“Talkies” Come to Deer River Lyceum

4.3.2022 archived [originally published 4.6.1915]

There was a packed house for the film “Weary River” shown at the Lyceum Theater in Deer River on Tuesday May 28, 1929.  It was not the actors, Richard Barthelmess or Betty Compson that drew the crowd in the middle of the week. It was the first talking film to be shown in Deer River, or anywhere in Itasca County for that matter!  Up until then all of the films were silent, though often the management hired a piano player to play what they thought was appropriate music for the sad, romantic, scary or dangerous scenes. 

While billed as a talkie “Weary River” is actually classified as a part-talkie, part-silent hybrid made at the changeover from silent movies to sound movies.  No one in the audience complained however, as it was such a remarkable development to hear what the actors were saying.  By 1929 when this was produced, most films were made with the Vitaphone, which was at the time the leading brand of sound-on-disc technology.

John Johnson manager of the Lyceum knew that he had to invest in sound equipment at his theater or his patrons were likely to go elsewhere.  Johnson and Charles Perrizo, manager of the theater in Grand Rapids traveled together in early April 1929, to Oconto, Wisconsin for a demonstration of the Merritone Machine which would project the sound of the vitaphone films.  Both men purchased them on the spot, and arrangements were made to have the machines installed at the beginning of May.  Of course a few complications delayed the installation, but by the end of May all the kinks were worked out and the citizens of Deer River were ready and waiting to see and HEAR whatever film was to be showing.

The April 11th issue of the Deer River News explained a little about the upgrade: “The Merrittone is designed to meet the special needs of the small town theater, though it is used with equal success in the larger places.  The equipment provides everything necessary to satisfy the movie patron, including synchronizing devices, amplifier and auditorium speakers.  The synchronization is assured to be perfect, and the sturdiness, compactness, simplicity of construction, quality of material used, ease of operation and the lack of complicated mechanism, make the Merrittone of superior desirability for any theater.

Mr. Johnson’s purchase confirms confidence in Deer River, and is found to add greatly to the popularity of the Lyceum, which has already attained a high degree.  Local movie patrons will strongly commend this advanced step on the part of the Lyceum management and its apparent desire to afford Deer River the best that can be given.”

Indeed, the business community rallied their support by taking out an advertisement that helped pay for a full page ad for the film in the May 23rd issue of the paper.  Thirty-two businesses congratulated Johnson and the Lyceum with messages such as “Welcome vitaphone as another step in the development of our community”, “Congratulations Mr. Johnson and welcome everything that will make Deer River a bigger and better town”, “Extends congratulations and welcomes Vitaphone as another of the big boosts of the year for this community’, “Appreciate Mr. Johnson’s enterprise in giving Deer River better pictures.”

Deer River was not too far behind the times with this advancement.  The first feature length film originally presented as a talkie was the “Jazz Singer,” released October 1, 1927.  It actually had very few spoken parts, but a lot of music.  By the end of 1927, most films being produced were talking/silent hybrids. By the early 1930s, the talkies were a global phenomenon. In the United States, they helped secure Hollywood’s position as one of the world’s most powerful cultural and entertainment venues.

According to Internet Movie Database  (IMDb) “Weary River” is a 1929 American romantic drama film directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Richard Barthelmess, Betty Compson, and William Holden. Produced by First National Pictures and distributed through Warner Brothers, the film is a part-talkie, part-silent hybrid made at the changeover from silent movies to sound movies. Based on a story by Courtney Riley Cooper, the film is about a gangster who goes to prison and finds salvation through music while serving his time. After he is released and falls back into a life of temptation, he is saved by the love of a woman and the warden who befriended him. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 1930.

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