Back To the Future: 100 Years of Entertainment Technology

In showbiz, where innovation is the norm, new technology is relative

When Variety No. 1 appeared, proclaiming it would cover vaudeville, burlesque, parks, minstrels, circus and fairs, the symbol for entertainment was the spotlight, drawing an audience’s eyes to an act onstage.

A century later, there’s no better symbol than the iPod’s white ear buds, worn by millions, each enjoying their own playlists, alone.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

While the early 20th century was low-tech, it wasn’t no-tech. Counterweight systems had just been invented to replace spot rigging and sandbags in theaters. The first “nickelodeon,” or storefront moving picture theater, opened a few months before Variety bowed.

Turn it up

The Gramophone and Victrola — the boom boxes of their time — had launched home entertainment. 78 rpm records were becoming the rule and pop songs were shrinking to three minutes to fit on one side of a disc.

Narrative feature films caught on in Variety‘s first decade. Right from the start, filmmakers and exhibitors squabbled over technology. Movie houses sped up projectors to get more showings in, so cameramen cranked their cameras faster. The race didn’t end until the advent of sound locked in 24 frames per second.

The 1920s brought wide adoption of perhaps the most far-reaching entertainment tech innovations of the century: the microphone and loudspeaker.

“Wireless telegraphy” was old hat but in 1922, after microphones had been married to radio, Variety proclaimed “Radio Sweeping Country.” Mics and speakers again transformed popular music. Acoustic recordings favored high, sharp tones; think banjos and belters. Amplification opened the door for guitars and crooners. Before mics, a pop idol is Al Jolson. After, it’s Bing Crosby.

But it was Jolson who starred in the first “talkie,” Warner Bros.’ 1927 “The Jazz Singer,” with Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system. Early talkies were stiff and stagy compared to their silent predecessors, but viewers loved them.

Color my world

The year 1927 saw the public adopt a different movie technology. Hollywood makeup maven Max Factor had invented pancake foundation, eyebrow pencil and false eyelashes to replace theatrical greasepaint, which looked awful on film. In 1927, he released his first consumer line. Women’s vanity tables have never been the same.

Color wasn’t the earthquake that sound was, but the three-strip Technicolor of the ’30s provided the lush, saturated colors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Still, the cameras were enormous and difficult to move. When Eastman’s Monopack single-strip color film was introduced in 1941, DPs pounced.

By the 1930s, Crosby was the king of new media, topping the record charts and starring on radio and in pictures. After WWII, weary of two decades of live broadcasts, he decided to pre-record his radio show.

Reigning nets NBC and CBS were sure that listeners craved the excitement of live radio. Der Bingle didn’t think so, and when he jumped to fledgling ABC in 1946 to record his show, Variety said the implications of his “disk (sic) show” were “as far-reaching as anything to hit show business since the advent of talking pictures.”

We were a little off. The recording revolution wouldn’t really come until two new gadgets arrived: the tape recorder and the television.

Tape snuck up on everyone. Crosby at first recorded his show on platters, but when one of his engineers showed him a captured German “magnetophone,” the show switched to better-sounding, easier-to-edit tape.

The quality of tape masters and the new long-playing vinyl records helped launch the hi-fi craze of the ’50s, which in turn drove the move to FM radio.

Home tape players soon followed, then cassette recorders. Consumers could make their own recordings of performances and broadcasts, then carry the recordings with them.

Tube travel

Television, unlike tape, was long expected but slow arriving. Variety was reporting TV rights deals in the mid-1930s. Only after World War II, though, did TV appear as a real consumer product. The networks became media giants as movie fans stayed home to watch Uncle Miltie and Ed Sullivan.

Professional videotape recorders arrived in 1956, two years after color TV, and the nets quickly moved to tape-delayed programs. When VCRs were introduced, homevideo proved an unexpected boon to Hollywood and by the early 21st century, homevideo revenue, driven even higher by the popularity of DVDs, was said to exceed theatrical grosses.

One unintended consequence of homevideo was the growth of the adult industry. Porn helped drive early adoption of the VCR and DVD, and once adult films moved out of sleazy theaters and into the safety of the home, the industry boomed. By 2005, it was also leading the way in video on cell phones.

Technology made entertainment mobile, too, beginning with the first “Motorola,” or car radio, in 1929. Transistor radios followed in the ’50s (imagine a trip to the beach without one). In 1979, Sony introduced a cassette player with the small size of the transistor radio. What was really revolutionary about the Walkman, though, was that it had no speaker, only headphones. Entertainment became even more of an anytime/anywhere experience — but a less social one.

Transistors and miniaturization also helped amplification conquer Broadway, one of the last bastions of the unamplified voice. Once scorned by legit critics, body mics and sound systems were completely accepted by the ’80s.

At home, cable TV took off in the 1970s and ’80s. Cable undermined the nets, made fortunes for new entrepreneurs and made the TV remote control an absolute necessity.

Early home computers began to appear in the 1970s, and in 1972, Nolan Bushnell founded a videogame company, Atari. Looking back, its Pong tennis game was primitive but it launched an industry.

The last decade of Variety‘s first century saw the bow of digital entertainment, which seems sure to overshadow all the tech changes that came before.

In film production, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has made it possible to realize convincing photo-realistic images that could barely have been imagined before.

Digital recording and storage and Internet distribution make it possible to produce an infinite number of perfect cloned copies of nearly any intellectual property and to send it, instantly, to nearly anywhere on the planet.

Digital projection had exhibitors and studios squabbling yet again. It promises to change movies as much as sound did — if anyone can figure out who’ll pick up the tab.

Brave new world

What’s next? Filmed entertainment is evolving from something with its roots in live performance to something more akin to painting or animation, created less by actors than by digital artists.

Cell phones, music players, and PDAs are already merging into a mobile entertainment platform. Data networks like the Internet will likely be as common as electricity is today, and will make entertainment even more ubiquitous and individual. There will surely be goggles to do for video what Walkman headphones did for music. The very idea of an “audience” may become obsolete, as everyone has access to entertainment all the time, everywhere.

And that’s leaving out the areas we can barely imagine today, like biotech entertainment.

Look for the next century to be an even longer, stranger trip than the last one.