Sunday, March 30, 2014

Special Edition- A Tribute to Ray Brubacher, Maestro of the “Mighty Wurlitzer” (1940-2014)

From a 1990 Associated Press article on
silent film organist Ray Brubacher.

At The Matinee is saddened to hear about the recent passing of noted silent film organist, Ray Brubacher. 

In the area, Brubacher was best known for performing his silent film compositions at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Maryland- on the theater’s historic 1926 Wurlitzer organ (from the theater’s days as the Tivoli).  An article on Brubacher’s life and career was featured in this Sunday’s edition of The News-Post.

Ray Brubacher began his interest in musical accompaniment for older silent features at a young age, composing music for silent 8mm movies.  In addition to performing music for revival screenings of classic silent features at the Weinberg, he also performed for the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Gallery of Art, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.    

He was also a chapel organist, crew member, and photo archivist for the S.S. John W. Brown- the nation’s oldest operating World War II Liberty Ship.  Brubacher also performed as a musical director and organist for the Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney, Maryland.  He also taught private piano and organ lessons to students.  Brubacher was also one of the founding members of the Free State Organ Society.

He also released an album of his organ compositions performed on the Tivoli/Weinberg Wurlitzer organ, titled Who Is Ray Brubacher and What’s He Doing With Those Pipes?   It was released on the Concert Recording label, his album is featured on display in the lobby of the Weinberg.  Brubacher's rendition of Paul McCartney's Yesterday can be heard here.

A documentary was produced on the Weinberg in 2010, and features an interview with Brubacher, describing the inner workings and history of the theater’s Wurlitzer pipe organ- along with the theater’s quick transition from silent to sound films (as part of Warner Bros.’ acquisition of the theater’s owner- the Stanley Corporation of America in 1928).  Another segment with Brubacher is also featured on YouTube.

Farewell to the maestro of the area’s “mighty Wurlitzer” theater organ, Ray Brubacher (1940-2014).

The Weinberg Center For The Arts will have a tribute to the life of Ray Brubacher on April 6th at 3:00 PM.  According to the News-Post article, members of the public are invited to attend and tickets are not required.  Donations may be made to the Weinberg Center (20 West Patrick Street, Frederick, Maryland 21701) or to the Alzheimer’s Association (1850 York Road Suite D, Timonium, Maryland 21093).

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Coming Attractions for At The Matinee

To round out the month of March, At The Matinee has some surprises in store for April!  Included in future posts are the twentieth anniversary of Turner Classic Movies, along with the ninetieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Those are just some of the coming attractions for the month of April.  Be on the lookout for these upcoming posts on At The Matinee!  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Daily Matinee (One-Reel Wonders): Popular Science, Unusual Occupations, and Speaking of Animals

Opening Title to Jerry Fairbanks & Robert Carlisle's
Unusual Occupations from 1948.
From the mid-1930s through the late 1940s, chances are that moviegoers possibly viewed one of three Paramount short subjects produced by Jerry Fairbanks (1904-1995) and Robert Carlisle (1888-1974). 

The first one was Popular Science, based off the monthly scientific periodical of the same name. Narrated by actor and radio commentator Gayne Whitman (1890-1958), Popular Science showcased many scientific breakthroughs, along with practical and bizarre inventions.

Innovations shown in the Popular Science series were the introduction of contact lenses (known as “invisible glasses” then), the first answering machine, early experiments on solar energy, bandleader Fred Waring and his electric blender, Philo Farnsworth’s early television demonstrations, a tour of Max Fleischer’s animation studio, the Northrop “Flying Wing” jet aircraft, the introduction of frozen “TV dinners”, and much more.

The second series, Unusual Occupations, showcased persons that had unique and unusual career prospects. The series premiered in 1937, originally under the titles That’s Their Business and It’s a Living. The series was narrated by longtime broadcast announcer Ken Carpenter (1900-1984).

Some of the Unusual Occupations showcased included a “Scribble Fortune Teller”, a “Toothpick Bridge Builder”, a “Cellophane Straw Artist”, a “Chewing Gum Artist”, and a Hollywood “scream” artist for motion pictures. Various hobbyists, collectors, pacesetters, and trailblazers were also featured- including a collector of vintage Edison Cylinder Phonographs and records, a “wild west museum” proprietor, and Adeline Gray- who achieved fame as the first person to make a test jump with a parachute made entirely out of nylon.

