Nostalgia

How “Fantasia” Was Inspired By A Secret Lab In The Basement of an Opera House

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Owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the 19th century opera house is the oldest venue in the U.S. still used for its original purpose. And though named “Academy” it has never actually housed a music school.

It has hosted some of the most famous names in opera and music from Pavarotti to Maria Callas, Marian Anderson to Igor Stravinsky and more. But just before WWII it hosted something more experimental.

Bell Labs engineers in basement of Academy of Music

Bell Labs engineers in basement of Academy of Music, 1933, AT&T Archives & History Center.

In 1933, the Philadelphia Orchestra in collaboration with Bell Telephone Laboratories presented a concert at the Academy. It wasn’t an ordinary show but one typical of Philadelphia Orchestra’s conductor at the time, Leopold Stokowski, known for his experimentation.

In a first for its time, the concert was transmitted by telephone wire to an audience all the way in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Stokowski, the Orchestra and Bell Labs continued to collaborate in the 1930s receiving quite a bit of press coverage. By the end of the decade, their experimentation had peeked someone else’s interest: Walt Disney.

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Disney was working on an idea for an animated musical film at the time called Fantasia. He requested the use the Bell Labs stereophonic film recording method to provide a sound in movie theaters unlike anything the public had ever heard before.

Bell Labs considered his offer but concluded that their work at the Academy was experimental and not for commercial purposes yet.

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Though his request had been declined, Disney was undeterred. He recorded the film’s score at the Academy anyway using Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Most importantly the score was recorded with “Fantasound,” a system developed by his own engineers with RCA, designed to provide an immersive experience.

The stage is set for an orchestra to play.

Engineers and musicians set up on stage at the Academy in 1939, to record music for Fantasia, Newsworks.

It took 42 days it took to record the eight pieces for the film and when they were done, a fifth of the film’s total budget had been spent on recording with Fantasound. Everything had to be recorded on highly flammable optical film in the basement and in a mobile truck outside for the safety of the building.

“The fire marshall for Philadelphia didn’t allow them to have the library of films, the loading and unloading of film, inside the Academy. It’s a wooden structure,” said Klapholz. “So they had to do all that in mobile truck outside, which was not an RCA-identified truck.”

Today surround sound is common and usually consists of five to seven speakers. Disney’s costly and experimental early iteration used an overwhelming amount of speakers: 30 to 80. It was a far cry from a decade earlier when the first “talkie” movie hit screens.

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When the film premiered it showed promising returns at first but the costly setup of the Fantasound system (around $85,000) forced Disney to max out their loans. As WWII exploded across Europe, they were unable to release the film there which often made up nearly half of their profits.

Stokowski on the podium on a Hollywood soundstage during the visual filming for Fantasia.

Stokowski on the podium on a Hollywood soundstage during the visual filming for Fantasia, Popular Science.

via GIPHY

Some smaller towns in the U.S. were disparaging in the newspaper of the film too. As the system was installed in a theater in Chicago (with 51 crates plus engineers, technicians and electricians working day and night shifts), nearby Decatur, Illinois lamented they could not afford to close their theater to prepare for one movie and then close it again when the movie left town.

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Then the U.S. entered the war. All but one of the Fantasound systems were dismantled and donated to the war effort. It wasn’t a total loss for Walt Disney and his partners, they did win an Academy Award for their advancement in sound for the film (though they did take quite a financial hit).

Fantasound installation guide, used for installing the mammoth system in theaters.

Fantasound installation guide, used for installing the mammoth system in theaters, Newsworks.

Stokowski’s remastered soundtrack was not released until 1990 for the film’s 75th anniversary. It was certified platinum for sales of over one million copies.

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*A note about that chandelier! The crystal piece weighs 5,000 lbs (2,300 kg) in total and was wired for electricity in 1900. Before it was able to be lowered mechanically, it required 12 people to lower it by hand, working four hours.

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8