Talking about Vitaphone

The Cinema Museum in SE London is a wonderful collection of memorabilia, located in the old workhouse where Charlie Chaplin’s mother lived. It’s also a great social gathering location. Screenings and events take place regularly, including a Comedy Weekend coming up in October.

The film ending Saturday’s selection is “A Better ‘Ole” (check out this link for the origin of this phrase: It’s a WWI comedy with British Tommies (soldiers), and I understand was the second film to have sound, after “Don Juan”. Wes Connors says:

The production levels offered by Warner Brothers are quite high; “The Better ‘Ole” was the second film to make use of the studio’s synchronized music and sound effects “Vitaphone” process. Vitaphone synchronized camera

This is a photo of the synchronized camera used for the first Vitaphone productions here being studied by Stanley Watkins, Hartley C Humphrey, “Chuck” R Sawyer and “Archie” C Millard. I’ve given the first names by which I knew these engineers. The documents only ever give their initials. (sorry about the large white spaces – I need help to get my photos in the right place).

Now, I know that my father, Stan Watkins, worked with Sam Warner on that first sound film “Don Juan” and then on “The Jazz Singer” with its accidentally added speech, but I have nothing in his memoirs about”A Better ‘Ole” so when the organizer asked me to introduce the film I regretfully said I could not help.

However, he then asked if I could, perhaps, speak briefly about the Vitaphone system, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m looking out some anecdotes now; people always enjoy them, and these will be from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (no pun intended).

The sun is still shining and my PA comes home tomorrow. Yippee! As Robert Lewis Stevenson said in his “Child’s Garden of Verses” (did you grow up with that too?): The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.


I just received the latest copy of The Vitaphone Project’s newsletter: celebrating the 90th anniversary of the birth of sound on films.

Don Juan was the first  film that had synchronized sound. However it was music, doors slamming, swords clashing, bodies falling, just sound effects, no dialog. But it was an innovation, birthed by Warner Bros.

And it was the first feature film my father, Stan Watkins, worked on with Sam Warner, after developing sound on disc in the Bell Labs.

The Vitaphone system married recorded sound on large 16″ discs with the visual film on reels. The synchronization had to be accurate to get the sound at the right point; for example, in the sword fights. But it didn’t have to be as accurate as with dialog.

Harry Warner was persuaded by his brother Sam to embark on this project, recognizing that this would allow small theaters the luxury of orchestral music rather than the usual single piano player. He was not interested in Talking Pictures at this stage.

Don Juan opened in New York City on August 6th, 1926, and Stan Watkins was there in charge of seeing that the records and film stayed synchronized. He said he must have seen the film about 90 times which made him notice things.

The continuity wasn’t quite as keen as it is now (though we still catch bloopers in contemporary films from time to time). In one scene in Don Juan a dagger was hidden in a lady’s cleavage; the low cut dresses of the period made that possible. But Stan noticed in some scenes “Her movements …were covered by several camera shots and in some of those the handle of the dagger could just be seen peeping out. The result was that it popped in and out during the scene in a most disturbing manner. One didn’t notice this until after seeing the scene several times. After which it was difficult to see anything else.”

He also learned to sleep silently during the film, but the audience was kept awake by the novelty of sound.

Happy Birthday, Don Juan, and sound movies.




Daily Prompt – Learning – Rhubarb

Yesterday was apples and I forgot to show you the fluffy apple ‘mousse’ that I cooked yesterday. If you look carefully you can see the cubes of the ‘other’ apples that are soft but not as fluffy as the cookers.Newcastle 009

But today I was learning about rhubarb – not only how to spell it (I keep starting ‘ru..’) – but about the fruit itself. Did you know that you could have green rhubarb? We are so used to seeing the pure red sticks at the green grocers , and our home grown variety is part red and part green with a pink core, but a wholly green plant just looks unripe.

But not so, it’s a true rhubarb. Apparently it is just as delicious as the others. But I still like the red kind.

Newcastle (4)

This was my job today, and here I am chopping the green end of a red rhubarb. Pete cut the sticks yesterday and I showed you a basket full of this yummy fruit in my blog about chopping apples. There must have been more than 100 sticks! So I began. Chop, chop, chop. Slice the very thick stems in half and then chop, chop, chop.

The pieces are to be frozen so they are packed into plastic bags, approximately 2 kilos each; I filled five bags. Chop, chop, chop. You can see the mix of red and green – the green ones have a pink center. Such a pretty fruit, and very versatile.

Newcastle (5)

For instance, rhubarb and ginger ice cream (which we had with the end of the apple crumble), and rhubarb chutney. My son requisitioned half a bag of pieces that I had just chopped and without delay whipped up the chutney ingredients, from his own recipe, and it proved really delicious.

Here’s the wonderful mixture boiling up, and then cooked to perfection. The test for readiness is to make a shallow ‘trench’ through the top of the mixture; if the groove remains, it is ready to pot up.

All the rhubarb has been harvested, it will grow up again next year. But the apples are still falling; I could hear the thuds as I was chopping them, and will continue to ripen, then the plums will be ready.