Several personalities were featured in Unusual Occupations, including Gene Autry and his horse, “Champion”; John Barrymore and his collection of “oddities”, and the appearance of a young Theodore Geisel- better known to the world as iconic children’s author “Dr. Seuss”.

A third Fairbanks-Carlisle series for Paramount came out in 1941, called Speaking of Animals. It was produced in collaboration with noted cartoon animator Tex Avery. This short film series combined live-action footage of animals with animation, giving the featured animals the chance to talk or sing popular tunes of the day. While Popular Science and Unusual Occupations were filmed in color (first in two-strip Cinecolor, then in Magnacolor), this series was filmed in black and white.

As the United States entered the Second World War, General Douglas MacArthur- a good friend of Jerry Fairbanks, communicated with the producer over the phone. The General suggested that the theater-going audience at home should know that when the nation’s brave men and women go into battle, that they should be well prepared. This would give the Popular Science series unlimited access to behind-the scenes preparation for battle, along with advancements in United States military technology.

After World War II ended in 1945, Fairbanks decided to expand into television production, in addition to producing the Paramount features along with industrial productions. Co-producer Robert Carlisle had left at the time, leaving Fairbanks to produce solo. Seeing that television would threaten motion picture exhibition and distribution, Paramount gave him an option- to abandon the idea of television production, or that his short subjects would no longer receive Paramount release. Fairbanks chose to go with television and industrial production in 1949, bringing an end to the three series he produced for Paramount. Only one would be reformulated into a television series in 1950, as Fairbanks filmed a pilot episode of Popular Science.

Throughout the combined series’ theatrical run, they won numerous Academy Awards along with a special commendation for Popular Science from the U.S. War Department for covering developments on military technology.

In 1955, Paramount Pictures decided to sell off their entire short subject film holdings to U.M.&M. Television Corporation (excluding the Popeye cartoons, which were sold off to Associated Artists Productions). Shortly thereafter, U.M.&M. became part of National Telefilm Associates, or NTA. Just like what its predecessor did to the Paramount cartoons and short features (which still makes us film purists cringe today), they altered the titles and removed references to the studio.

Jerry Fairbanks would re-acquire the rights to his old Paramount film series later on, and the rights to the three series would pass on to the hands of Shields Pictures, Inc. - operated by film preservationists Mark Punswick and Mary Riley.

The films appeared (with original opening/closing Paramount titles from the original 35mm nitrate materials) on American Movie Classics in the mid-1990s. That’s how I was exposed to these classic short subjects. After AMC’s unfortunate demise in late 2002, these shorts were never shown on television again. The company still offers the short subjects to major producers for stock footage elements.

In 2007, the company released a “best of” compilation of the Popular Science series on DVD (which is now out of print). In 2010, The Epoch Times wrote an article on the company’s film preservation efforts.

During that same year, the company launched an app for the Apple iPhone/iPad- containing the 1938 Popular Science Fleischer Cartoon Studios tour short subject (sourced from a high-definition transfer of the original 35mm nitrate print). Animation historian Jerry Beck wrote a piece about the company's app, featured on the Cartoon Brew website in June 2010.

Since they have been working on HD transfers of the classic Fairbanks-Carlisle Paramount short subject series, let’s hope that these classic shorts will return to television- and hopefully will be released on Blu-Ray/DVD (or on some streaming platform) in the near future.

OF OTHER IMPORTANCE: If you've seen At The Matinee's article about NBC moving their west coast operations from Burbank to Universal City Studios, Brian Williams did a piece on the network's final move from "beautiful downtown Burbank" on the March 21st edition of NBC Nightly News.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Quiet Man (1952) and other offerings for St. Patrick's Day

DVD/Blu-Ray cover for The Quiet Man (1952),
based off of elements from the original poster art.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all from At The Matinee! There’s nothing like celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by watching a family favorite, John Ford & Merrian Cooper’s 1952 Academy Award-winning Technicolor masterpiece- The Quiet Man.

