STEREOPHONIC SOUND OR BUST
by Jack Theakston
In 1953, Exhibitors and studios were attempting to recover from the setbacks of Television. Studios were turning to methods of 3-D, widescreen, and stereophonic sound as alternatives. But not all Exhibitors were happy about change.
The "miracle" known as CinemaScope was another one of these novelties, but certainly an experience in its own right, none the less. With widescreen, color and stereophonic sound, 20th Century Fox, who held the rights to the process, made good numbers for the Exhibitors at the Box Office, and gave themselves a much needed boost in profit as well. But, while the transition to widescreen was fairly simple and commonplace, the hassles of running such things as interlock projectors and installing extra (and expensive) speakers and amplifiers was difficult and relatively sparse.
It was no surprise, then, that in the January 16, 1954 issue of Showmen's Trade Review, it was reported that the Community Theater, a 1,500 seat house in Morristown, NJ, operated by the Walter Reade Theater chain, was running THE ROBE's audio through one, monophonic speaker. Even less of a shock was Fox's outrage to the situation. Up until that point, all other exhibitors had complied with Fox's requirements for sound and projection of their CinemaScope features: to be shown on a Miracle Mirror, Astrolite or equal-quality screen of the correct ratio, as well as the installation of four-channel stereophonic sound (sound head, sprockets, amplifier and speakers), to properly run their four-track print.
The Community had half of the correct elements-- a 35-foot wide Astrolite screen met sufficient visual standards, but through means of a mixer manufactured by the Cinematic Corporation of Bloomfield, NJ, the four-channel soundtrack which came with the film was mixed from all four channels into one signal, and then piped into a single speaker.
Even though the Community's lobby displays made no mention of stereo sound (or lack thereof), it was reported that the theater ran a recorded speech before the showing which announced to the audience it was about to hear stereophonic sound. According to observers who were there for the monophonic viewings, they "found a boom noticeable and lack of crystal clear quality, but were unable to say whether this was usual in the theater." The sound did not appear to be off in the rear of the theater, curiously, but "it became obvious that the sound was not issuing from the parts of the screen where the action was taking place or the dialog being spoken." Even though this was common previously in movie theater, moviegoers were being cheated out of the promise of Fox's "miracle" of stereophonic sound. It was half of the experience for the full ticket price.
Ironically, not long before this skulduggery occurred, Fox had planned to test a single-track version of THE ROBE (whether it was magnetic or optical sound is unknown) in Ohio, but changed their mind at the last moment, citing that even if the single-track system were successful, it would "prove nothing, since there would not be sufficient prints in the single-track version to meet exhibitor needs for CinemaScope pictures."
By January 20th, Fox was in heated talks about applying for a court injunction against the Walter Reade chain's use of the mixer. To add fuel to the fire, Reade installed the mono mixer into two of his other New Jersey theaters, in Perth Amboy and Kingston.
Immediately after the story broke in Showman's Trade Review, Walter Reade Jr., head of the theater chain, as well as the president prolific Theatre Owners of America (TOA) association, announced he would issue a statement, but never followed up. With Reade running the organization, there was no doubt that the TOA was about to be dragged into a game of chess with 20th.
A week later, Spiros Skouras, president of Fox, and Reade had come to an apparent resolution. Both parties were court shy, but never-the-less had lawyers ready to do battle. To avoid legal conflict, Fox was to go ahead with their tests of mono sound with CinemaScope in four regions, and according to Reade, to use one of his own theaters as "a guinea pig" for the experiment. Reade's motivation was for his benefit in end: Fox okayed the use of their mono print and Reade did not have to install further, modern stereo equipment in his theaters. He would be able to carry on running THE ROBE at the Community, as well as the in the two other theaters, using the new mono prints for one month, as part of the test to determine whether the studio would change its stereo policy.
Drive-in theaters also wanted to run 'Scope films, but were relying on a single, mono speaker to pump sound into individual cars and couldn't possibly install 4-track into each car. In the February 6 issue of BoxOffice, Abram F. Myers, general counsel for Allied States Association, made the statement that Fox would have to shift its policy for drive-ins "if the handsome profits earned by 'The Robe' are not to be wiped out by the losses on lesser product that does not hold up in the key runs." The ball was in Fox's court, who on the same page revealed that they would stick to their guns with their new drive-in sound plan. The key points were that:
1. CinemaScope will be made available to drive-ins, but the film prints will have four-channel magnetic recording and the reproduction will have to be on a two-speaker system similar to the one demonstrated Monday by International Projector Co. at Bloomfield, NJ. Both RCA and Altec are said to be working on such a system.
