WATKINS, Stanley 1888-1975. Pioneering sound engineer.

In the early 1970’s, among our neighbours Burbage Road were the Watkins family. Molly Watkins was a potter and kindly gave us a lovely vase as a house warming present and which is still in constant use today. During a conversation she mentioned that her husband, Stanley was responsible for giving the world ‘Talking Pictures’. This is his story.

In October 1927 Warner Brothers premiered a movie in New York starring the popular singer Al Jolson. The title of the movie was, The Jazz Singer. It was a moment that would change the course of cinema forever. The man who made it possible was Stanley Watkins, who in retirement became a Dulwich resident, living at 168 Burbage Road.

Stanley Watkins was born in St John’s Wood in 1888. He was the only child of Sylvester Watkins, a watchmaker and his wife Betsy (Doughty) who was a former concert pianist. The family moved a number of times, crossing the Thames to Thornton Heath and finally residing in Hackbridge. Sylvester Watkins was not particularly successful in business which might explain why Betsy and young Stanley were invited to try life in California, where an uncle had a lemon ranch near San Diego. Stanley was 14, the year was 1902.

California proved exciting and time was spent bare-back riding, firing a shotgun and attending a one-room schoolhouse. Socialising in rural California before the First World War came in the form of ‘hubhubs’ when all the far-flung neighbours would gather for communal entertainment. However the Watkinses decided that lemon ranching was not for them and they returned to England where Stanley finished his education before bicycling daily from Hackbridge to the Engineering College of Imperial College at South Kensington where he would gain his degree in 1908.

The next three years were spent teaching physics and electrical engineering but he had kept in touch with his American relatives and when one moved East upon marrying, Stanley was invited to New York. His relative Gwylim Miles had contacts in the world of engineering and Stanley soon landed a job in the engineering department of the Physical Laboratory at Western Electric, the ‘Western’ part of the name reflecting the firm’s Chicago origins. In 1925 it was incorporated with Bell Telephone Laboratories.

In these early years with the company he worked in a variety of projects but by the time the United States entered into the First World War he was exclusively involved in military defence work including gun-ranging, anti-aircraft and submarine detection. The increased defence funding made available for development produced technical advances which he noted in his Memoirs:

We came out of the Kaiser’s war with some much more sensitive and reliable microphones and with advances in amplifiers and loudspeakers that made it possible to push the development of sound engineering equipment in leaps and bounds.

Ancillary to this he was also involved in the development of hearing aids for deafness as well as development of electrocardiographs. Shortly after, his work on the development of improved loudspeaker systems led him to become an advisor on the installation of sound equipment in hotels, ballrooms, sports stadiums, theatres and concert halls around the country. One of the theatres was the 3000 seater Roxy in New York, owned by the impresario Samuel Rothafel. Here Stanley fitted microphones and speaker systems to “augment the sound from his singers and orchestra” with an additional set-up to help for rehearsals. He recalled that an excited Roxy would forget his microphone and still rush around shouting directions anyway. It was a problem he later encountered when trying to record artists unused to such new-fangled aids.

Development of sound in Movies

It was during this time that Watkins became intrigued with a colleague’s work on stereophonic sound and he began working on electronic recording processes, a significant step towards talking pictures. Much experimentation had already been made in this field, from Thomas Edison’s short-lived Kinetophone around 1895 and later, and still unsatisfactory other processes such as the French Chronophone. Although Edison had improved his Kinetophone in 1913 success still evaded him. It was still not possible to achieve consistent synchronisation between the picture film and the sound wax cylinders. A step forward was the adoption of the Graham Alexander Bell invention of the ‘wax’ disc for recording. However, a further problem in attempting to add sound to movies was the lack of suitable amplification. When it came, the use of microphones would make all the difference, as Watkins explained “With electrical recording, using microphones, the orchestra and bands can be as big as you like and can sit in the usual arrangement and play as though they were in a concert hall.” As a consequence of his work in this field he was assigned to assist record companies such as Victor and Columbia who had installed Western Electric equipment in their studios and he did test records where he did the singing. 

