All Join In The Chorus

It is nearly a half-century now since there occurred one of the swifter but less regrettable casualties of American culture—the passing of a form of professional entertainment known as the illustrated song. A strange phenomenon native to music halls, dime museums, vaudeville, and the early, early silent movies, the song play, as it was billed in places with pretensions, enjoyed a brief but unforgettable craze during the first dozen years of this century. Today only a few collections of the colored lantern slides that illustrated the songs survive. Yet in 1910, at the peak of the craze, practically every one of the nation’s 10,000 movie houses, from the lowly nickelodeons to the plush ten-cent cinema palaces, featured “latest illustrated songs,” and employed at least one “illustrator,” the distinctive billing accorded to singers who worked with slides.

To members of the music-publishing industry whose patronage accounted for nearly 100 per cent of song-slide production, these “graphics” represented a successful novelty plug for their new songs. To operators of nickelodeons, the illustrated song was a cheap filler, but one ideally suited for that often interminably long “one moment please while the operator changes reels.” To the millions of romantically inclined housewives and lovelorn youth addicted to the nickelodeon habit, however, the illustrated song was their trip to Dreamland.

From twelve to sixteen hand-colored, glass photo slides were usually required to illustrate a song, one for each line of lyric. Two additional slides completed a set: one a reproduction of the sheet-music cover; the other containing nothing but the printed words of the chorus over which appeared in bold-faced type, “All Join In The Chorus.” In this slide, the least glamorous of the lot, reposed the music publisher’s hidden persuader.

The illustrator, having completed his customary solo with picture slides, usually two verses and two choruses, would then signal for the primed chorus-slide to be flashed on the screen, and face up to what was often a thankless and discouraging part of his job—that of leading the community song fest. If by using every trick in his bag he managed to coax an audible minority to join him in as many as three choruses, it was pretty certain that after the show a good number of the audience would be humming, singing, or whistling the tune all the way to their nearest friendly music dealer. Or so the publishers hoped.

Although march songs and comic novelties were successfully illustrated, the ballad, because it unfolded a story, was generally considered best suited for song slides. Whatever its sentiment—sweet or sad—imaginative slide-makers crammed into their 3½ x 4 inch colored transparencies every conceivable angle of syrupy romance or tender pathos. In short, the illustrated song was the purest essence of corn, but corn with an irresistible sales appeal. Properly illustrated, a new ballad stood a fair chance of becoming a success within a few short weeks after the distribution of slides—a fraction of the time required, in those days before radio, to exploit a number in other ways.

When old-timers in the music business talk about the good old days of the illustrated song, you can be certain that they are referring to the music-hall or pre-nickelodeon period. They are not talking about the “bouncing ball’ era of movie-house group-singing that came in the 1920s and has no connection with song slides. In the beginning song slides, for which publishers paid four to five dollars a set, were practically forced on famous singers on a loan basis. By 1908, however, distribution of slides had been turned over to film and slide exchanges, at rental rates ranging from fifty cents to a dollar. Small nickelodeon operators whose clientele wasn’t too discriminating could, for a small additional fee, obtain cylinder or disc phonograph records to accompany slides. This earliest form of low-fidelity canned music blared out from giant metal horns, often mounted in pairs, with sufficient volume to be heard in the last row of a 199-seat house. (In certain localities 200 seats or more automatically put the operator in a high license bracket.) The nation’s three leading slide-makers, Scott & Van Altena and DeWitt C. Wheeler, both of New York City, and Chicago Transparency Company, Chicago, required a minimum order of fifty sets to start production on illustrations for a new song.