Vitaphone Project Co-Founder Ron Hutchinson Dies, His Work Saved…
Ronald P. Hutchinson passed away swiftly and unexpectedly from cancer on February 2 in New Jersey, he was 67. He was beloved by many for the second career he took on as a volunteer, finding, preserving, and restoring hundreds of films from the early “talkie” era. He was active even recently, posting a final detailed article on Classicmoviehub.com on January 22nd. His passing came as a shock to the many friends and associates whom he has helped along the way. Many recall his generosity in lending materials and advice as they worked to complete books or other research related to early film.
The Vitaphone Project brought to life films from the brief period (1926-1930) when picture reels and sound records had to be cued up separately. In many cases, the film had survived decades in obscure archives while 78 RPM collectors preserved the shellac records. Many of these were “shorts” highlighting work of Vaudevillians, comedians, and musicians that might otherwise be lost to us. Tracking down these lost gems and bringing them back together was Ron Hutchinson’s magic.
Among the highlights of the project, in 1994 they discovered a lost ten minute Al Jolson film predating The Jazz Singer by a full year, the film had been considered lost since 1933. The following year they were able to pair it with the proper shellac disc, containing three songs, found in a barn owned by the descendants of an employee. A 2018 discovery led to a professional restoration of a Vitaphone short featuring a 20-year-old Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden with Ben Pollack’s Park Central Orchestra in 1929. The project garnered substantial national attention when they found and released a lost early color Three Stooges short.
Hutchinson established the project in 1991 with the help of several other film enthusiasts. Together they have located over 6500 shellac sound disks in private hands and compiled a database of them. They work with Turner/Warner Bros. to make the movies available and cull film from archives, primarily at the U.S. Library of Congress, UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, and the British Film Institute. Through their cooperation, Warner Bros. has released over 250 Vitaphone shorts on DVD. The Vitaphone Project itself has restored dozens of shorts and at least 12 feature films, raising $400,000 for the preservation work.
Professional restoration of one 8-10 minute reel costs around $12,000. There are scores of films for which no sound has been discovered, but might yet be. Many further releases to DVD are planned. Vitaphone Project films also appear at vintage movie festivals and the cable channel Turner Classic Movies regularly highlights them.
A memorial service is planned for Saturday, February 9th from 1 – 4 pm at the Piscataway Funeral Home in Piscataway NJ.
The Syncopated Times would appreciate having someone closer to Ron write a remembrance of him and his work for our March issue. Contact us if you can be of service.