In 1922 the idea arose of putting sound to a film for demonstration use during lectures which were aimed at recruiting graduate students to the Bell Laboratories. The film was an animated short, titled The Audion, which explained how electronic valves in radios worked. It was decided to produce a set of sound records to accompany the film and Watkins was delegated to write a script and make the records. As it was only a commentary to accompany the film, strict synchronization was not necessary. However, when the film had its first public performance and was shown at a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Yale, no chances were taken and Watkins, whose voice was already on the disc was primed to take over with a live commentary should the equipment fail. He later wryly commented, “From where I was perched with my microphone, up among the organ pipes in Woolsey Hall, I could not see the screen clearly and all the diagrams looked alike. It was just as well that nothing broke down.”

With this success behind them Watkins’ department led by Joseph Maxfield pressed ahead with further experiments towards synchronization of sound and picture despite objections from some within the management of Western Electric who saw the main focus of the company to be the research and development of better telephonic communications. However, the two functions were partially conjoined by the development of transmitting and recording over telephone lines. A concert performed by the New York Philharmonic was transmitted from Carnegie Hall and the company also recorded important speeches such as President Coolidge’s Inaugural Address.

In 1923, Watkins and his colleagues made their first experimental ‘talkies’ at the lab at 465 West Street, New York. The performers in these first pictures were the engineers themselves. It was the decided that some professional talent was required and a cameraman and musicians were engaged. The room used for these first shorts was not large “…but there was a convenient roof outside the window. With the camera in a little shed on this roof there was just enough room inside for lights, artists and a director, Watkins recalled. 

By early 1925 Bell Laboratories had made sufficient improvements with the synchronization and efficiency of their sound-on-disc system to offer demonstrations to the major movie studios. However there was little interest as the studios were making record profits from silent pictures and the investment required for sound pictures, both in production but more significantly in wiring up cinemas for sound was off-putting. Watkins summed it up in his memoirs in 1964, “The movie tycoons said we had a very clever and amusing toy but it wasn’t of much interest … it wasn’t ‘box office’ and … the public didn’t want talking pictures.”

It was through the efforts of a Western Electric sales contact that Sam Warner of the then fledgling Warner Brothers was persuaded to attend a demonstration. Sam Warner later recalled, “The demonstration that Bell Labs put on was very simple but it showed synchronization in somebody dropping a pencil or something on a table top and you could see it hit and hear the noise and the two were in perfect sync.” The other brothers were brought to see the demonstrations and Harry Warner, the eldest brother and head of the firm was as enthusiastic as Sam and was particularly struck by with a little orchestral number from which he visualized a future for musical scores to accompany feature pictures - “We’ll record music to go with all our pictures”, Harry said, “So that even in the smallest theatres they’ll have the music of a great orchestra.” No thought was yet given to spoken dialogue.

The Vitaphone Corporation

Western Electric moved to exploit the potential of sound movies commercially and entered into a partnership with Warner Brothers forming the Vitaphone Corporation. By the summer of 1925 plans were under way for making a programme of pictures to open at the Warner Theatre on Broadway and production commenced at the Warner Brothers studios in Brooklyn to which ten Bell Lab engineers were assigned. Stanley Watkins was given a one year leave of absence from Bell Labs at Harry Warner’s request, to act as Vitaphone’s chief engineer and get them going. ‘There were minor difficulties in recording sound; shooting had to be sandwiched between the arrivals of trains at Avenue M station, and a long pole had to be kept handy to discourage pigeons that sat on the roof girders and cooed appreciatively during the emotional scenes,’ wrote Watkins. Although the Brooklyn studios worked reasonably well and some of the footage was retained, it was clear that when production plans included a 107 piece orchestra and some large sets it was inadequate.

Stan Watkins and Sam Warner toured all possible sites in central New York and finally settled on the Manhattan Opera House which they leased and production commenced on a grand scale. Although it was devoid of pigeons, other nuisances manifested themselves from time to time. When one picture required a woodland setting a resourceful member of the technical staff brought in a boxful of field crickets for sound effects and some of them escaped. Watkins joked, “Crickets are difficult to locate and sing louder when the director says ‘Quiet’.”

