Friday, February 28, 2014

Daily Matinee: Save The Stereo!

Screengrab from an RCA promotional film for its Living Stereo stereophonic
music systems ("Stereo Victrola") and albums (circa 1958).
1993 ad for Radio Shack's
Optimus surround speakers. 

Over the years, we have seen many technological transformations in the field of home entertainment. Unfortunately, the topic of “high- fidelity audio” is rarely mentioned these days.

While I was working as an intern for The City of Frederick (through their audio-visual department)- my supervisor and I were having an interesting conversation about high-fidelity audio. We were wondering about what happened to the vast array of speaker choices one could find, mediocre selection of music genres/titles in stores (since the demise of Borders Books & Music in 2010), why there aren't many high fidelity components in stores (receivers, speaker models, etc.), and the unfortunate downfall of prestigious audio companies (KLH, Altec Lansing, Kenwood, Fisher, etc.). It was an interesting conversation piece, as we were wondering why hi-fi components were rarely recognized in these times.

In an age where dinky-sounding MP3/iPod docking speakers and overpriced (yet cheaply-made) non-studio headphones are ruling the audio world, there is an advocacy project that is committed to saving high-fidelity audio technology from becoming obsolete.

The website is called Save the Stereo, launched by Gordon and Angela White, with Rob Czetli. This website is for audio enthusiasts, lovers of music, and experts in the audio industry. The goal of Save the Stereo is to promote and develop ideas for future generations of audiophiles and music listeners, so that high-fidelity components will not go the way of an Edison cylinder record. They offer some interesting points- reasons for hi-fi audio, costs/concerns of modern hi-fi components, challenges to audio components, inspirational/spiritual/health benefits of recorded sound, and how daily life can be better and more enjoyable with recorded music. These are just a few reasons for the importance of high-fidelity sound.

1979 advertisement for Yamaha's Natural Sound
speakers and audio components.
Though we are in an age of rapid-changing technology, people are rediscovering the joy of high fidelity sound. In recent years, there has been resurgence in vinyl recordings, along with perfectly-mastered compact discs (titles that aren't heavily compressed), Blu-Ray audio discs, and high-quality MP3 & FLAC files. One doesn't have to spend a fortune on building a stereo system- there are various tales of audio enthusiasts acquiring vintage components from yard sales, thrift stores, etc. Several electronics retailers do sell moderately-priced stereo/surround components and speaker systems.

There is a survey on Save the Stereo, and to readers who haven’t visited the website- feel free to take the survey. Your iPod/MP3 player will sound better through some stereo or surround sound receiver- regardless of the system’s age. And yes, you can crank it up to eleven (in commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of This Is Spinal Tap).

As I've stated on Save the Stereo (after taking the survey), I think that all generations should experience high-fidelity audio at some point in life.

IN MEMORIAM: We lost two icons this week, comedian/actor/director/writer Harold Ramis (1944-2014) and Jim Lange (1932-2014), original host of The Dating Game

Monday, February 17, 2014

Daily Matinee: “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and Cinerama

1963 United Artists Records advertisement for the
soundtrack of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-
as featured in Billboard Magazine. 
This post is in relation to the recent passing of Sid Caesar (1922-2014). It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a hilarious comedy masterpiece, featuring Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Dorothy Provine, and many more. This Stanley Kramer feature was filmed in a familiar widescreen format, but with one minor specification.

The original Cinerama widescreen process consisted of three images that were filmed simultaneously, and would be later projected (through three simultaneous film projectors) on a curved screen. Because the original process was expensive for major studios and producers, Kramer’s film (released through United Artists) would be the first single-lens Cinerama feature. It was filmed in 65mm Super Panavision, and then was converted for the single-lens Cinerama format. Thus, the familiar three-projector setup would be phased out by existing Cinerama theater venues for the new single-lens projection system.

Whether moviegoers saw the film in Super Panavision or the single-lens Cinerama process, the film made $46.3 million in ticket sales (which offset the production's budgetary concerns). The film was re-released to theaters in 1970. If you've never seen this fantastic cult comedy before, see it when you get the chance to.

From a 1963 issue of
International Projectionist.
THE CRITERION EDITION: The Criterion Collection has released It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on a dual-format Blu-Ray/DVD disc (from a new High-Definition transfer) with Ernest Gold’s score in DTS 5.1 surround sound. Not only does this set include the general release version, it also includes the 197-minute extended version restored by Robert A. Harris (scanned in 4K, presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.76:1). There are also many bonus features, including trailers, radio and TV spots for the film (with a new introduction from legendary voice-over actor Stan Freberg, who did various TV/radio spots for the feature film), a 1974 ABC retrospective on the film with Stanley Kramer, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, and Buddy Hackett; Jack Davis’ iconic artwork, and much more.  This writer will definitely have to check it out sometime.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Interesting… A studio-owned movie theater showing films from a competing studio!

Program Guide for next week's motion picture attractions at
Warner Bros.' Tivoli theater, published in 1934.  Note
that these weren't Warner Bros. films, they were
films from the studio's competitor, Paramount.
This post is in relation to the recent passing of Shirley Temple (1928-2014). Several months ago, I saw an old program guide in the lobby display case at the Weinberg Center for the Arts (formerly known as the Tivoli).

