Archive Page 2

Preservation in Three Dimensions

ManInTheDarkOf all the film technologies to come along in the last century, 3-D may be the most contested in popularity. Those who adore the effect of objects jumping out of the screen are equally matched by those who refuse to see any film in more than two dimensions.

What is striking is that for a process that has been around for nearly a hundred years, we are now in the new renaissance of 3-D movies. Technologies have advanced significantly in the last decade. Gone are the days of red and blue glasses, out-of-focus images, and headaches due to eyestrain. Top theatrical films are released in both 3-D versions as well as traditional for those who favor a flat image. Many of these are then released in 3-D Blu-ray for home use, with clarity equal to that of the theatre. Simply put, for the 3-D lover, the medium today is better than ever.

Like color, sound, and wide-screen, 3-D had origins in the silent era. Edwin S. Porter experimented with 3-D test footage in 1915, and the first 3-D feature, The Power of Love, had at least one booking in Newark, NJ, before being released flat as The Forbidden Lover (1923). But 3-D experienced its heyday in the fifties, when the studios looked for any way to combat the threat of television. Its popularity was short-lived, lasting only a few years, but it continued to reappear throughout the subsequent decades.

It should be noted that not all modern 3-D movies are actually filmed with 3-D cameras. Many are what have been termed “3-D video conversions” with a flat film processed into 3-D. This technology has made it possible for older films to be given the 3-D treatment, examples being Titanic, Top Gun, Jurassic Park, and Disney’s Little Mermaid.

This ability has also allowed the studios to release some classic vintage 3-D titles that look better than they ever have before. The Vincent Price chiller, House of Wax—arguably the best 3-D film of the fifties, is now out on Blu-ray, as is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Neither of these have been released before on home video in 3-D. Meanwhile, Universal released a stunning Blu-ray of Creature from the Black Lagoon, previously only released to home video in 3-D back in the eighties with the red and blue glasses. The new conversion eliminates the two-color treatment of the black and white film. Now, it is truly black and white, with 3-D layering never before seen in the film.

Here is where it gets interesting. Some of the lesser 3-D titles from the fifties are beginning to appear in Blu-ray form. Twilight Time, a video company that produces limited-edition titles, released the Noir drama Man in the Dark (1953) in a limited edition of 3,000. This was the first 3-D movie to be released by a major studio, shot in eleven days, and beating House of Wax to the theatres by a mere 48 hours. The Blu-ray comes with both 2-D and 3-D versions.

While this is a treat, and suggests that other little-known 3-D titles may find their way to the home market, it also showcases how preservation is now targeting what many once considered a cinematic gimmick.

DragonflySquadronDragonfly Squadron is an even rarer bird. This black and white war film was made in 1954, right at the end of the 3-D craze. While filmed as a 3-D picture, it was never released in that format; the distributed prints were all flat. This is the first time—ever—that the public has ever seen Dragonfly Squadron as it was originally intended.

Does this mean that other vintage 3-D titles might soon receive a proper Blu-ray release? There is a wealth of titles that have not been properly seen in their 3-D format, and would benefit from a home release. Hondo with John Wayne, MGM’s Kiss Me Kate, the softcore antics of The Stewardesses, and the infinitely bad Robot Monster are among those that could find new 3-D life.

Having already released Creature, one can only hope that Universal’s It Came From Outer Space will soon find it’s way to Blu-ray. Then I can finally retire my old VHS tape from the eighties that came with the colored glasses.

Stage 28 Update


All the concern and effort in preserving Stage 28 has come to naught. The stage was razed on September 20.

Photo courtesy of


Stage 28: A different kind of theatre preservation

Stage28-1Much has been written in this blog about the loss of older movie theatres, despite attempts to preserve them. Many movie palaces of the twenties, representing the finest period of construction, have been lost. Now a different kind of theatre is in danger of being destroyed, one with a long movie history… and it’s not even real.

Stage 28, at Universal Studios in California, is under threat of being torn down. Most people know it as the Phantom Stage. The building was constructed as a permanent stage in 1924 for the Lon Chaney vehicle, The Phantom of the Opera. Key to the interior was a full-size opera house. The opera set remains, much as it did in 1924, and has been used in countless other movies such as The Sting, Psycho, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera (both 1925 and 1943 versions), Jurassic Park, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Charade, and many others. It was last seen as the theatre in The Muppets.

Stage28-2aPlans were announced to tear down the stage for theme park expansion. The response so far indicates that the Phantom Stage is an icon to the lot, with two petitions already in place to save the structure.
Below are links to additional articles about the stage and what can be done. Most importantly, here are the links to two petitions to halt the destruction of Stage 28. The first is a request for National Historic Landmark status through with the goal of 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, aims for 10,000 signatures with a less specific goal to “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition.

