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July 20, 2013

First talking movies came to Oneonta in July 1913

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The Daily Star

---- — No matter how hard we’ll ever try, historians will not be correct all the time. Future historians will more than likely review my work someday and find that I made a few oversights and errors in presenting facts. I’m fine with that, and hope they’ll make things correct.

Historians sometimes just go with the facts of former historians, simply assuming their work was correct. Now and then, however, we come across a few surprises. This time in particular, it is about the first talking movies in Oneonta.

For years now, I’ve gone with others’ accounts that the first “talkies” played in Oneonta in August 1926. Recently, while browsing through microfilmed Oneonta Star editions of July 1913, I discovered that this was not the case.

“The famous Edison Talking Pictures are coming to Oneonta,” it was reported in the Star of Tuesday, July 22, 1913. “This has been decided and they will be shown at the Oneonta theatre commencing this evening and tomorrow afternoon and evening. A complete entertainment, consisting of drama, comedy, tragedy, operatic selections and speeches by well known men and women, will be enough to convince the most skeptical that at last silent motion pictures are doomed and hereafter they will talk the same as real actors on a real stage.”

The success of Edison’s invention, the Kinetophone, turned out to be short-lived. Nineteen talking pictures were produced in 1913 by the Edison Manufacturing Co., but by 1915 he had abandoned sound motion pictures. Projectionists mostly untrained with the new technology had problems synchronizing the sound with the pictures.

In that first Oneonta effort, the Star reported that Manager Roberts of “Theatre Oneonta” had to postpone the Tuesday night showing due to a major technical glitch. Edison talking pictures were operated by motors requiring a “60 cycle current.” The current supplied to the theater was 133 cycles.

Roberts consulted with electricians from both the Oneonta trolley lines and the D&H Railroad, but they couldn’t establish the lower current in time for the show. “Those who were disappointed last evening,” it was reported on July 23, “should secure tickets for this afternoon or evening.”

Wednesday’s showings were successful, “as every seat was filled from the footlights to rear seats in the gallery.” Manager Roberts also promised a return engagement for those who missed Tuesday night’s showing. The return began on Monday, Aug. 18.

While Edison’s technology faded, by the mid-1920s a new technology in talking movies had emerged, Vitaphone. Previous local historians had written, and I had followed, that the early blockbuster movies such as “Don Juan,” starring John Barrymore, played the Oneonta Theatre on Aug. 6, 1926, and “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson played Oct. 6, 1927.

These dates turned out to be the national debuts for the movies, but as movie advertisements in the Star showed, they didn’t play in Oneonta at the time. When “Don Juan” debuted, Oneonta watched a silent movie called “The Pony Express.” When bigger cities watched “The Jazz Singer,” Oneonta saw “One Round Hogan,” a boxing movie starring Monte Blue. Whether it was the Oneonta, Palace or Strand theaters, Oneonta didn’t yet have the technology to run talking movies.

That changed in the early months of 1928, when the Oneonta Theatre invested about $25,000 in improvements to the building, installing the new Vitaphone equipment. The Star reported on Thursday, May 10, that the improvements were complete and the first Vitaphone film was ready to be shown. While there was no dialogue, “The Silver Slave,” starring Irene Rich, showed with sound and music on Monday, May 14.

Later that month, Monday, May 28, local moviegoers heard Al Jolson say, “Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” as “The Jazz Singer” made its long-awaited debut in Oneonta. That was the only dialogue, but in addition to Al Jolson singing, the movie still had subtitles.

The first all-talking movie in Oneonta began its run at The Oneonta Theatre, “Lights of New York,” on Monday, Aug. 6, 1928.

On Monday: The area was thrilled by an armistice with Korea in July 1953.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.