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Houston History Book Fair & Symposium

Houston Arts and Media presents its third annual Houston History Book Fair & Symposium on Saturday, November 10, 2012. Like the previous years, it will feature dozens of local and regional history authors, who will be giving presentations and discussing their books. This year will be the first time for the event to be held at the historic Julia Ideson Building
of the Houston Public Library, 500 McKinney Street. The event will run from 10 am till 4pm.

David Welling, author of Cinema Houston, will be on hand to discuss Houston’s movie theatres. His book will be available at the University of Texas Press table.

Other Authors will include:

  • Sylvia Dickey Smith – A War of Her Own
  • Lucinda Freeman – Historic Houston: How to See it
  • Chuck Parsons – Texas Rangers
  • Ed Cotham – Texas Civil War Titles
  • Kate Kirkland – Captain James Baker of Houston
  • David Bush/Jim Parsons – Houston Deco
  • Anna Mod – Building Modern Houston
  • Steven Fenberg – Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones
  • Jim Schmidt – Galveston and the Civil War
  • Naomi Carrier – Go Down, Old Hannah
  • Mike Vance – Houston’s Sporting Life
  • Tom Kreneck – Del Pueblo: Houston’s Hispanics
  • Al Mitchell – Texas City
  • Ronnie Crocker – Houston Beer History
  • Tom Kennedy – Houston Police Department
  • Michael Swanson – The Angel Baby
  • Ann Becker – River Oaks
  • Andy Hall – Houston/Galveston Steamboats
  • Joan Upton Hall – Just Visitin’: Old Texas Jails
  • Frank Chalfant – Galveston Island of Chance
  • Story Sloane – Houston in the 1920s and 30s
  • Kasey French – Honoring Olivewood
  • Andrea White – The Very Long Life of Alice’s Playhouse
  • Leah White – Our Roots are Strong CD
  • Betty Chapman – Children’s Activity Book on Preservation

For more information about the event, visit the Houston Arts & Media website at www.houstonartsandmedia.org.

Trading on the Alabama

The former Alabama Theatre/Bookstop on opening night as Trader Joes

Ever since the 1939 Alabama Theatre /Bookstop space reopened as a Trader Joe’s grocery store in September, I have been struggling on how to best comment on it. As is well known, the  local preservation laws that helped to keep the theatre exterior intact do not extend to its interior. When it was changed from a theatre space to a retail bookstore in 1984, great care was taken to keep the inherent beauty intact—something that was only marginally done this time around. The areas preserved are largely in the upper regions of the former auditorium, in particular the ceiling medallion and lines of the proscenium.

Rather than try to put my observations into words, it seems better to give comparisons through photos. Below are some shots of the space during its days as the Bookstop, along with its current incarnation.  I have my own feelings about the matter. You can decide for yourself.

A view from the stage looking back at the balcony area and ceiling:

The left corridor. At one time, this was an alleyway between the theatre and the neighboring building. During the Bookstop expansion, it was added and blended to match with the existing design of the interior:

The “yellow brick road” floor motif at the front entrance:

What spoke most to me regarding the interior was the loss of the lovely art deco murals that adored the interior on either side of the proscenium during its days as a theatre and later as the Bookstop. Below is one of the two murals—followed by one of the current paintings on the interior wall. What would you rather look at?

Music for Films

A category of note at the 2012 Academy Awards was Best Song for a Motion Picture; it only had two nominees–Man or Muppet from The Muppets and Real in Rio from Rio. What was interesting was that this very short list of nominees, while perhaps catchy in their own right, could hardly be considered to be stellar examples of the craft. Such is the nature of the motion picture pop theme song; for every tune on the level of The Way We Were, there are far too many songs that are merely passable.

I recently picked up a CD of early show tunes, Rudolph Valentino: He Sings and Others Sing About Him. The album, recorded in 2005 by Phil York, features all-new recordings of songs originally written as tie-ins to Rudolph Valentino’s movies between 1922 and 1927. The CD Also includes some new songs and the two songs Valentino recorded before he died, these being the only recordings of his voice. On the whole, the collection is something of a musical time machine into a simpler era. In both lyrics and composition, these songs are sentimental products of that time, with titles like I Have a Rendezvous With You,A Kingdom for Two, and If I Had a Man Like Valentino. While no one writes songs like this nowadays (at least not without their tongue firmly in cheek), it is clear how these older songs their own indefinable charm.