2. Al Lichtman, director of distribution, sent Alex Harrison to Cincinnati to explain to Allied drive-in convention delegates how the new system works. This was after the convention had ridiculed a report that two-speakers-per-car would be required for drive-ins and after there had been sharp criticism of the company's failure to reply to a telegram sent at the start of the convention.
3. Lichtman issued a second statement replying to the Theatre Owners of America board of directors in which he said Fox would continue to insist on the use of stereophonic sound and that where an exhibitor finds it impossible to secure credit for the apparatus, the company will use its influence to help him get installations on a long-term payment basis.
The same week, in response to the announcement, TOA formed a committee to "militantly" protect Exhibitors from attempts by the studio to take control of theater operations away from them. According to Reade, "whether an exhibitor installs stereophonic sound or other equipment must rest in his own discretion and choice." Fellow exhibitors weren't too happy with Reade's handshake deal with Skouras, officially announced at the January 31 TOA meeting. One fellow NJ exhibitor, after seeing Reade's grosses without the stereo sound commented, "he can buy three stereophonic installations out of the profits of the first three bookings!"
Things continued to heat up. On February 10, Variety announced that Reade cancelled tests when he was told by Lichtman at Fox that their policy wasn't going to change, no matter what the outcome. "Even though exhibitors might sit at the tests, their judgements on the requirement of stereophonic sound would not be respected or considered in Fox's decision," was Reade's opinion based on conversation with Lichtman. Even Variety warned that a future legal battle was certainly on the way to the circuit.
There are few facts to report after this point, no doubt with a lot of back-room deals that were never documented. Consequently, there is a point that is subject to much confusion, even with many of the facts present. For years, texts on the subject reported that the parties did have a fierce court battle in which Reade got his way, championing the right to run mono sound on 'Scope prints. Whether or not this case was actually tried, Variety reported on February 17 that Reade himself folded, installing stereo in all of his theaters, citing that lack of Fox product to him was his concern. According to them, the new contract with 20th for HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE was the deciding factor in making Reade spend $3,000 on a new stereo system per theater.
Fox had won the battle, but apparently not the war. Pressure from TOA and other exhibitors, coupled with the drive-in debacle forced Fox to come to a new solution. On May 6, Fox announced the cancellation of their previous policy on stereophonic sound. As a result, exhibitors who were interested in playing CinemaScope features had their choice of four-track magnetic, one track magnetic, and one track optical soundtracks.
MGM followed suit the same week with its policy on their CinemaScope productions and stereo sound. General sales manager Charles Reagan said, "The new policy is designed to service theatres which present the single-channel track as well as those equipped for magnetic sound and the new Perspecta sound." Reagan also added that while the choice was optional, it was the opinion of MGM that all exhibitors should take any opportunities available to improve audio presentation, including installation of stereophonic sound systems.
The Perspecta stereophonic system that MGM previously referred to was a groundbreaking plan to incorporate a stereophonic track within a monophonic, optical track. Developed by the Fine Sound Laboratories in 1954, it debuted with that year's WHITE CHRISTMAS, alongside VistaVision, Paramount's new widescreen process.
The headaches didn't end there. In June, a group of Minneapolis exhibitors had had enough. S.D. Kane, North Central Allied executive counsel, reported that a "sizable number" of exhibitors who installed stereophonic sound now wanted Fox to reimburse them for the equipment "which has become unnecessary."
All of this chaos was reflected humorously in Martin Quigley Jr.'s column in the Motion Picture Herald later that month in a blurb captioned "Print Happy!" He was right, as this following list was what caused the headaches Exhibitors had to deal with:
*Standard print - standard sound
*Standard print - separate stereophonic sound print [fullcoat mag, interlocked]
*Standard print - separate stereophonic sound print; effects on optical track with picture [aka WARNERPHONIC]
*3-D - two print system
*3-D - single print system
*3-D - two print system with separate stereophonic sound print
*CinemaScope - 4-track stereophonic sound
*CinemaScope - single optical sound track
*CinemaScope - Perspecta directional sound
*CinemaScope - single track magnetic
*CinemaScope - reduced to standard "2-D" print [Note: they mean a reduced, non-anamorphic print]
*VistaVision - Perspecta sound
*VistaVision printed in SuperScope - Perspecta sound
*SuperScope print of standard picture.
Quigley aptly noted, "the Italians have a word for a situation like this. It is basta.
The meaning-- THAT'S ENOUGH!"