It was based off of a 1933 Maurice Walsh short story published in The Saturday Evening Post. Starring John Wayne as boxer Sean Thornton, Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher, Victor McLaughlin as her brother, Squire “Red” Will Danaher; Ward Bond as Father Peter Lonergan, Mildred Natwick as Sarah Tillane, and Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn.

To commemorate the film’s 60th anniversary in 2012, The Quiet Man was released Blu-Ray & DVD through Olive Films (under license from Republic/Paramount). It includes a 1992 documentary on the film hosted by Leonard Maltin (originally produced for the 40th anniversary edition VHS and Laserdisc set). I have read several reviews that the picture quality of the Olive release is better than the dismal 2001 Artisan/Lionsgate DVD release. The film is also available for purchase on Paramount's on-demand platform through YouTube.

Movies! TV Network (which has the broadcast rights to vintage Republic & NTA features through Paramount) will show the Ford-Cooper classic, (three times in a row!) starting at 8:00 PM EST. It will be shown after another vintage Republic Picture with John Wayne, George Waggner's The Fighting Kentuckian (1949). Check your area for time and station availability (Movies! are primarily on the subchannels of Fox & MyNetworkTV O&O stations from coast-to-coast). It will also be shown commercial-free on Turner Classic Movies on April 23rd at 12:30 PM EST.

If you’re looking for more classics on this St. Paddy’s Day, TCM is showing classic movies related to Ireland- starting with the 1934 Michael Curtiz film, The Key (with William Powell & Edna Best) at 6:00 AM EST, and concluding with the 1968 Francis Ford Coppola musical- Finian’s Rainbow (with Fred Astaire & Petula Clark) at 5:15 PM EST.

So sit back, relax, break out the Irish cheese, and watch some classics on this St. Patrick’s Day. "Hip, Hip, Hooray"!

IN MEMORIAM: We lost one of the legendary comedic greats recently, David Brenner (1936-2014).

Friday, March 14, 2014

End of an era: NBC bids farewell to “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”

Aerial view of NBC's iconic Burbank lot, as
featured in an issue of Radio Age from 1955.
After 59 years, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) is moving their West Coast operations from their iconic Burbank, California facility to Universal City.

In 1955, then-parent Radio Corporation of America (RCA) decided that the network’s “West Coast Radio City” facilities (demolished in 1964) were deemed inadequate for television broadcasting and productions. After purchasing land from Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner, NBC would design a new studio facility that was specifically designed for color television broadcasts. It would be the first major color television studio facility in the nation.

In March of that year, NBC’s Burbank operations opened on West Alameda Avenue, known as “NBC Color City”. The network’s other television operations (including the West Coast news bureau and the network-owned KNBC-TV) would move into the Burbank lot.

Over the years, many iconic programs were telecast or produced from the Burbank facility, such as the Bob Hope comedy specials, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and to a lesser extent- Jay Leno), The Dean Martin Show, Elvis Presley’s 1968 “comeback” special, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Flip Wilson Show, The Hollywood Squares, Sanford & Son, and The Midnight Special. Special editions of NBC Nightly News would originate out of the Burbank/Los Angeles news bureau.

NBC announced in 2007 that they were planning to move their West Coast operations to corporate sibling Universal Studios (then-parent General Electric acquired a majority stake in Universal from French conglomerate Vivendi in 2004, thus creating NBCUniversal). The network sold their Burbank facilities to Worthe Real Estate Group in 2008, it was renamed The Burbank Studios*.  Other NBC operations would remain there until the early part of this year. This move happened after the second Leno incarnation of The Tonight Show ended in February, as the late night program would move back to New York with Jimmy Fallon as host.

The last network program to originate from the Burbank facility was the March 13th telecast of The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, on MSNBC (featuring clips from vintage NBC programs that were taped at Burbank). On that program, O’Donnell said it best about the network’s migration to new West Coast digs at Universal City- “it will be a studio with no memories”.

Despite the network’s lackluster programs in recent years, the facility will still live on- as The Burbank Studios* from “beautiful downtown Burbank”.

*Not to be confused with the other “Burbank Studios”, which was used as the name for Warner Bros. studios from 1972 to 1990 (when they leased part of their studio space to competitor Columbia Pictures).

IN MEMORIAM: We lost two industry greats this week, noted voice-over artist Hal Douglas (1924-2014) and production manager Abby Singer (1917-2014).