As evident from this album, music merchandising is not a new thing.

Then, as now, a pop-style song can be attached to any movie (regardless of whether it fits) with the end goal of finding a home as a radio hit. Some work quite well, such as Into the West from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and far more titles could be listed here than there is space for – but to name a few: I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard), Circle of Life (Elton John, The Lion King), Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, An Officer and a Gentleman), Shaft (Isaac Hayes, Shaft), Don’t You (Forget About Me) (Simple Minds, The Breakfast Club, and pretty much every James Bond Film.

For all the great ones, there are also the stinkers, such as Ben by Michael Jackson (in itself not a bad song, but not when tied to a film about a killer rat), or the title song to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (check it out if you don’t believe me). Even Celine Dion’s anthem, My Heart Will Go On, from Titanic, ends up on the most loved list as well as the most hated song of all time.

What is fascinating is how the inclination to attach a popular song to a movie has been a mainstay for the last hundred years. Whether the song was intended to be played alongside the movie during the early silent days, or just be sold off as sheet music to help market the film, the tie-in remains the same.

And a really good one will stick with you forever. Try singing a line from Ghostbusters.

See what I mean?

Can we all get along?

Movies represent escapism. Always have, always will.
Since its inception, the movie theatre has served as a place to forget about the outside world and its responsibilities for a few hours. It might even be thought of as a sanctuary, a place of safety — which is why the shootings that took place in Aurora, Colorado on July 19 are so reprehensible.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, there will be countless articles written about the Aurora theatre shooting, the person responsible and his motives, the causes of such behavior, and the effect it will leave on us all. There is little I can say that will not be said elsewhere, with either more eloquence or with more purpose and conviction than I could offer. I find myself at a loss for words that define how fundamentally abhorrent this is on so many levels, and consider if there is any place that is safe from violence?
As one who has written about movie theatres and the film going experience, I was particularly drawn to the words by one of the contributors to It Cool News, who spoke not as a social commenter, news reporter, or political activist, but as simply a person who loves movies. He said this:

This weekend, go to a movie.  No, it’s not about keeping the bad guys from winning, or making a statement, although if you want it to be, that’s okay.  Go to the movies this weekend because it’s a joy.  One of the last great joys we have left these days, it seems.  Plant youself in a theater, and see whatever you fancy.  It’s the place dreams come true.  It’s the magic land.  That screen isn’t a window – it’s a door.  An inviting door that lets in everyone.  All are welcome in that world, and we get to wonder in the power of imagination and beauty.
“I don’t normally post like this and I’m sorry if this upsets some of you.  I’m grieving for the losses in Aurora, Colorado, and I am trying very hard not to play the political games of finding where to put blame.  This community took a real loss today, and I mourn those who were killed, pray for the wounded, and celebrate that magic that we all chase every time we sit down in a movie theater.  Theaters are my church, and today we’re all hurting.”
“I love movies, and you do too.  Let’s celebrate them.”

My deepest thoughts go out to all those who have been irreversibly changed by this tragedy. As trite and simplistic as it is, I keep asking the same question on almost a daily basis: Why can’t we be kind to one another? Rodney King, who encountered another form of violence, was all too right with his question, “Can we all get along?”
I keep hoping that eventually, one day, we will.
– July 22, 2012

Houston’s little piece of Mt. Rushmore

Peggy

Peggy at its current home, MacGregor Park.

Those of you who attended the Delman Theatre on Main from the mid-seventies onward may remember a statue, located to the left of the theatre building facing Richmond Avenue. Say hello to Peggy.

This work of art featured a bronze statue of a young woman in profile inset in a granite background. It remained there long after the Delman had closed its doors, before a full restoration was completed and its relocation to Macgregor Park in 1996–its third home since its original commission. The sculpture’s ties to the Delman are marginal–it bears closer relationship to one of Houston’s influential businessmen, as well as the famous faces carved into Mt. Rushmore–but for some Houstonians, this is the statue they saw when going to the movies during the Delman’s final years of operation.

Peggy was commissioned by the estate of Henry Frederick MacGregor (1855-1923), a prominent politician and businessman who came to the city in 1883. His real estate ventures included the development of Riverside Terrace in the 1920s. In 1885, he married Elizabeth “Peggy” Stevens (1864-1949). In the commission for the statue, which was completed after his death, MacGregor stipulated that it honor his wife.

