, CEA president, reportedly threatened ‘If any of my managers dares to join the so-called union, he will be out on his ear – and quickly’ (104).The CEA took active steps to stop the CMA on two occasions by setting up alternative unions that would draw support away from the CMA. The first was not successful, and was apparently stopped by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) following an appeal from the CMA:

… one morning when The Daily Film Renter came in, I was astonished to read the headline ‘Federation of Cinema Managers Sponsored by the CEA.’ Further details were to the effect that a group of managers in Lincolnshire had formed this ‘Federation,’ … Within a day or so the literature came in, obviously emanating from the CEA. … It was emphasised that when a reasonable membership was attained, wages negotiations would take place.

I got onto [CMA general secretary Len] Pember at once.

‘They cannot do it,’ I said. ‘A union within a union – it just cannot be done. See somebody. Talk to [TUC secretary Walter] Citrine again, or the registrar of Friendly Societies.’ He did – with the result that the so-called ‘Federation’ was still born (104).

The attitude of the CEA was apparently to change its opinion with the recognition that cinema managers had the right to unionise, but this did not apparently mean engaging in negotiations with the CMA (see 117-118). Mannix notes that his suspicions were aroused when the CEA announced it was amenable to a managers’ union but did not contact either himself as a senior officer in just such a union or the CMA’s secretary who was based in London. The CEA was attempting to pull the same trick it had tried with the ‘Federation:’ the creation of an alternative union – the Society of Cinema Managers (SCM), the address of which was at the office of the CEA. The named officers of this new Society were all Odeon men – Leslie Holderness, Bill Fuller, and Harry Kerr. Many members of the CMA defected to the SCM, thereby relieving themselves of a stain on their professional character in the eyes of their employees, and ultimately the CMA was disbanded. But Mannix’s assessment is that it had achieved what it had set out to do: the existence of the CMA had forced the industry to look at the working conditions of managers and pay was improved, and the SCM had only come into being because of the existence of the CMA (albeit for largely negative reasons); and, as Mannix writes, ‘the manager was recognised as a responsible member of the trade, and his financial rewards adjusted accordingly.’

I have presented here some brief episodes from Louis Mannix’s career. There is much more detail available, and anyone interested in researching the history of the exhibition of motion pictures in the UK should make their to the Central Library in Leeds as I can think of no other firsthand account that is so detailed or so varied.