Alexander Graham Bell and the Show Business

It occurred to me this morning that I ought to do a book called “Everything I Know I Learned from Old Hollywood Bio-Pics.” I’ve written about scores of them on Travalanche, and there’s no contemplating Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) without also remembering the Hollywood version of his life, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939).

Haha — “America’s Most Thrilling Story”. Well, for some Chatty Cathys I imagine the invention of the telephone may be that, but for most of us it’s just a couple of guys in aprons fooling around with wires and ear trumpets and things But somehow this routine programmer was such a hit with audiences that telephones were briefly known as “ameches”, after its star Don Ameche (who for some reason plays the part with no beard, just his trademark Italianate pencil-thin mustache). It was still popular enough with audiences when I was a kid in the 1970s, it was shown from time to time on television. And that’s how we all learn fake history! As in most bio-pics with a male protagonist, the plot doubles as a love story, with Loretta Young playing Bell’s wife, whose real life struggles as a deaf woman inspired Bell to experiment with artificial sound, resulting in his famous accidental invention. Henry Fonda, then transitioning into full-fledged stardom is third billed as the famous lab assistant Watson, whose name was uttered in the first ever telephonic communication. The all-star cast also included Charles Coburn, Spring Byington, Gene Lockhart, Russell Hicks, Harry Davenport, and Beryl Mercer. At the time I first saw this movie, the 1876 invention of the telephone was around a century in the past. Pretty soon, this movie will hit that mark!

In my book No Applause, I mention the telephone as one of the many factors that made vaudeville possible — the ability to book acts, make deals, plan logistics and so forth long distance was invaluable to the development of the big time circuits. I thought of a couple of other interesting telephone related tidbits that intersect with our old time show biz interests:

As a teenager, Bell had been inspired by an exhibition of a speaking automaton created by inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone, based on the famous chess playing Turk of Baron Wolfgang Von Kempelen. Bell managed to secure a copy of Von Kempelen’s “how-to” book, translate it, and create his own version of the mechanical man, equipped with a bellows and able to pronounce the word “mama”. Bell was to create and patent numerous inventions over the course of his life. His methodical process in make a working automaton was one of his first projects.

Bell first exhibited his telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, creating an immediate demand for his new invention. For more on that historic Philadelphia World’s Fair, go here. 

Speaking of world’s fairs, at the 1881 Paris Expo there debuted a fascinating refinement on Bell’s invention: the théâtrophone. This was an early precursor to radio. In the initial demonstration, transmitters were set up on the stage of the Paris Opera, connected to receivers in the Paris Electrical Exhibition on the fairgrounds. Public demonstrations of the invention were held throughout Europe throughout the 1880s. In 1890, a formal subscription service was inaugurated in Paris, the Compagnie du Théâtrophone. Subscribers could sign up for specific performances and listen to them at home over their telephone. Naturally, this novelty gradually gave way to broadcast radio and home phonographs, but it lasted a surprisingly long time, finally closing up shop in 1932.

Today of course we have returned to this idea of getting entertainment over the telephone beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In fact now I think of it, I think I want to make my ringtone “Watson, come here!”

For more on show business history please see  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.