From Silent Films To Talkies In The Northwoods

Jul 22, 2020

Enjoying a good movie has been a popular pastime in the Northwoods for many decades. Today many film goers take engaging music and dialog for granted. It was not always that way, and the transition from silent to sound films is worth remembering. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

Motion pictures have been a popular pastime since Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope in 1892. Kinetoscopes only allowed one person at a time to view but were more portable than early film projection systems, which is why they were the first movies available for Northwoods residents to see. Kinetoscope pictures were short and showed scenes from sporting events, exotic dances, or anything that might squeeze a nickel out of a prospective customer.

Films that told a story began to appear in the early Twentieth Century, and silent films projected onto a screen seem to have made their first appearance in the Northwoods in 1908 at Rhinelander’s Bijou Theater, which was part of the old Opera House. The Opera House, however, was designed for live performances. It was not a dedicated movie house.

In 1911 announcements began to appear of a beautiful new movie theater being built in Rhinelander. In September of that year the Majestic Theater opened to enthusiastic Northwoods audiences eager for the new form of entertainment. In its early years, the Majestic was a multi-purpose theater. The Majestic hosted stage shows and live musical acts, but its main function was to show the silent film hits of the day. Because sound technology had not yet caught up with film technology, live music usually accompanied the showing of a silent film. The Majestic had live music performed by Rhinelander’s Military Orchestra.

Movies proved extremely popular in the Northwoods, and in 1921 Rhinelander got a second movie house when the State Theater opened. Both movie houses prospered for decades. However, it was in the 1920s that sound technology made new advances and what was then known as “talkies” became all the rage. The difficulty in showing talking pictures was one of synchronization. In the early years, the pictures and sound were recorded on two separate devices and it was hard to start and maintain them in tandem throughout the runtime of a movie.

Several short films can claim to be the first talking picture, but in 1927 “The Jazz Singer” was the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue. Unfortunately, the sound version of the “Jazz Singer” did not play in the Northwoods during its first run as neither the Majestic nor the State were ready for sound synchronization.

The first to try it was the Majestic. In early 1929, manager Bert Jordan of the Majestic Theater announced the temporary installation of a portable Syncrotone device in the operator’s booth. The Syncrotone was a machine that played the synchronized sound from the projection booth and was not as good as Vitaphone or other sound systems of the day. However, Jordan wanted to be certain there was an audience for sound before investing in a permanent system.

Northwoods residents clamored for talking pictures. Within months, both the Majestic and the State were installing permanent sound systems. Talkies proved more popular than anyone imagined. Opera houses and musical halls survived a few more years, but the talkies were the death nell for that older form of entertainment.