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.The Victor Pict-Ur-Music Story
By Allan Sutton
As producer of the synchronized Vitaphone-system soundtrack discs, the Victor Talking Machine Company played a key role in the transition to fully synchronized sound films. During 1927–1928, Victor’s church studio in Camden, New Jersey — housed in the converted 1872 Trinity Baptist Church building — was reconfigured to do double duty as a recording and film studio. While Victor’s long-established studio continued to operate in one corner of the main level, a portion of the sprawling structure was converted to a film stage, and soundtrack production facilities were installed in the basement. To minimize conflicts with Victor’s regular recording sessions, the sound-film division operated on split day and night shifts totaling fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, during periods of peak activity. 
Victor’s church studio in Camden, New Jersey, was reconfigured during 1927–1928 to accommodate a film stage and soundtrack production facilities.
The nationwide conversion to “talkies” would be drawn out over a half-decade. The largest theaters were quick to install Western Electric’s new, fully synchronized Vitaphone equipment, but smaller or less well-financed venues often found it too costly to convert, and continued to screen silent films. For them, Victor came up with a less-expensive alternative — a library of background-music discs, supplied with projectionists’ cue sheets that were customized to individual films.
On February 1, 1928, Victor’s Mercantile Committee formally proposed production of special records “for use in motion picture theaters in connection with the reproducing instrument of the Electrical Research Products Co., Inc. [a Western Electric subsidiary] … to bear special label which has been approved by the Patent & Copyright Department.”  The motion was approved, although a label name had yet to be decided upon. The company finally settled on “Pict-Ur-Music,” which it belatedly registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on September 4, 1928. Victor’s filing claimed use of the name in commerce beginning June 6 of that year. 
Production proceeded cautiously at first. The committee’s original request for 300 pressings of each disc was scaled back to 150 before production began, and only existing commercial Victor recordings were to be used. “Additional requirements,” the committee report cautioned, “should be carefully watched by the Record Planning Division.” 
By early spring, preliminary production and distribution plans were being hammered out for the new “library.” The records would be leased to theaters, rather than being sold outright, and would be licensed for use only on Electrical Research Products playback equipment, which included a non-synchronized dual turntable. There was to be no interchangeability between Vitaphone and Pict-Ur-Music products or licenses.
On March 7, Victor’s Managers Committee presented a financial analysis showing a potential profit to the company ranging from 13.2% to 53.77%, depending upon various rental-fee and contract-duration models. A surcharge was proposed for theaters that could “stand this additional charge by reason of their increased box-office earnings.”  Ultimately, Victor settled on a sliding scale, based upon theater capacity, ranging from $1,200 annually for theaters with 800 seats or less, to $2,000 for those seating 1,500 or more. 
Victor, it appeared at first, had picked an inopportune time to introduce the concept. The “talkies” were under attack from the American Federation of Musicians, which argued that they were displacing musicians who, until then, had provided the live background music for silent films.  By mid-April, news of the records’ impending release had leaked to the press, further inflaming union officials. “Victor’s idea,” Variety warned, represented “a means to eliminate pit musicians.” 
Victor successfully turned that argument against the new records on its head, promoting them to theater owners as a safety net in the event of a threatened musicians’ strike.  Ultimately, the AFM backed off its threat, but Victor’s marketing spin had succeeded. By August 1928, Motion Picture News reported, the Pict-Ur-Music records were becoming so popular that “a number of houses have already dispensed with their orchestras, and more seem destined to be out of the pits in the near future.” 
Details concerning the new records continued to emerge throughout the spring of 1928. High-quality pressings were to be made using a special virgin-shellac compound. Variety reported that the playback system was “primed for economy to appeal to small picture houses and lesser exhibitors,” with a total installation cost of about $3,000 — far less than that of a synchronized Vitaphone system:
“The phonograph records as in Vitaphone are cued to synchronize with the film, and for small-capacity houses of 800 seats and under the illusion is fairly accurate, requiring no elaborate house wiring to bring the horns behind or under the screen… The ‘canned’ accompaniments…make no pretext of reproducing anything but musical sounds.” 
Implementation of the Pict-Ur-Music program got under way in June 1928. Participating theaters received the complete initial “library” in a single shipment, along with a filing cabinet and an index that classified each selection according to “mood or theme.” The records were to be returned at the end of the lease period, although judging from the number still in existence, exhibitors did not always comply.
The original Pict-Ur-Music library was drawn almost entirely from previously released Victor recordings. The repertoire leaned heavily toward classical snippets and old standards, as rendered by Victor’s studio musicians and ensembles, but there were also a few offerings by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, and the Dixieland Jug Blowers.
Artists received no catalog or label credit. It remains to be discovered whether those who were entitled to royalties on their commercial releases received payment for the corresponding Pict-Ur-Music discs, although it seems unlikely, given that the records were leased rather than sold. Victor absorbed the costs of any ASCAP fees for use of the compositions. 