Please sign up if you feel any passion for the movies. Few structures have lasted this long and have this much history behind them.


Please sign: National Historic Landmark status for Stage 28

Care2 petition to save the Phantom Stage from demolition


Here are additional articles and blogs about Stage 28:

Stage28-4The Studio Tour: Universal Studios Hollywood Stage 28 – The Phantom Stage

Inside Universal: Historic Soundstage 28 Set To Close

Variety: Universal to Demolish ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Soundstage, But Preserve Silent Film’s Set

The Nitrate Diva blog: Save the Phantom Stage!






It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s De Luxe

Houston architecture falls at a drop of a hat. Less so does its theatres, only because the most all of the older ones are gone. But rare is the theatre that comes back from the dead. This makes the announcement of the De Luxe Theatre restoration all the more special.

Deluxe-blogThis was touted on the front page of the Houston Chronicle (Tuesday, February 18 edition), with a public ceremony headed by Mayor Annise Parker and other officials to mark the occasion. This was not a simple restoration of an old theatre, but an effort to revitalize a section of the Fifth Ward.

The theatre, at 3303 Lyons, opened in 1941 to serve the African American community surrounding it. Of course, there were others that catered to these needs—the Lincoln, the Rainbow, the Queen, and the Roxy, itself only a few blocs away at 2737 Lyons—since the larger downtown theatres were segregated. The De Luxe eventually closed down in 1969, reopening only briefly in the early seventies as an art gallery sponsored by the Menil Foundation.

What is notable about the restoration is that the theatre is there in shell only. The front facade and walls are all that are left of the space, much like what was left of the Heights Theatre after it burned in the latter sixties.

The partnership between the city of Houston, Texas Southern University, and the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Authority will allow the space to be used as both a new facility for the arts and a training ground for students. Other revitalization plans for the area also include a branch library and  100 single-family homes, the latter funded through federal Hurricane Ike Relief.

For more details, see the following links:

Film Survival According to the Library of Congress

It is a well-known fact that a vast number of movies made before 1929 no longer exist. When the talkies rolled in with the release of The Jazz Singer, the age of the silent film died almost overnight, as did their value, at least in the eyes of the movie studio executives who saw movies only as a commercial commodity. To date, there has not been an exact number attached to the number of silent shorts, features and newsreels that are simply lost to time, but the assessments have been anywhere from 60 to 90 percent.

LoC-ReportNow we have a better number to go by. The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 is an exhaustive report  by David Pierce that was released this last September. The project was commissioned by the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board, with a scope that was as narrow as it was broad. It covered the entire period in which American silent features were produced, from 1912 to 1929. It did not include foreign-made features, nor did it include the vast number of shorts that were produced, beginning in 1897. Still, within those parameters, the end results are a clear indicator to what we have lost and what we still have.

The seventeen-year period was short, in comparison to the overall stretch of motion picture history. As David Pierce noted, “the era of the American silent feature film lasted from 1912 to 1929, no longer than the period between the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). During that brief span of time, filmmakers established the language of modern cinema, while the motion pictures they created reached the height of artistic sophistication.” To drive home his point, he added that, “the silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternate form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed.”

The findings to the report are sobering, suggesting that of all the American silent features made between 1912 and 1929, only 30 percent are still in existence in one form or another. The figures, as noted by Pierce in the introduction, are as follows:

There is no single number for existing American silent-era feature films, as the surviving copies vary in format and completeness. There are 1,575 titles (14%) surviving as the complete domestic-release version in 35mm. Another 1,174 (11%) are complete, but not the original —they are either a foreign-release version in 35mm or in a 28 or 16mm small-gauge print with less than 35mm image quality. Another 562 titles (5%) are incomplete—missing either a portion of the film or an abridged version. The remaining 70% are believed to be completely lost.

Some studios were better at salvaging their past than others. MGM led the pack, but even their efforts have resulted in a 68 percent survival rate. Other studios, such as Universal, purposely destroyed many of their silents, seeing no value in keeping them. In 1938, Samuel Goldwyn was asked by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library about set destruction on the back lot. Said Goldwyn, “You must realize that I cannot rest on the laurels of the past and cannot release traditions instead of current pictures.”

The report ends with a series of six recommendations:

1. Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives.

2. Collaborate with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.

3. Encourage coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats.

4. Focus increased preservation attention on small-gauge films.

5. Work with other American and foreign film archives to document “unidentified” titles. An aggressive campaign to identify unknown titles could recover important films.