Technical advances continued; the improvement in playing back from the wax record, quieting the camera by putting it in a soundproof box on wheels, transferring recorded material from one record to the next in a process known as ‘dubbing’, another process termed ‘the fader’ for moving smoothly from one record to the next. The most important development which was made by Watkins was to determine the speed the 16inch disc should be played at to synchronise with the projection of the film. Each disc contained ten minutes of sound, sufficient to accompany the reel of 1000 feet of film. He discovered that projectionists cranked films at their own or their manager’s whim depending on the length of the programme. To get more material into the programme films were projected at 100 feet per minute, however if the film was cranked too slowly, say at 60 feet per minute the movements of the characters would appear jerky and there was a danger of the projector gate catching fire. Watkins decided that a film should be projected at 90 feet per minute which equated to 24 frames per second on a 35mm film and the sound recorded on the 16inch discs would last the reel length of ten minutes if they were played at 33 and a third revolutions per minute. It was a historic development and film projection at 90feet per minute still remains the norm in cinema and television projection.

The first major picture released featuring the Vitaphone sound system, but still without dialogue, was the 1926 production ‘Don Juan’ starring John Barrymore, a romantic swashbuckler which had the musical score played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was shot originally as a silent but was held back in order that sound could be added. As the dramatic sequences unfolded it was against a synchronized musical background. As soon as each reel of the film was completed in Hollywood, it was dispatched to Brooklyn and the images were matched to the score, to be recorded in one long, uninterrupted take.

‘Don Juan’ was a success with the critics as well as with the public and it ran at the Warner Theatre on Broadway for nine months. While for the Vitaphone Corporation it was a nail-biting time, the margins of error were reduced by Watkins ensconcing himself nightly in the audience, equipped with a telephone hook-up to the projectionist and a bank of buttons to sound the alert upstairs if something went wrong. Watkins estimated that he saw ‘Don Juan’ ninety times! Warner’s cinemas around the country began to be equipped for sound by Western Electric engineers thus creating a market for Vitaphone talking pictures. Meanwhile, the remainder of Hollywood remained immune to the possibilities of sound. Only Fox Studios saw Warner Brothers new concept as a gamechanger.

The Jazz Singer

In the event the starting-gun went off almost by accident. Warner Brothers next film was scheduled to be ‘The Jazz Singer’, starring the popular entertainer, Al Jolson. It was envisaged by the studio that it would use the same device as ‘Don Juan’ by having an accompanying music score but this time with the inclusion of songs sung by Jolson. To finance the Vitaphone Corporation and the $500,000 picture it was said that Harry Warner raised the money by pawning his wife’s jewellery and moving his family into a smaller apartment. ‘The Jazz Singer’ would become a historic milestone film and cinematic landmark. The one shadow cast over the opening of the film on Broadway on 6th October 1927, was the death the day before of producer Sam Warner aged only 40.

The choice of the wildly unpredictable Jolson was a masterstroke. Jolson add-libbed during the filming, firstly with that memorable phrase, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” but also conducted a one-sided conversation with his stage mother played by Eugene Besserer. The studio did expensive retakes, but in the end Sam Warner persuaded his sceptical brothers to leave the add-libbing in the film, thinking that there was not enough talking to make any difference. When it was screened, a critic wrote, “The audience was transformed into a milling, battling mob, who stood and stamped and cheered ‘Jolson, Jolson’. Gregory Peck recalled, “I remember the Jazz Singer, when Al Jolson just burst into song and there was a little dialogue. And when he came out with Mammy, and went down on his knees to his Mammy, it was just dynamite.”

Although the film was ruled ineligible in the Oscar’s Best Picture category because it was thought unfair for a sound film to compete with silents, its production head, Darryl F Zanuck was presented with a special Oscar for the film at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in May 1929. Warner Brothers got back their investment and more. With the advantage of sound Warner Brothers had gained a headstart over their rival studios.

Stanley Watkins remained responsible for the layout of sound studios in New York and Hollywood and from 1929-1936 he was located in Europe as technical director of the newly formed Western Electric’s subsidiary, Electrical Research Projects Inc and became a director of Western Electric itself. It was during this time that he met his wife Molly. In 1937 he returned to Bell Labs where he continued research in visible speech and disc recording. During World War Two Watkins returned to the development of electrical gun directors, this time to write textbooks and organize instruction courses in their use. 

Stanley Watkins retired in 1948 and returned to England first staying at his mother-in-law’s home in Birchington but then to live in Dulwich in 1954 where he remained until his death in 1975. He now had time to indulge in his hobby of collecting. He was an avid collector of Lepidoptera, pipes of all kinds, as well as English folk songs, which he sang when asked accompanying himself on his ukulele.

by Brian Green