Despite the original directive that only existing recordings be used, Victor appears to have begun making original recordings with the library’s use in mind as early as February 1928, when the project was first given the go-ahead.  Many recordings by a Victor studio orchestra under Bruno Reibold’s direction, made during the spring of 1928 but never listed in the commercial catalogs, found their way into the expanded Pict-Ur-Music catalog of September 1928. By then, sessions credited to a “Victor Orchestra (for Motion Pictures)” and “Non-Synchronous Motion Picture Orchestra,” both under Josef Pasternack’s direction, were appearing regularly in the Victor recording ledgers. 
When that proved insufficient to satisfy the growing demand from film producers, Victor created a separate department in Camden, under the direction of J. L. Crewe, to provide scoring services and oversee recordings made especially for Pict-Ur-Music. Movie producers were encouraged to send their latest releases to the Camden facility, where an in-house group would develop customized cue sheets keyed to the appropriate recordings.  The result was the creation of a large group of original recordings that never appeared on regular commercial Victor releases.
The cue sheets for each new release were mailed to participating theaters free of charge. They were keyed to running time, and it was the projectionist’s job to fade selections in and out at the appropriate moment, using the dual turntable. As Victor’s instructions to operators made clear, the job required unbroken attention and, at times, quick thinking. Splices or censors’ deletion could shorten the running time of a scene, requiring the operator to recalculate cue-sheet timings on-the-fly. Should a disc be damaged or lost, the projectionist was to quickly substitute another selection of similar “mood or theme.” For films lacking cue sheets, musical selection was left up to the projectionist. “Of course in your comedies,” the company advised, “you would immediately look under ‘Gay-Spirited,’ ‘Jazz,’ ‘Comedies,’ etc.” 
Construction of a Hollywood plant for pressing Pict-Ur-Music and Vitaphone discs was approved in June 1928,  and the Camden Courier-Post reported a month later that the building was “being rushed to completion.”  At the same time, funds were allocated to build twelve presses for sixteen-inch Pict-Ur-Music discs.  It does not appear that such records were ever produced, but a twelve-inch Pict-Ur-Music series was launched in late 1928. At first, it was derived largely from existing commercial releases that included selections by the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and London symphony orchestras. Some later twelve-inch releases were made to order by the “Non-Synchronous Motion Picture Orchestra” under Pasternak.
A long-playing (33 1/3-rpm) Pict-Ur-Music disc was announced in September 1929, for use as “overture, trailer, and exit” music.  However, advertising for the new records disappeared after only four releases, and reliable data on these apparently short-lived records is still being tracked down. RCA would revive the idea in October 1932, with its long-playing Theatre Records.
In March 1929, Victor launched a companion series of special sound-effects records that probably found wider use in radio broadcasts and live theater than in the movie houses.  Here, Victor faced stiff competition from Gennett, which had been producing a line of popular (if much less well-recorded) sound-effects discs since 1928. Victor’s series was discontinued after only twenty releases. An additional twenty-four sound-effects releases appeared briefly in 1932, drawn largely from imported Gramophone Company recordings made in London. Portions of several of those recordings were later pirated by Gennett. 
Although the sound-effects discs failed to attract much attention, the Pict-Ur-Music service proved to be popular. In just three months, from September 12 through December 12, 1928, Pict-Ur-Music contract signings increased by nearly 250%, with only three cancellations for the period.  New signings received an additional boost in early 1929, after it was decided to decouple Pict-Ur-Music discs from the Electrical Research Product Company’s equipment. The records could now be rented by theaters using “any kind of non-synchronous instrument, provided it gives fair tone quality.” 
Early Pict-Ur-Music labels (left) stated that the records were licensed for use only on Electrical Research Products’ equipment. That restriction was lifted in early 1929, as reflected by the later label design (right).
However, for the Radio Corporation of America — Victor’s cost-conscious new owners — Pict-Ur-Music’s demise must have appeared imminent. With more and more movie houses installing fully synchronized equipment for the “talkies,” production of silent films was coming to an end, and with it, the need for background music. By January 1930, work was under way on an agreement that would transfer the “record library” business from RCA’s Victor division to its Photophone subsidiary. 
As set out in a memorandum on February 11, 1930, the Victor division would continue to record and press Pict-Ur-Music records, but it would bill Photophone for those services. In addition to the recording and production costs, Photophone would pay RCA Victor 22¢ per ten-inch disc, 32¢ for twelve-inch. Victor would be allowed to continue collecting revenue from any unexpired leases. Beyond that, however, the company largely washed its hands of the Pict-Ur-Music operation.
