Universal Base

The Western Electric universal base will for ever be associated with the early sound era. The late 1920’s and early 30’s saw a large selection of sound apparatus introduced to accommodate the demand from cinema owners, anxious to screen the new ‘talking pictures’. Some of this equipment was OK, the less said about others, the better.

The Western Electric Company and its rival RCA were responsible for the technology which brought sound to the movies. It was not surprising therefore that the products of these two companies proved popular at the time. In the UK the Western Electric Universal base found particular favour. It consisted of a heavy base plate , bottom spool box, motor drive and an optical sound head complete with first stage amplifier for the photoelectric cell. An interlocked phonograph was placed at the rear of the apparatus while the film industry decided whether sound on disc or sound on film was the way forward. It didn’t take long for them to decide and the redundant turntable was usually discarded in later years. The cinema operator was left to choose his own picture head and lamp house.

Not surprisingly the Kalee 8, originally a silent machine, was readily converted to accommodate the new sound apparatus and proved very popular. In the USA the ‘Standard’ Simplex was often the mechanism of choice, which brings us nicely to our Universal base or Universal ‘bitsa’ if the truth be told.

Our interest was aroused when we found a quantity of discarded Universal base bits lying around in a store room in one of our local cinemas. These had been removed years ago from the Plaza in nearby Dorchester and the Plaza in Romsey near Southampton, in the 1970’s, by the area Westrex engineer. Westrex equipment in the UK was always leased to the cinema operator, never sold outright, so when a cinema closed if Westrex no longer wanted the equipment back their engineer rendered the equipment inoperable. He did this by taking out certain key components and leaving the heavy bit in situ! It was these items that we came across more than thirty tears later. Motors, gearboxes drive shafts sprockets, flywheel components, they were all there.

As luck would have it, the PPT had a Universal base devoid of any components and surplus to their requirements (they have a very nice example already on display at Bletchley Park). A donation to society funds saw this item back in Bournemouth and our bits bolted to it. Thanks to Ken for this. The lamp house came from our local multiplex which was in the process of converting its machines to more modern Cinemeccanica units. Repainting it and replacing the control knobs and other items discarded during its xenon conversion, is perhaps another story. The Standard Simplex mechanism had come our way via Len Belcher at Duxford, again a surplus mech not doing anything was exchanged for another donation and given some much needed attention. The lens holder wasn’t original so we replaced it with an older version which would take one of our ancient Ross lenses. The gear box to link it up with the Universal base was one we had from an old Ross mechanism but which fitted the Simplex perfectly. Did Ross and Simplex have some sort of tie up in pre war years?

Lastly we must thank our friend and PPT member Kevin Whelan who supplied us with the vital tilting mechanism which completed the project. So you see why this machine is a ‘bitsa’, truly made up from bits and pieces from all over the place. Very satisfying though when we started it up for the first time and all those rods and gears worked in very noisy harmony.

Update: 08/09/2011

The Simplex projector on the Universal base has now been replaced with one of the front shutter Kalee8 machines which originally came from the Ritz cinema in Moordown, a suburb of Bournemouth. These were in use up until the mid 1950's when Cinemascope belatedly came to that hall and the necessity of large anamorphic lenses and brackets at the front of the machines meant that the front shutter Kalees could no longer be used. Fortunately for us the chief at the time must have been reluctant to let them go as they were carefully greased and stored away for the next fifty years or so until they were found again in 2008. The cinema, which closed in 1959 laterally had Kalee 11 machines on Universal base with Kalee Regal arc lamps.

The Simplex was replaced because we just could not stop it vibrating when in use. Also the intermittent assembly was badly worn, The Kalee runs very sweetly with no hint of vibration and with this installation we have another piece of local cinema history.

The Peerless Magnarc has also been replaced with a Vulcan arc lamp, somewhat incomplete at the moment but we live in hopes of locating the missing pieces.

The Ritz was demolished in 2007 to make way for the inevitable flats and houses. The entrance on Victoria Parade is still there and the foyer is now in use as an antique furniture shop.

Restoration History


Click a thumbnail and with the mouse over the image, use the thumb wheel to navigate.