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The Birth of Home Theater:
Filmophone, Cine-Tone, and the
Home-Talkie Films and Records
(1927-29)


By Allan Sutton


Home theater is not a new concept. In 1927, with the first "talkie" shorts already released, and "The Jazz Singer" about to take the country by storm, Bell & Howell introduced a synchronized sound-film system for home use. Developed by Bell & Howell's Charles McNabb, the Filmophone system (unrelated to the similarly name English record label) was announced in February 1927. A single film is mentioned in the company's news releases, apparently a sort of melodramtic tableux accompanied by Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Another attempt at home talkies, the DeVry Corporation's Cine-Tone system, was announced in January 1929, coupling a synchronized turntable to a 16-mm projector. At $250 per unit, it was not a success.
   

Home-Talkie 33 1/3 rpm Records & Sleeve, 1929
   

Charles R. Rogers would finally succeed, to a very limited extent, in allowing movie fans to enjoy sound films in the comfort of their own homes. His Home-Talkie unit, which retailed for only $49, consisted of a synchronized turntable, which was to be attached to the owner's 16-mm projector. It was equipped with an electric pickup, which was connected to the owner's radio set. Of special interest to record record collectors, is that Rogers produced at least sixteen original records to accompany his films, many of them featuring well-known recording stars.

Rogers founded the Home-Talkie Machine Corporation in 1929 to manufacture the equipment. Home-Talkie Productions, Inc., managed production of the film and records. Rogers was already well-known in the entertainment industry as a stage producer, and he had prior film production experience as a partner in the firm of Asher, Small & Rogers. The Home-Talkie system was introduced to the public on April 29, 1929, in a gala demonstration at the Stern Brothers Department Store in New York. Erno Rapée, the house conductor at the Roxy Theater, was on hand to make the first purchase.

Home-Talkie disc-and-film sets were produced in 100-foot and 200-foot series, retailing for $9 and $15, respectively. Discs for both lengths were 10" single-sided center-start pressings, recorded at 33-1/3 rpm. An arrow at the inner margin indicated the starting point to ensure proper synchronization. The studio in which the recordings were made remains a mystery; the company's address, a rented office in the 24-storey Candler Building, offers no clue.

Rogers' RKO connections enabled him to sign some top vaudeville and radio talent for the new venture, including Rapée, Isabella Patricola, Phil Baker, Eddie Dowling, and Hanlon & Murray. While at least one hobbyist site has stated (without citing a source) that "Hanlon and Murray" was a typo for Walter Scanlan [Van Brunt] and Billy Murray, that is not the case. This was a male-and-female act, according to reports in the New York Times radio logs, which unfortunately do not give the performers’ first names.

RCA took a dim view of the home-theater concept. In November 1929, an unnamed RCA executive told the New York Times:

"Even if [RCA] projecting apparatus existed which could be commercialized within a few months, a vast film library would have to be created in order to sustain the interest of owners and users of the machine... home sound-film projection would be competitive to the regular motion-picture industry already equipped to show the best films in the most up-to-date and comfortable manner."

The lack of new material probably did hinder Home-Talkie sales, and the onset of the Depression seems to have put an end to Roberts' venture. By August 1930 he was at work as a producer for Radio Pictures. From there Roberts moved to RKO-Pathé Pictures as vice-president in charge of production, and went on to figure prominently in the American film industry.

 

References

"Bell & Howell Filmophone Synchronizes Sound and Action in Movies for the Home." Talking Machine World (February 15, 1927), p. 6.

"Cine-Tone Sound Movies for Home." Talking Machine World & Radio-Music Merchant (January 1929), p. 86.

"The First Public Demonstration of Home Talkies" (Stern Bros. ad). New York Times (April 29, 1929), p. 8.

Home-Talkie Record sleeve (1929). Mainspring Press collection.

"Home Talking Picture Still Merely an Idea." New York Times (November 9, 1929), p. 27.

"RKO Will Coordinate Pathé and Radio Work." New York Times (October 31, 1931), p. 22.

"Talkie Film Device Made for the Home." New York Times (April 2, 1929), p. 12.

"Talking Shadows in the Making." New York Times (August 24, 1930), p. X5.



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