Photophone would be solely responsible for marketing the records, maintaining inventory, and handling fulfillment. The company was to purchase Victor’s existing Pict-Ur-Music inventory, although it would not be required to take obsolete material. The memo noted, “The present stocks consist largely of records returned from theaters, for which full value has been received… Photophone will not desire to take over any quantities of these records beyond those which it can reasonably expect to move during the present year.” Records that Photophone refused were to be scrapped. 
Photophone’s takeover was apparent even before terms of the transfer were finalized. General Electric’s Photophone playback equipment had already been substituted for Electrical Research Products’. On February 1, Photophone began advertising Pict-Ur-Music and sound-effects records for sale outright, in sets ranging from 150 to 541 records, with no contract required.  Lowell G. Calvert was put in charge of Photophone’s recording operations, although no new Pict-Ur-Music discs are known to have been produced under his management.
RCA Photophone’s dual turntable was promoted for use with the Pict-Ur-Music discs after the requirement was dropped that they be used only with Electrical Research Products equipment.
In November 1930, Photophone requested that RCA Victor continue to supply records without a formal production agreement. A response has not been found, but by then, the Pict-Ur-Music program was nearing its end. On January 14, 1931, RCA ordered that 150,000 surplus Pict-Ur-Music discs be scrapped.  Nevertheless, the non-synchronous operation muddled along into January 1932, at which time RCA’s management finally conceded, “Due to the fact that most theaters are now equipped to play sound-on-film, the business now is very slim.”  In the same month, Photophone’s operations were merged with those of RCA Victor, after which nothing more was heard of Pict-Ur-Music.
In October 1932, RCA Victor unexpectedly launched a new line of Theatre Records (using the British spelling). Unlike the Pict-Ur-Music discs, these were not supplied with cue sheets or tied to any specific movie. Consisting entirely of reissued commercial recordings — in a choice of 78-rpm or dubbed 33 1/3-rpm formats — they were intended simply to entertain (and, of course, plug Victor records) during pre-show and intermission periods. The series appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction to the American Record Corporation, which had introduced a similar line eight month earlier. Virtually no marketing was done for the series, which came to an end several months later, after eighty releases.
 Green, Abel. “Victor’s Film Sounders.” Variety (Oct 3, 1928), p. 7.
 Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Feb 1, 1928), p. 2.
 Victor Talking Machine Co. “Pict-Ur-Music.” U.S. trademark application #287,903 (filed Sep 4, 1928).
 Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Feb 1, 1928), op. cit.
 Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Mar 7, 1928), p. 3.
 “Records.” Harrison’s Reports (Sep 29, 1928), p. 156.
 “Three Unions Clash Over Sound Device.” Variety (May 9, 1928), p. 13.
 “Victor Experimenting with Small House ‘Talker.’” Variety (Apr 11, 1928), p. 16.
 “Substitutes for Orchestra If Striking.” Variety (May 30, 1928), p. 25.
 “Victor Planning Expansion of Non-Synchronous Service.” Motion Picture News (Aug 4, 1928), p. 397.
 “Victor Experimenting…,” op. cit.
 Bolig, John R. The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1941. Denver: Mainspring Press (2014).
 Harrison’s Reports, op. cit.
 Victor Talking Machine Company. Library of Victor “Pict-Ur-Music” to Accompany Motion Pictures. Revised Edition (Sep 1928), pp. 2–4.
 Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Jun 13, 1928), p. 8. Victor’s original West Coast plant, in Oakland, California, continued to press the standard commercial releases.
 “Victor Engaged in Creation of Talking-Movies.” Camden Courier-Post (Jul 25, 1928), p. 1.
 Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Jun 13, 1928), p. 7. Three of the presses were allocated to the Oakland plant, the rest to Camden. Most likely, this was simply a reporting error, and the presses were actually intended for the sixteen-inch Vitaphone discs.
 “Now You Can get Victor Quality (Victor Pict-Ur-Music) Overture, Trailer, and Exit Record Service for 33 1/3 R.P.M. Turntables” (ad). Film Daily (Sep 29, 1929), p. 7.
 Examples are known with standard Victor black “scroll” labels as well as the more common Pict-Ur-Music style labels (without the Pict-Ur-Music logo).
 Gennett matrix ledger (May 3–7, 1937).
 Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Sep 12, 1928, and Dec 12, 1928), p. 3
 “Disc Record Libraries.” Harrison’s Reports (Mar 2, 1929), p. 36.
 RCA Victor Co. Managers Committee minutes (Jan 12, 1930), p. 8.
 Memorandum, G. W. Jaggers to E. C. Grimley (Feb 11, 1930). Attachment to RCA Victor Managers Committee minutes.
 “Victor Pict-Ur-Music Library Records” (Photophone ad). Exhibitors Herald-World (Feb 1, 1930), p. 6.
 RCA Victor Co. Managers Committee minutes (January 14, 1931), p. 4.
 RCA Victor Co. Report to the Board of Directors (Jan 15, 1932), p. 3.
© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.