Theater-Use Records and the
“Talkie” Transition

By Allan Sutton

The transition of American movie theaters from silent to "talking" pictures following the 1927 success of "The Jazz Singer" was not swift. The steep costs of conversion, shortages of equipment and new films, and uncertainty over which of several formats would eventually become the standard served to slow the conversion — so much so, that for several years some studios supplied silent, captioned versions of their sound-film releases for the benefit of the many theaters that had not yet converted.
And once a theater did convert, they were likely to fire their live musicians, whether a single pianist or organist, or a full orchestra.

A 1929 sample Pict-Ur-Music disc, and a 1932 American Record Corporation Theatre Use
disc from the initial group of releases. (Author's collection)

The record companies stood ready to bridge the gap with new lines of records intended expressly for theaters that lacked sound equipment, or live musicians, or both. The first to do so in any systematic manner was the Victor Talking Machine Company, which introduced its Pict-Ur-Music Library Service in 1928. It was a clever bit of marketing on Victor's part, allowing them to recycle slow-selling material in the guise of silent-film accompaniments.

September 1928 Pict-Ur-Music catalog
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

The Pict-Ur-Music records were not sold outright, but were leased to theaters on a subscription basis, and were exchanged once they became worn or damaged. The fact that the records remained Victor's property no doubt explains their scarcity today. To prolong their usable life, Pict-Ur-Music discs carried the same selection on both sides. Subscribers received a special container in which to file the records by "mood" or "theme" — including "Mother songs," "Pathos," and "Misteriosos, for scenes of stealth, sudden danger, etc.," Along with the records, subscribers received cue sheets indicating the sides that were to be played for each new film by producers with which Victor worked. The catalogs stressed the importance of following the cue sheet carefully:

You already understand deletions by censors and breakage will shorten a scene and thereby shorten the running time of your record. Therefore, watch your picture and change on your cues!

In case any selection called for a cue sheet may get broken or become scratched or worn... do not think you will compelled to stop the show! ... Supposing then the record broken or scratched is a Dramatic selection: take your index catalog, turn to the Dramatic heading, and you will find several selections of the same character which will fit in the same place

Much of the Pict-Ur-Music catalog was drawn from ordinary black-label recordings of public-domain classical and "standard" selections by various Victor house groups, and as far as can be determined, all of the material had previously appeared on commercial releases. There are a few pleasant surprises in the "Jazz-Fox Trots-Blues" index, however, including re-releases of "Kansas City Shuffle" by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra and "Delirium" by Red & Miff's Stompers. Like all Pict-Ur-Music issues, they are anonymous.

A page from the September 1928 Pict-Ur-Music catalog listing anonymous
sides by Bennie Moten, Red Nichols, and Paul Whiteman groups
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

Several other companies produced theater-use records in the later 1920s, including Brunswick, whose "Mood Library" was touted for use in theaters as well as other public venues; and Gennett, which produced some rather primitive sound-effects and background-music records for theater and radio use.

The American Record Corporation, producer of Banner, Perfect, and other popular dime-store labels, was a latecomer to the theater-record market. By the time its Theatre Use records were introduced in early 1932, virtually all American theaters were equipped to show sound films. However, all but the largest had let their house musicians go, and so ARC recommended the records be used during silent trailers, intermissions, and as "exit marches." The records were also recommended for dancing, suggesting that some were bought for use outside of theater settings. But at 75 for a single selection, and with nearly the same material available on ARC's 25 commercial labels, they held little appeal for the general public. Although not nearly as scarce as Victor's Pict-Ur-Music discs, they are by no means common.

A 1932 order blank for ARC Theatre Records, listing many titles recorded
especially for the series. (Mainspring Press)

The ARC Theatre Records — which were sold outright and not keyed to cue sheets — differed markedly from Victor's in that many were recorded specifically for the series, rather than being recycled from commercial releases. As with the Pict-Ur-Discs, the same selections appeared on both sides, but titles were offered in the customer's choice of 78 or 33-1/3 rpm. Although the ARC files are not entirely clear, it appears that the 33-1/3 versions were dubbed from the 78-rpm masters. Dance band numbers that had previoulsy appeared on ARC's commercial labels were re-recorded without vocal choruses, and many sides have longer playing times and differences in arrangements or solos that distinguish them from their commercial counterparts. The emphasis was on up-to-the-minute hits, and labels carried artist credits, although true to form for ARC, some of those credits were pseudonyms.

The Pict-Ur-Music discs have been well-documented by John Bolig in various volumes of his Victor Discography Series, and much of the Brunswick Mood Library is listed in Ross Laird's Brunswick discography. The ARC series, however, remains a promising field for further discographic research, especially given the large proportion of jazz and hot dance-band music it contains.

For a detailed study of the phonograph industry's involvement in the sound-film conversion, see Recording the 'Twenties: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1920–29, available from Mainspring Press.

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