On the 1934 program guide, it stated that one of the attractions was Little Miss Marker*, with Temple and Adolphe Menjou (it was remade as Sorrowful Jones with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball in 1948, 40 Pounds of Trouble with Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette in 1962, and a 1980 rendition of the ’34 feature, with Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews).

Even though the program guide says Warner Bros.Tivoli, I noticed (along with further research) that these weren't Warner features, they were all Paramount Pictures.

I remembered at the time that I caught a short glimpse of the 1934 feature weeks earlier on NBC’s Cozi TV service. The other Paramount films that were listed on the program guide were Many Happy Returns with George Burns and Gracie Allen, Private Scandal with Zasu Pitts, and Here Comes the Groom with Jack Haley. It sounds ironic that a studio-owned movie theater (back then) would play feature films from a rival studio.

At the time, Warner Bros. owned the majority of cinemas (Tivoli, City Opera House, and the Frederick) in the area until the 1948 decree. In the PBS documentary series, American Cinema: The Studio System (narrated by Peter Coyote) - film historians note that most of the major studios’ investments went into company-owned cinemas across the nation.

Film scholar Douglas Gomery (Professor Emeritus and Resident Scholar at the Center for Visual and Mass Media, University of Maryland Libraries) mentioned that the five major studios broke their theater holdings into five geographical territories. For example, Loew’s/MGM would have New York City and the east coast markets, Paramount would have the majority of cinemas in the mid-west and southern regions, and Twentieth Century Fox would have the majority of cinemas on the west coast.

Film scholar Thomas Schatz (Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Department of Radio-Television-Film) notes that Warner Bros. did not own as many first-run theaters in major metropolitan markets, and owned more rural-based theater holdings throughout the country.   

No matter where the film companies’ theater holdings were located in the nation, it affected the output of feature films that the majors produced.

My guess is that in addition to the first-run Warner Bros.-First National films shown at the Tivoli, these Paramount films might have been second-run for the WB theater cluster, since Paramount did not own theaters in the Frederick area. An interesting (and somewhat unusual) chapter in the “golden age” of motion picture exhibition.  A future post about the Tivoli/Weinberg Center for the Arts (with Warners’ connection) will appear on At The Matinee in the near future.

SIDEBAR: *The original 1934 version of Little Miss Marker, along with the 1948 re-make, Sorrowful Jones was included in the sale of Paramount’s pre-1948 features to MCA in 1958. Because of the success that they had with syndicating the vintage Paramount films to television, MCA would acquire the Decca Record Company (American Decca) in 1962, and along with it – Universal Studios

The later adaptations (1962’s 40 Pounds of Trouble and the 1980 version) are Universal productions. In 2004, Universal Studios (then-owned by French conglomerate Vivendi) merged with General Electric’s National Broadcasting Company (NBC), forming NBCUniversal. Thus, films from Universal’s pre-1948 Paramount holdings will show up on NBC’s Cozi TV channel from time to time (the channel was launched on NBC-owned stations at the end of 2012).

ON ANOTHER NOTE: In 2013, Paramount Pictures decided to outsource their home entertainment division to their competitor, Warner Bros.  Warner Home Video now handles distribution of post-1948 Paramount titles on DVD and Blu-Ray (aside from existing contracts of select Paramount/Republic product released through Criterion, Olive Films, and Legend Films).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Television Corner: "Alex, I’ll take Classic Episodes for $400"

Jeopardy! Host Alex Trebek wearing a deerstalker cap, as a clue
to a Daily Double question on Sherlock Holmes (from 1987).
Now that the “big game” is over, here’s another “big game” that is one of America’s favorite quiz shows. Merv Griffin (1925-2007) launched his third incarnation of Jeopardy! in 1984, with Alex Trebek as host.

We've seen various contestants over the years, we've seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live skits (featuring Will Ferrell as Trebek- with “nemesis” celebrity contestant Sean Connery, portrayed by Darrell Hammond), and the technological transformations to the show over the years. Several contestants from the Walkersville area (where this blog originates from) have appeared on the program.

To commemorate the show’s thirtieth anniversary in syndication, Sony’s Crackle streaming video service has select episodes (under the title “Jeopardy! Flashback”, from 1985-1993). You’ll see the practical and unusual constellation prizes for second and third-place contestants, Trebek’s semi-testy reaction to contestants’ incorrect responses for questions related to his homeland of Canada, and one episode’s Daily Double clue in relation with another popular Merv Griffin game show.

This is in honor of the current edition of Jeopardy! for the week, “Battle of the Decades: 1980’s”. Top contestants from the decade will reunite for the chance to play again (including current director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray- who was a five-time champion on the show in 1987).

So sit back, relax, and relive some classic moments from Jeopardy!  (through Crackle).

FUN FACT: The original NBC version, which ran from 1964 to 1975, (including a brief Metromedia-syndicated run) and again from 1978-79, was hosted by Art Fleming.

YET ANOTHER FUN FACT: Around the same time as the 1984 revival of Jeopardy!, the show's syndicator- King World, acquired the broadcast rights to the classic Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes features (in relation to the picture on this post).

ON ANOTHER NOTE: Speaking of Sony, they have launched a new classic movie network titled getTV- which will showcase classic Columbia features. According to TV News Check, it is being carried on the adjacent channel of Univision-owned affiliates from coast-to-coast (broadcast in English). No word if the channel will be carried on cable soon (in the Washington area, getTV will be on the third subchannel of Univision’s WFDC-TV).