First talking movie

The marquee of the Tivoli Theatre, 216 S. Fifth St., boasted “Vitaphone Talking Pictures” at its grand opening in July 1929. Harry Loper’s former Lyric Theatre had recently been purchased by the Frisina chain and renamed. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Harry T. Loper (1860-1948), historically linked to Springfield’s race riot of 1908, also introduced talking movies to Springfield.

Loper went into the restaurant business when he moved to Springfield from Greenfield in 1883, and Loper’s Restaurant at 223 S. Fifth St. was the city’s top eatery when the riot took place on Aug. 14, 1908. White rioters wrecked the restaurant after Loper helped two Black county jail prisoners escape a mob intent on lynching them.

Instead of reopening the restaurant, Loper converted the building to a moving picture theater, which he named the Lyric. It opened in January 1909.

In June 1909, the Lyric apparently hosted the very first movie accompanied by recorded,  synchronized sound ever seen in Springfield. It was a crude presentation, involving excerpts from several operas – “The Sextet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, the “Farewell Song” from Lohengrin and the duel scene from Faust – played on a Chronophone, a French “sound on disk” invention.

“The pictures are thrown upon the scene in just the same manner as the ordinary moving picture, but every move and action of the person in the picture is accompanied by the natural voice of the performer,” the Illinois State Register reported.

Harry Loper, about 1948 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Loper, the 1912 Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Sangamon County said, “has learned to understand what will please his patrons and has endeavored to give them the best value for their money he is able to secure. The productions given are among the best in the city and the manager has a reputation that is gratifying and widespread.”

In 1920, Loper and his sons moved their motion picture house into a new, terra cotta-clad building at 216 S. Fifth St., across the street from the original Lyric. (Another Springfield movie pioneer, W.W. Watts, bought Loper’s old theater and had it redesigned by Springfield architects Bullard & Bullard.)

The relocated Lyric stood on the previous site of the Vaudette, a vaudeville playhouse that had been in operation since 1908.  Designed “in the modern French style” by another set of local architects, Helmle & Helmle, the new theater was one of the grandest showplaces in Springfield when it opened.

The new Lyric had a 200-seat balcony, a six-piece house band headed by violinist George Killius (1891-1963) and even a rudimentary form of air-conditioning, the Illinois State Journal reported.

Although possibly never seen by the patrons of the theatre, they will enjoy the sensation of going into a moving picture house in which the air will always be fresh and pure, cooled in summer and heated in winter. The ventilating aparatus (sic) draws the air down to the basement from fresh air intakes at a point well above the roof, away from the dust of the city streets. This air is then actually washed, cooled and dried and distributed through the theatre at various points at the rate of 15,000 cubic feet per minute. Mr. Loper installed this system at an expense exceeding $10,000 but states that this is merely typical of the quality of the rest of the house. …

Loper debuted a Vitaphone sound system (another disk-based sound innovation) on April 8, 1928, at the Lyric.  It was the first cinema in Springfield to combine moving pictures with relatively complete sound.  That first screening was essentially a collection of vaudeville clips – performers included comedian George Jessel, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians (a dance band), and “banjo wizard” Eddie Peabody. As part of the debut film, silent-movie star Conrad Nagel explained the Vitaphone concept.

Advertisement for the original Lyric, 1909 (Courtesy SJ-R)

The Lyric showed similar compilations, including one starring classical violinist Mischa Elman, the rest of the month. It wasn’t until Saturday, April 28, that the theater presented what is considered the world’s first feature-length “talkie” – The Jazz Singer, a biopic about blackface singer Al Jolson, who plays a version of himself in the film.

Despite its reputation, much of The Jazz Singer still resembled a silent movie. According to Wikipedia, it contained a synchronized instrumental score and sound effects, something a few earlier productions also featured, then added numerous synchronized singing sequences. However, The Jazz Singer has relatively little synchronized speech.

“In total, the movie contains barely two minutes’ worth of synchronized talking, much or all of it improvised,” Wikipedia says. “The rest of the dialogue is presented through the caption cards, or intertitles, standard in silent movies of the era.”

The Jazz Singer was nonetheless wildly popular around the country, and the Lyric’s Vitaphone experiment proved profitable too. In October, following “one of the best business periods in its history due largely to the installation six months ago of the movie marvel, Vitaphone,” Loper and the Lyric announced a deal to bring 34 Warner Brothers talkies to Springfield. According to the Illinois State Journal’s story:

In speaking of the new pictures … Mr. H.A. Loper appeared very enthusiastic. “Everywhere these new Vitaphone talking pictures are creating a sensation. Warner Brothers certainly are doing things,” he said.

Loper retired in 1929 and sold the Lyric to the Frisina Co. of Taylorville. Under Frisina management, the Lyric got another makeover and a new name, the Tivoli.

The Tivoli showed movies through the 1930s and ‘40s. It “closed for the summer” in May 1952, but never reopened. The Tivoli’s last double feature was “Marihuana,” which “showed the ravages, physically and mentally, of the effects of the weed,” and “Confessions of a Model,” starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The former Lyric/Tivoli building was demolished when the Lincoln Square apartment complex was constructed in the 1980s.

More: This is the first in a three-part series about early movies in Springfield. Click here to see previous entries about local theaters and movie entrepreneurs.

Hat tip: William Cellini Jr., whose research inspired this entry.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 



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