6. Encourage the exhibition and rediscovery of silent feature films among the general public and scholarly community.

The full 73-page report can be downloaded in PDF format from the Library of Congress website:

In addition to the report, David Pierce also created a database of location information on the archival film holdings identified in the course of his research. The database can be accessed at this link:

Shamrock Saturday Night

Before I get to the Shamrock, I want to bring up  Preservation Houston’s ongoing History in Print series. This month, I will be giving a presentation on the Houston’s architectural past, present, and future, with a primary focus on the city’s movie theatres. The event will take place on Tuesday evening, September 17,  in Fondren Hall on the second floor of the Jones Youth Building at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 5501 Main Street in the Museum District. For more details, see the Preservation Houston website.


Saturday at the Shamrock

I recently was going through my father’s closet and came across a set of nine cassette tapes. The tapes were recordings from an era gone by, from a radio series that was very nearly lost forever, and broadcast from a landmark that was lost.

ShamrockCassetteThe tapes were of Saturday at the Shamrock, a live radio program that was broadcast from 1949 to 1953, and aired across 450 U.S. radio stations and 39 in Canada. It was the first radio program to be aired nationally from Texas. The weekly show was recorded in the Emerald and Shamrock Rooms at Glen McCarthy’s Shamrock Hotel and aired locally through KXYZ (also owned by McCarthy). During its run, it featured a steady stream of talent, such as Humphrey Bogart, Lberace, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore, along with emcee Fred Nahas.

The Shamrock Hotel is long gone — it was razed in 1987 to make way for an empty field — and is still the poster child for Houston’s illiteracy at historic preservation. As has been often noted, once a building is taken down, it is lost forever, along with its history. While the property has since been redeveloped (with the one leftover from the Shamrock era being its multi-level parking garage), the simple fact remains that no matter what it is that sits in that space — it still ain’t the Shamrock, nowhere even close.

Saturday at the Shamrock was nearly lost as well. According to an article written by Bruce Westbrook for the Houston Chronicle at the time of the cassette’s release, archive copies of the program were originally recorded by KXYZ, using an old acetate-on-aluminum disc technology. By the end of the decade, the station had changed owners, who decided that the old disc recordings were of no value. The old discs were trashed, and ended up in the hands of local scrap metal dealers.

Enter Henry J. Kjellander, a radio,enthusiast who listened to the program while serving on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. Kjellander was able to rescue many of those old discs before the scrap dealers had destroyed them. Of the 190 shows, he was able to save about 170. He eventually joined forces with Nahas, who had since formed a local advertising firm, and put together a limited-edition set of cassette tapes covering about twelve hours of the program.

While the cassette tapes represent older technology, lacking the digital refinements that are commonplace today, the recordings still offer a window to Houston’s past, and an era when radio was still king. Both Nahas and  Kjellander have passed away — Nahas in 1994 and Kjellander in 2009 — but their efforts managed to preserve a moment in time when people across America could spend some time each Saturday night at the luxurious Shamrock Hotel.

Or as was said in the introduction every week, “There’s a great big Texas moon shining over Houston tonight.”

A Kickstart for Musty Suffer

One of the biggest obstacles for many a creative endeavor has been that of funding. Everything costs something, so the saying goes. This is especially true when dealing with movie-based projects – which is why Kickstarter has been a real game changer.

mustysufferKSFor those unfamiliar with it, Kickstarter is a private company structured to raise funds for creative projects via crowd funding through its website. These projects include films, music, stage performances, comics, and video games. One of the more notable Kickstarter-funded projects is the Veronica Mars movie, in which a total of 91,585 backers contributed $5,702,153 — in just under twelve hours. The original goal from series creator Rob Thomas was $2 million.

On a lesser scale, Kickstarter has been instrumental in restoration projects of older films, as well as bringing little-seen movies to a larger public. And this brings us to Musty Suffer.

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer was a series of short films made in 1916-1917, and starring Ziegfeld Follies comedian Harry Watson, Jr. The films were released weekly, much like the serials of the time. For the most part, these shorts have been unavailable for public view, having never been released in 16mm or on home video.

Composer Ben Model and film historian Steve Massa want to change all that, and are using Kickstarter as their vehicle for change. The goal is to raise $4,000 (a drop in the bucket compared to the Veronica Mars budget). Model’s plans are to select eight of the best Musty Suffer episodes from the prints originally preserved from original nitrate 35mm prints in 1959 by the Library of Congress. New HD transfers will be made, with accompanying music by Model, and then made available for sale on via Amazon’s CreateSpace service.

As of today (July 18, 2013) the fund raising has 24 days left, and has already raised $2,446. Want to make a difference? Here is the URL:

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

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?

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,

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.