PeggyThe assignment was awarded to John Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), a sculptor who at that time resided in San Antonio, but who is best known for his creation of the presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore. This is one of the two Borglum works in the state of Texas, the other being “Trail Drivers” in San Antonio. Austin-based artisan Joe Machac designed and carved the supporting stone backdrop. Peggy was dedicated in 1927 and was placed at a small parcel of land donated to the city by the MacGregors. This area of property is now known as Peggy Park.

The sculpture, measuring some eight feet in height, bears the five-foot-tall bronze sculpture on one side, and a bronze inscription plate on the other. The back side featured a pedestal bowl, now absent from the sculpture, as part of a water fountain that ran water into a tile-lined basin at the feet of the figure. Also on the back was a plaque bearing the inscription:

“A man is not his best until he has a wife and a home, and so much depends on the wife.” – H.F.M.

Below this is the following dedication:

It was his wish–And here in stone and bronze is builded a memorial. May it grace, perpetuate and fulfill the conception of Henry Frederick MacGregor that in this park given and dedicated by him to the people of Houston and named for his wife, Elizabeth Stevens MacGregor, whom he affectionately called “Peggy,” should be erected a fountain as a tribute to the inspiration of a devoted wife.

PeggyAt the time, the property at Wheeler, Chenevert, and Almeda was surrounded by little more than pasture land. In time, the city expanded around the park, and the statue fell into neglect and disrepair. Vandals broke off one of the figure’s arms and the water ceased its flow from the fountain. At some time around 1974, the city of Houston commissioned Borglum’s son to cast a new arm, based on the original sketches. The elder Borglum had died in 1941. The arm was delivered in 1976 to a contracting firm, but was never installed. According to a December 1993 Houston Press article by Barry Moore, the missing appendage had disappeared and no one could recollect what might have happened to it. The arm, apparently recovered thereafter, was restored to the sculpture during its 1996 restoration.

It may have been during the initial restoration period in the seventies that Peggy was moved to the strip of land on Richmond next to the Delman Theatre. The theatre was still operational at the time, but due to sluggish business, it would shut its doors in February 1978. It reopened briefly in the eighties as the Maceba Theatre, a performing arts center, then sat vacant into the following century. It was razed in 2002.

Peggy demonstrated its longevity far better than the Delman. The statue was given a restoration in 1996, including the replacement of its arm, the work paid for from the Mayor’s Initiative Fund. The sculpture was moved yet again, this time to the park bearing the name of benefactor who first envisioned the memorial art–MacGregor Park, off Old Spanish Trail and Calhoun. Peggy remains there to this day, only a short distance away from the MacGregor Memorial (designed by William Ward Watkins, 1931), with its inscription:

Erected to the memory of Henry Frederick MacGregor in commemoration of munificent gifts for MacGregor Park and MacGregor Parkway along Brays Bayou. Public benefactions to the city of Houston under the will of Henry Frederick MacGregor, an esteemed citizen of this community. His was a personality rugged, sincere, patient, loyal, and outstanding. His was a life of vision, tireless and unselfish in its devotions and benevolent in its contemplations. From hard beginnings through adversity it emerged triumphant in rich achievements. It’s fulfillments in the public weal command wide appreciation. The people of Houston are the beneficiaries of the generosity, public spirit, sense of civic duty and social obligation of a man who for forty years was a forceful factor in the industrial, financial and social life of this city.

MacGregor Memorial

The memorial for H.F. MacGregor, a short distance away from Peggy at MacGregor Park

Special thanks to Melissa Noble, who recently asked me about the sculpture and what might have happened to it.

Catch the H Train

When it comes to amusement parks, everyone loves a thrill! The mere mention of Coney Island, Disneyland, or even the local county fair conjures up images of exciting rides lit with multi-colored lights, midways and their resident barkers, peanuts and cotton candy, and hours of fun for young and old.  Houston—like many other cities— has had its own share of amusement parks, from Luna Park at the beginning of the last century, to Playland Park, Peppermint Park, and Astroworld, the latter having been leveled to a massive vacant lot in 2005-06. This last Memorial Day, Landry’s Pleasure Pier amusement park held its gala opening in Galveston, having been built in the same location as the original 1940s-era Pleasure Pier (which was leveled by Hurricane Carla in 1961) and the Flagship Hotel (devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008).

