the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 13, 2011.
Leonard Garfield Spencer (1867-1914) was a prominent innovator in the new media of his era. He is mostly remembered today as a pioneer recording artist—it is his voice that proclaims “I am the Edison Phonograph” on the famous EDISON ADVERTISING RECORD—but he was also active in live performance, cinema sound, automated multimedia installations, and sheet music publishing. Even within phonography, Spencer was not only a performer, but also an exhibitor, scriptwriter, inventor, and talent agent. Viewed strictly from the perspective of cinema history, Spencer may seem a relatively minor figure. However, if we consider his career in the broader context of the distinctive new intermedial complexes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he emerges as a substantial contributor to the development of mechanically mediated narrative and entertainment.
One obstacle to assessing Spencer’s surviving work is that it consists mostly of phonograms, often in the genre now known as “audio theatre,” and there is little precedent for reading such phonograms with the attention scholars routinely devote to early films. Media historians can readily point to individual cinematic landmarks such as THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, but they can rarely name equally groundbreaking phonograms or even identify what ground there was for them to break. As I will show, Len Spencer had a hand in numerous key turning-points in the evolution of phonographic narrative, a form which predates cinematic narrative by some years but has rarely received serious attention. He originated or popularized such record-making strategies as the use of voice actresses for female roles instead of males in falsetto, extradiegetic music and prerecorded background sounds, and the extension of a narrative over multiple discs. As a performer, he specialized in comic stage dialects, but his repertoire ranged from “serious” oratory to the banter of auctioneers and medicine pitchmen.
Spencer also organized talent for the “talking behind the screen” approach to cinema sound and devised apparatus to accompany phonograms with sequences of images or three-dimensional androids—enterprises with significant visual components. Nevertheless, the common denominator spanning all his work was its emphasis on sound and the voice. Can a vision-centered discipline of media studies comfortably accommodate a successful and influential “new media” pioneer who so conspicuously privileged sounds over images?