A  gardener’s work is never done; it’s a continuously learning experience, too. But you can’t say it isn’t rewarding. For, no matter how much my arm might ache tomorrow, I’ll relish (literally) the results of my labours.

Newcastle (9)

Daily Post – Feast

west norwood feast 012

Our suburb in South East London has become trendy, and one of the joys is the first Sunday of the month community FEAST (sorry, I had the camera on ‘p’ by mistake so this came out too blue). There are stalls all along the high street with luscious food for sale; sausages from the farm in Kent – would you believe Stilton & asparagus sausages – delicious. And the artisan bread is super. Such a nice change from the sliced supermarket stuff.

west norwood feast 009 west norwood feast 010

At the end of the street a large church opens its gardens to the Feast, and it is filled with stalls selling food; everything from Japanese, to Caribbean, to African, grilled cheese and organic beef burgers, to local ladies’ cakes. Layers upon colourful, gooey layers! All eaten by happy Feasters sitting on the grass. Yes, we do have sunny days in London.

.west norwood feast 024west norwood feast 015

west norwood feast 023west norwood feast 017

And our favourite, the French lady stirring up sliced potatoes, chopped ham, herbs, mushrooms, cheese and lots of real cream in huge, flat pans. We found her again at the Country Show Sunday, so that’s what’s for dinner with some (frozen) sausages tonight.

west norwood feast 016

Doesn’t that make your mouth water? She adds a couple of cornichons (tiny pickles) to your feast.

There is a street blocked off for artisan stalls selling lots of hand knitted garments and toys, and printed tea-towels – we bought one of our area, I can’t resist a tea-towel. Pottery and jewellery have their place, and there was a table where we ‘crumblies’ were offered a free cup of tea (or coffee) and scone with butter and jam; lesser folk were asked for a donation.

west norwood feast 011

There is now a community center in our town which was putting on “The Big Sing.” We trundled up the hill to hear this, and found a friend displaying his paintings in the upstairs gallery there. But downstairs we were in for a treat; large and small, local choral groups performed songs for us, but the most wonderful was a huge choir from the Asian community (where are they on other days, I wondered) which sang beautifully in Mandarin; they sang Edelweiss in English too. What an unexpected delight.

Chinese Philarmonic Choir (2)

Now you’ve feasted your eyes on the West Norwood Feast, I’ll go write a blog about SSAW. Nice to be back.


Daily prompt – Learning: A gardener’s work is never done.

Newcastle 004

Yesterday my son and I picked up windfalls from under some of his many apple trees. We filled two baskets; a bucket full of apples too small to bother with or buggy went on the compost heap. I was learning what a lot of work goes into a garden, especially one filled with vegetables and fruit of all sorts.

Today, after I finish picking the blueberries we have a cup of tea and chocolate biscuits, sitting outside on the bench looking at the enormous vegetable garden. What a lot of work went into it, but what a lot of good veggies are coming out of it! Imagine digging your own potatoes for supper. They’re so delicious and the skins just rub off.

Today, though, it is fruit. The damsons, Victoria and green gage plums are not quite ripe yet; when they are, it will be all hands on deck to pick, wash, cut up and make into jams, jellies, chutneys and preserves, not to mention wine.

But the rhubarb is ready. Whack, whack, off come the poisonous leaves, and whack, whack the sticks of ruby red rhubarb are loaded into two more baskets, with the odd zuccini/courgette tucked in for supper.

Newcastle 006

The rhubarb will be cut into pieces and frozen with sugar, ready for puddings, pies, and of course the Derwentcote chutney.

Meanwhile, Newcastle 001I sit outside in the lovely courtyard cutting up apples.Newcastle 005

This first batch will be chopped and made into applesauce for breakfast. Some of them are “cookers” which mash down into a fluffy puree but some are from other trees so a few soft lumps will remain.

Who cares? It is so delicious, and all home grown. The rest of the apples and the rhubarb are still to be dealt with, our job for tomorrow. A lot of work, and it needs to be done when the fruit is ready, not when you are. But my goodness, it is worth it.

If I’m lucky I’ll take some apples and rhubarb and a jar of blueberry/black currant jam back to the city with me. My back might ache a bit, but I don’t mind it because I so enjoyed working in the country garden.



Daily Prompt – Fifty – a good age to go to school.

I married my third and last husband – a University professor – when I was 52, and started my academic career soon after that. The best time to study at University is in your fifties. I had no need to work, no children to look after, and best of all I could read the set books in the original in the library; I wasn’t after a degree so I often chose my courses by the required texts. If you have children at Uni, you know how expensive the texts are; my math class had two small books, each $1. Who could ask for better value? And the original feels so much better than a paperback copy, however close to the original it has been made.

Because I was a professor’s spouse, I got free tuition, and even now that he is retired, I could go to classes for $15. So it is a great boon to be a ‘mature’ or ‘returning’ student.

And the professors love you because not only do you come to class fully clad, you don’t put your feet up on the desk in front and eat during class. And we had learned grammar. I loved the research and writing papers.

Yes, I took a long time to graduate – actually 14 years, enjoying every minute. I was 67 when I got my BA in American Studies with a Native American minor. Maybe I’ll go back to school now I am 81, there is still so much to learn.