Then as now, the main allure for these parks is in the rides that carry its occupants up, down, forwards, backwards, and sideways, sometimes at breakneck speeds. Indeed, there are things that never change, but what has evolved is the technology of the attractions. True, the traditional carousel or Ferris wheel can still be found, functioning much as it did a hundred years ago, but for the thrill seeker, today’s state-of-the-art rides are a whole different beast. Perhaps the most unique among this new breed are the 4-D motion simulator rides that are programmed to shimmy and shake in tandem with projected images, robotic figures, and even a gust of wind or water spray for additional effect. Disney’s Star Tours, and Universal’s Simpsons and Spiderman rides are prime examples of this, with perhaps the best of them all being the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure theme park. In this, riders sit four to a bench, and are moved along, tilted, turned, and flipped upside down, all while viewing a succession of live animatronics and filmed footage. The end result is an experience far above anything else I have waited in line for—and for the record, note that you will wait anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours to get into this ride. Yes, it is that popular.

In all fairness and In full disclosure, I should mention that I am a shameless and unapologetic Harry Potter junkie. I’ve read all the books and seen the movies multiple times, listened to the books on tape (preferring Steven Fry over Jim Dale, although both are superb narrators), and have been a longtime follower of Pottercast (an excellent podcast helmed writer Melissa Annelli). And, yes, I have my calendar marked for September 27, this being the release date for The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter novel. That said, the Potter Universal ride excels largely for its technical brilliance—its subject matter is icing on the cake.

Clearly, much has changed in the arena of amusement park rides over the last hundred years, and it would naturally be assumed that the evolution of 4-D is a recent one. That such innovation dates nearly as far back as the dawn of film itself is revelatory, not only to the timeline of amusement rides but to motion pictures as well.

Author H.G. Wells, who had penned the visionary novel, The Time Machine, applied for a patent in 1895 in collaboration with Robert Paul. The patent was for a stationary ride that rocked back and forth while audiences watched a projected image, thereby creating the time travel illusion from his futuristic novel. They eventually abandoned the project due to its excessive cost.

The 1900 Paris exposition featured two rides that built upon that idea. The first, the Cinéorama, simulated a balloon ride, with occupants standing on a raised platform, while images were projected below. The setup consisted of ten synchronized projectors that threw a 360-degree image onto a circular screen, which measured 30 feet in height and 330 feet in circumference. Meanwhile, the Lumière Brothers’ Maréorama simulated an ocean voyage as seen from the bridge of the ship.

Then in 1904, a patent was granted to inventor William J. Keefe for a ride with an open-sided rail car that ran on tracks around a circular screen with projected images. The patent was shared with Fred W. Gifford, a Kansas City magistrate of whom he had approached for financial backing, and Gifford’s friend, George C. Hale. They unveiled their attraction at the St. Louis Exposition that same year.

George Hale was a fireman with a flair for mechanical engineering who had already invented and patented a number of devices employed in fire fighting. He may have either heard of or seen the Cinéorama or Lumière Brothers ride during a visit to Paris in 1900. In 1905, he applied for a patent for his “Pleasure Railway,” which created the illusion of travel in a rail car. This concept, which originally utilized two rail cars, was later streamlined into a single-car ride, and served as the basis for his “Tours of the World” attraction.

Hale's Tours of the World

Hale’s Tours of the World in Galveston, circa 1906. Photo courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston, TX

Hale’s Tours was simple in execution. The stationary car featured oversized screens in the front and rear, designed to fill the periphery vision of its passengers. Moving footage from far-off lands was projected on the screens, giving the illusion of a traveling tour through such places as Tokyo, Switzerland, Lourdes, Frankfort, and Ceylon. A variable-speed belt and roller system underneath the car would create the vibration and clickety-clack sound of railway wheels against the track, and air could be blown through the cabin to suggest movement. In addition, the car could pivot on its longitudinal axis, allowing it to sway from side to side as if actually moving. For audiences of the day, the effect (even with the black and white film) was quite convincing.

It comes as no surprise that Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World was quite successful, with its peak from 1905 to 1907. At one point, it was reported that there were over 500 individual Hale’s Tours operating across the United States. Its appeal declined as the decade drew to a close, with the last one being shuttered sometime around 1912.

This raises an obvious question pertaining to this column… Did Houston have one? With 500 attractions spread across the nation, it would seem quite possible for one of Hale’s rides to appear in the city, however, I have come across no records of it in during that time.

However, there was one in Galveston.

Electric Park was to Galveston what Luna Park was to Houston—a source for entertainment for residents and visitors alike. It opened to the public in May 1906 with a 5-foot-tall aerial swing, a roller coaster, carousel, Ferris wheel, shooting galleries, fireworks, and other diversions—including Hale’s Tours of the World. As popular as the park was, it lasted only a few years, and was largely demolished in the fall of 1910. A set of photos from the Galveston Rosenberg Library clearly shows the Hale’s attraction, with patrons milling outside of the building. A detailed article on Electric Park can be found on the library’s website: http://www.rosenberg-library.org/collections/gthc/online/exhibits/electric/electric.htm

While the Galveston Electric Park and Hale’s Tours are long gone—razed in the same name of progress that took Astroworld, Luna Park, and many other area amusement parks—the technology that they were build upon has continued to evolve. It is very possible that the patrons of Hale’s Tours were just as enthralled by it as modern audiences are of the Disneyland Star Tours ride over a century later. The train may be different from the one in 1906, but for the passenger, the rush is still the same. It is quite probable that some of those patrons would return for a second ride on Hale’s train, or even a third. After all, the repeat experience has always been part of the fun of an amusement park.

And, yes, when I was at Universal Orlando, I rode the Harry Potter ride twice. I would have gone a third time… but I ran out of time.

Reference for this blog is from the article, Hale’s Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture by Raymond Feilding, 1957, originally published in the Smithsonian Institution’s Journal of History, and from Electric Park Meant Electric Excitement for Galveston’s Tourists, www.rosenberg-library.org.

I have seen the future and it is 48

The Hobbit. How can such a small creature cause such an uproar?

In my March blog, I touched on the topic of digital conversions, and how this changeover in the industry is the biggest technology overhaul since the advent of talkies In the late twenties. Studios have announced the eventual phase-out of new films being released on film stock in favor of its digital counterpart. This means the conversion of projection equipment for every theatre across the country, and the probable death of many independent theatres that cannot afford the cost to upgrade. There is, however, another big change coming that may be just as drastic to the industry as the digital leap… It is the change to 48fps. Already it has drawn fire from both sides, and the first theatrical film to embrace the technology is still months away from a release.

Motion pictures as we know them have been projected at 24fps (frames per second) ever since the dawn of sound in the late 1920s when a standard was required for synchronization. Prior to that, the frame rate varied, anywhere from 18fps to 24fps. This rate is what gives film it’s particular look, including the tendency of fast motion to appear as a blur. Over the years, there has been some experimentation with differing rates, but due to the standardized equipment, 24fps has always remained the norm. All that has changed with the changeover to digital projection, which is not exclusive to speed rates in the way that conventional film projectors were.

Peter Jackson is challenging the system with his new production of The Hobbit, which is not only being filmed in 3-D but at 48fps. The first public exposure to this came at CinemaCon, with a ten-minute preview of segments shown at 48fps. The reaction was immediate and divisive, as audiences were confronted with an experience that was sharper and more dynamic than they ever had seen before—but also unlike what all their expectations of film should look like. It is already clear that not everyone will like this new technology because it is so different. Criticisms have been that it looks “uncinematic,” akin to watching high-def live sports footage. Somehow, it reminds me of the remark made by Harry Warner as sound films were first being contemplated. His remark, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” clearly showed someone not open to the advances of the medium.

As for myself, let me say that I have seen the future and it is 48fps—and I saw its potential 25 years ago.

A founding father for this technology is Douglas Trumbull, who has pushed the technological envelope ever since his beginning effects work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whose subsequent work includes Bladerunner, Brainstorm, Silent Running, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the Back to the Future park ride. His experimentations with differing rates included the measurement of physiological responses to the experiences, before finally settling on 60fps for his Showscan presentations in the eighties. I saw a Showscan movie in Dallas at the time (New Magic, 1983), and the experience was amazing. The image was sharp, clear, and so rich that it could pass itself off as real life. This illusion was worked into the narrative of the movie, fooling the audience into thinking that the film had stopped and an actual person was standing behind the screen, pushing outward on the surface. Never before or since have I seen the line between illusion and reality drawn so thin.

Showscan was a technology well ahead of—and limited by—its time, but the digital age has changed all that. Switching to higher frame rates is not the insurmountable behemoth that it once was, which makes Trumbull’s efforts now accessible on a massive scale.  He is still active, having just finished the effects for Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life in 2010. His current experiments with optimum film technologies includes film run at 120s, twice the rate of his Showscan movies.

By comparison to Trumbull’s advances in the medium, 48fps seems hardly a major jump forward, but for the mass audience used to a century of 24fps movies, the difference is striking enough to already be drawing the battle lines. It will be a big leap for many to make, who are comfortable with their movie fare delivered exactly as it has been in the past. It should be noted that 3-D, which has reached new levels in the last decade, has its own fair share of detractors who just don’t like it.  It already appears that when The Hobbit opens, it may be presented in both 24fps and 48fps, as well as the expected options of 3-D and the standard 2-D.

True, 48fps does look different from a standard-rate movie. That’s the whole point. As touched on in the March blog, the motion picture is as much a technological art form as a narrative one. Unlike other arts that are pure forms, the very nature of film has been one based on invention, beginning with the motion picture camera itself. As a creative medium, a whole language was developed to tell a story—editing, close-ups, fades, trick photography, and so forth. But this was likewise carried on the shoulders of the technology itself, from silent to sound and infinite improvements thereafter, black and white to color, flat to widescreen, etc., etc., etc. Revving up the film rate is only the latest advance, and will no doubt serve as the groundwork for something else further down the road. Yes, there will be even more changes ahead, some small and some crazy big—one can only wonder what the state of the art will be in another century.

Like James Cameron, who is planning on 60fps for his upcoming Avatar 2 endeavor, Jackson is an advocate of the moviegoing experience being all that it can be. He proved this with Lord of the Rings, and is ready to take his audience into realms that can now be easily be manifested with digital technology. 48fps is his offering for all those who are ready for the ride. It’s going to be one unlike anything you have seen before.

I’m so already there.

Dark Lovers, Past and Present

Valentino“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

This quote by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1908–1990) is better known in its English translated form: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

The quote seemed fitting in connecting the dots from such recent successes as The Hunger Games and Twilight to similar events nearly a century earlier. The success of an individual movie, and the adoration of its stars is certainly nothing new – the silent era had its own blockbusters and idols – but what is different is in the packaging. This year’s model may look different, but it is sold in much the same way.

The Hunger Games finished its domestic opening weekend with $155 million in the coffers, making it the third-best debut to date in terms of revenue, right behind the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight, and placing it in a new franchise series that also includes Twilight. This is no surprise. The books by Suzanne Collins are incredibly popular (I’ve read and enjoyed all three) and the pre-release movie buzz was over the top. Such was the same for the Potter series (loved-loved-loved the books) and Twilight series (not as much). In the world of filmmaking, the best way to land a hit movie is to start with a hit book. So it is with these aforementioned films, as it was with such diverse films as Gone With the Wind, Great Expectations,  Lord of the Rings – and The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse, based on the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel.

I am currently in the process of reading an excellent biography of Rudolph Valentino (Dark Lover by Emily Leider, 2003), and the similarities are so clear of how a star can be made by such a vehicle, as well as take center stage as a sex symbol. Valentino did both, becoming the heartthrob to women across the world from his portrayal of Julio in Four Horsemen. In Twilight terms, Valentino was the Robert Pattinson of his age, and would have made a damn fine Edward, had they been shooting teen angst vampire romances at that time. He is not alone in comparisons to modern stars. In a recent blog, author Jamie Brenner made a similar observation about the allure of Louise Brooks, and how she was the Rooney Mara of her day. Likewise, Sam Worthington is but the latest of action stars to channel Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the key difference being that Doug did most of his own stunts.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse broke all records. Metro banked on its success going in, spending $800,000 on the production and claiming that 12,000 people had been employed to complete the film, a number most likely exaggerated. Its release brought about long lines around the theatres, and by the time it was all over, the film had garnered more than four million dollars in theatrical rentals, making it one of the top moneymakers of the 1920s. Actress Constance Talmadge had been in New York at the time of its release and later recalled the Valentino effect on the young ladies of the city, stating how all the girls wished that “they would be lucky enough to dance a tango with that hero.”*

Son of the Sheik,

Rudolph Valentino under direction during the filming of Son of the Sheik, with the equally luminous Vilma Banky.

The fever increased following the release of The Sheik in 1921, with girls nationwide swooning and screaming in adoration, a manner to repeat itself decades later for Sinatra, Elvis, and The Beatles. Seen today, The Sheik is over-the-top hokum, with far less finesse than was given to its superior sequel. However, for its time, it was steamy hot stuff, and the ladies ate it up.

Valentino’s reign as a top matinee idol was relatively brief, beginning with his rocket-fire fame from Four Horsemen in 1921 to his premature death in August 1926. His final film, Son of the Sheik, was released posthumously.  Between these two films were a dozen other titles, including, Blood and Sand, Camille, and The Eagle.

Valentino’s appeal may be lost on some modern audiences – sexual allure is considerably different in 2012 than it was in 1921 – but for those who can put themselves in the mindset of the twenties, he smoked with the same intensity that Greta Garbo burned for the male portion of the population. He was the top box office draw, and adorned covers of the fan magazines, just like Pattinson and Taylor Lautner do now. While it may be crass to note how sex always sells, it is clearly true regardless of era when it comes to the matinee idols of yesterday and today.

This, then, begs the question: in another century, will the motion pictures of today be looked upon in the same way… and what of the modern heartthrobs who make the audience melt? Will Megan Fox or Josh Hutcherson,  Kristen Stewart or Taylor Lautner be allowed the reverence of immortality in the same way as Valentino, who’s name is immediately recognizable as a romantic icon, even to those who have never seen one of his films?

Or will they go the way of the other romantic idol of the twenties, John Gilbert, who seduced Garbo both on and off the screen, and also died way too early?

If by some chance you are not familiar with the name, Google him.

 

* Dark Lover, page 123

Going, Going, Converting, Gone

Rialto Theatre

The Rialto Theatre faded from the Houston landscape along with the silent era. It was operational for only five years before it closed in 1927.

There is a dramatic change taking place in the movie business, perhaps the most drastic one to occur in the last 85 years. It’s right up there on the screen before your eyes, and it is a real game changer. As with any upheaval, there will be victors as well as losers; this time, the losers will be the small independent theatres across the country. This is the opinion of Michael Hurley, who happens to be one of those independent theatre owners.

The evolution underway in the movie industry is that of projection equipment going digital. This is hardly a new thing; George Lucas spoke of its coming when he was working on the first of his Star Wars prequels in1999, envisioning a day when film could be run without a worry about wear and tear of the product. Instead of projection platters bearing thousands of feet of 35mm film stock, subject to scratches, breaks, and blurry images (from projectionists in need of training, discipline, or glasses), a digital projector could showcase a perfect image. So far, so good… except that the industry is now moving at a rapid pace for this very expensive changeover, and quite soon, there will be no more new movies supplied on film stock. For the large theatrical chains, the cost incurred from the conversion will be taken in stride. This is a different matter for the small mom-and-pop small-town theatres across the country that struggle just to survive. For many of these, it is the end of the road.

The evolution of the motion picture over the last century has been ripe with changes. The first thirty-odd years were a period of innovation, as the language of film was created, leading up to the introduction of sound around 1927. This was followed by such innovations for film and theatre as Technicolor, wide screen, 3-D, stereo and surround sound, THX, stadium seating, drive-ins, multi cinemas and megaplexes, just to mention a few. But of all these advances, the only one that bears any similarity to the current upheaval in the industry was the advent of sound following the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927. The reasons are clearly evident.

The conversion from silent picture to sound required a complete changeover in projection equipment, along with the retrofitting of the theatre with speakers, the whole involving a tremendous expense on the part of the theatre owner. For the larger houses, many of which were part of studio chains, this was not an insurmountable obstacle. For the smaller independents, it was the death knell. The rallying cry from the industry was, “Convert or die.” Many of them did just that, shutting their doors as the silent era drew to a close.

A number of the smaller Houston theatres fell into this soundless wasteland. The Isis Theatre, at 1012 Prairie—one of the first opulent theatres to be built specifically for motion pictures (1912)— closed up by the end of the twenties. So did the Liberty Theatre at 718 Main. It had opened under its original name of the Pearce in 1913, and according to a 1938 Houston Chronicle article, had run the first talking picture in town a few years before The Jazz Singer, using the problematic phonograph system for the vocal track. Close to the Liberty at 608 Main was the Rialto. It had opened in1922; by February of 1927, it too had closed.

What modern theatres now face is the same dilemma—to survive, old projection equipment must be trashed and replaced with new technology, at a price that is prohibitive to the smaller independents. Two recent articles touch on this very issue:

“We’re About to Lose 1,000 Small Theaters That Can’t Convert to Digital. Does It Matter?” by Michael Hurley. He owns the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine as well as the Temple Theatre in Houlton, Maine, and maintains a website for movie theater owners (www.bigscreenbiz.com). The second article appeared just before the Academy awards presentation. “Kodak—and film—saying goodbye to the Oscars” by Ryan Nakashima notes the simultaneous demise of film projection with the financial difficulties of Kodak and its departure from the Kodak Theatre, home to the Oscars for the last decade.

As sad as this is for the struggling theatres to compete, it is nothing new. Motion pictures have always been an art form based on  technology  that has evolved with the times. The exhibition end represents the tail end of that development. From the practical viewpoint, the convert or die mentality is the logical answer for the studios that are changing over their technology, and can be expected to continue producing film stock product for only so long. This does not make it any easier for the small theatre owners who do not have deep pockets, and who could benefit from a subsidized transition.

From the historical viewpoint, it is a true end of an era. While the composition of the film stock has changed over the years, from the older volatile nitrate stock of earlier days to safety stock, and the early tinted and hand-colored stock to the variety of color stocks that came later, the physical file has always been there, to be threaded into the projector and run, one sprocket at a time. Those days are now drawing to a close. It will have a profound effect on the industry, as well as the many small-town theatres across the country.

Some will survive. Others will not. For those who mourn the passing scene of the cinema, this will be another casualty—and as film history has proven, this will probably not be the last time. As the movies continue to evolve as an art form and as a technological form, there will also be the Convert or Die Decree.

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?

The ArtistThe movies of 2011 are a thing of the past—no, not last year’s past, but of a treasured past, with fond remembrances of how things once were and a desire to keep that history preserved. The favor these films have found with audiences is evident in the nomination lineup for this year’s Academy Awards. From the time-jumping antics in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to Martin Scorsese’s plea for film preservation in Hugo (also set in Paris), the common motif is in paying homage to all that came before.

Heading up this list is The Artist, a genuine modern rarity for not only being in black and white but silent as well. Of course, it is not truly silent—silent films never were, but always had accompaniment by piano, organ, or orchestra, and even sound effects—and it’s score by Ludovic Bource (with some help from Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, and Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo) is one of the ten nominations The Artist is up for. It’s nomination sweep is a continuation of the nominations and awards it has already claimed with the Golden Globes, Directors Guild of America, and the BAFTAs, as well as being at the top of practically every critic’s best-of list.

It seems appropriate that The Artist should be showing at the River Oaks Theatre, it being the oldest operational theatre in Houston. True, it is still not the perfect match of having the film (which takes place at the dawning of sound, circa 1928-1930) shown in a theatre of that same period. The River Oaks was built in 1939, thereby missing the mark by a decade. It is neither a grand picture palace, nor one of the older, smaller silent houses that came before, but is indicative of the neighborhood design that epitomized the period. Regardless, The Artist fits the River Oaks better than any other venue the city has to offer. Both are reflections of their time, and are appreciated all the more for it.

What truly ties the River Oaks Theatre and The Artist (and Hugo, for that matter) together is the idea of survival and evolution in the midst of changing times. The River Oaks opened in Hollywood’s golden year of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, well before the advent of multiple screens, 3-D, digital, and all the other advances that the last seven decades have brought. It alone has survived, while all the grand downtown Houston theaters and most all of the other older neighborhood houses have fallen to waste. Much of it’s survival has to do with the public passion for film, its art, and its past. So too is this evident in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s valentine to the magic and wonder created by French filmmaker George Melies, who was virtually forgotten by the end of his life.

George Valentin, the protagonist of The Artist, is likewise forgotten. Like many who worked in silent films, he could not see the writing on the wall as sound movies came into being. His opinion echoed the classic quote by Harry Warner, who said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” He was wrong, as audiences embraced sound, and later would embrace color, widescreen, and all the other innovations of the medium. For all that, the classics of older cinema are still loved for all their limitations as well as their strengths. That is why they are considered to be classics.

And so it is with The Artist, clearly showing that nearly a century after the death of silent cinema, a new black and white silent film can be made and capture the imagination—and love—of the modern audience.

Be sure to see it at the River Oaks to get the full effect.


Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.