Q

How a deaf, silent film actor pioneered closed captioning

Emerson Romero was a deaf silent movie actor and Charlie Chaplin impersonator who pioneered closed captioning. Historian Jaipreet Virdi shares his unusual life story, and his fight to make his favourite Hollywood movies accessible to everyone.
Cuban-American silent film actor Emerson Romero (1900-1972) was one of the first to come up with a technology for film captioning. (Gallaudet University Archives)

Closed captioning made its debut on television 40 years ago, but hardly anyone seems to know who pioneered the technology. Emerson Romero was a deaf silent movie actor and Charlie Chaplin impersonator. In this q Origin Story, Kuwaiti-Canadian historian Jaipreet Virdi shares his unusual life story, and his fight to make his favourite Hollywood movies accessible to everyone.

About the narrator

Jaipreet Virdi is a historian of medicine, technology and disability. She is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, and just published her first book Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. She is also the creator of Deaf History Series, a Twitter project that shares little-known stories of deaf people throughout history. 

Jaipreet Virdi (Peter Himsel)

A full transcript of this story is available below.

Transcript

HOST INTRODUCTION: 

Here's the story of an unsung hero who had a huge impact on film and TV. Chances are, you don't know the name Emerson Romero. He was an actor, and Charlie Chaplin impersonator, from Cuba. And he made silent movies in the 1920s. He was also deaf. 

Emerson Romero is an early pioneer of closed captioning. You may use it yourself. It's the text that runs along with the audio dialog to make film and TV more accessible. And the story of HOW it got there… Well, it may be wilder than anything you'll see on screen. 

Jaipreet Virdi will tell you the story of Emerson Romero in just a second. 

She's a historian of medicine, technology and disability. Back in March, she was about to go on tour for her new book. It's called: Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. But then, well, the pandemic happened. So she started looking for new ways to occupy her time. 

In old research folders, she came across an old black and white photo of Emerson Romero. 

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

Just looking into who this person was, where did he come from, took me down this vicious path of learning more about him and why his name isn't as familiar in textbooks as I'd like it to be.

HOST: 

So let's hear his story! Here's Jaipreet Virdi. 

[music rises - bouncy hi-hat drum sounds

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

Closed captioning comes from a history of deaf people. Why don't people remember Emerson Romero? I mean, he's not like an engineer or an editor. He was someone who just knew from hands-on experience what worked and what didn't. 

[music bed changes - high energy clapping] 

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

Hi everyone, I'm Jaipreet Virdi. I'm a professor at the University of Delaware, and I'm also Canadian by the way. 

OLD MOVIE CLIP: 

(Director) We're making motion picture history here! 

OLD MOVIE CLIP: 

(Director) I want quiet! Quiet from everybody! 

OLD MOVIE CLIP: 

(Director) [sound of clapperboard] Roll 'em! 

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

Emerson Romero was a silent film actor who was known by his stage name Tommy Albert. He made his name as a silent film star in the 1920s, producing, acting, and editing in numerous films. 

[sound of film projector + silent film piano music

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

He was a good looking man, you know? This Cuban person. Very athletic build. But he was also somebody who, given his athletic ability, he was doing his own rolling stunts. You know, like slapstick falling down [SFX: crash], tripping on his feet [SFX: crash], or exaggerated collapses [SFX: loud crash with glass breaking] The kind of guy you would expect to see in a Hollywood silent film in black-and-white. [chuckles]

[music bed changes - propulsive drum beat

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

Emerson Romero was definitely a scrappy person, who wanted to make a success out of himself as a deaf film actor. But he also was constantly improving the techniques of filmmaking. When he was working on the set, it was very difficult for him to hear the director's instructions, or to follow the movement of the camera. 

[SFX - chatter on a busy film set] 

OLD MOVIE CLIP: 

(Director) All right then, turn 'em over! 

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

What Emerson Romero did was that he trained to align his acting with the tempo of the camera man's cranking. So here we have this 1920s camera, right? Which is hand-cranked, so it makes this cranking noise. [SFX - cranking] What he ended up doing was memorizing the movement of the cameraman's hand. And then he would time his body, and his acting to that cranking. He was an innovator. 

[music bed changes - tense pulsing

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

So in 1929, Emerson Romero's world changed when Hollywood introduced talkies. 

DOCUMENTARY CLIP: 

(Narrator) A new era of motion pictures is about to begin. For the first time, natural sound, dialogue and singing will be used in a feature film. 

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

Emerson Romero was suddenly out of a job. 

He spent a couple of years working at a bank, working at army factories. During the Second World War, he ended up working as a sheet metal person at a company. He worked at the Republic Aviation Corporation. And let me just say that at this time, during the Second World War, many deaf people were working in aviation companies, or aviation factories, because they were able to withstand the noise that these factories were making. 

[SFX - swelling white noise of factory machines

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

It was a good career for Emerson Romero. But he also seemed to miss doing other things. 

Emerson Romero finally decided to go back to the job that he loved the most: films. But instead of acting in films, he decided to caption! I mean, you have to go back to the story, this is a deaf film star, who was used to having subtitles or captioning cards on the screen. He no longer had that access. Not just because Hollywood shifted to talkies, but because films were being produced without these subtitles and access cards. 

He's showing that deaf people want these films. They want to be part of these stories. They want to fall for that grand old Hollywood romance. 

[music bed changes - romantic orchestral score swells

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

So what he ended up doing was, he spent his own money buying film reels. He started experimenting with a way to splice text in between scenes. Basically, he was writing up dialogue, and then creating subtitle cards to go in-between the film scenes. And then he put it all together and rented these films out. 

[music bed changes - clumsy, comic piano

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

The reason that Emerson Romero had trouble getting his captioning project off the ground is that his technique wasn't very good. It was quite crude [chuckles]. Again, this is a guy who was maybe in his garage or some office, just cutting film reels and pasting them back together with caption cards. I don't want to mock the work that he did. I'm just trying to describe how crude it was, technologically speaking. It's like construction paper. It's hard to take that seriously. 

The second reason why, perhaps, his captioning project wasn't picked up is that access is often perceived as an afterthought. The idea is "Well, deaf people are only a small percentage of the population! It's too much work, or it's too expensive to produce captioning for them — so we're just going to not do it!" He also couldn't manage to get funds or support from the film industry, so he ended up kind of abandoning the project.  

What ended up happening was that other deaf people were sharing his films with prominent industry people, including superintendents of deaf schools who were working with big organizations and the government to try to produce more accessible videos and films for deaf people. That's kind of where the legal story of captioning emerged. It emerged from attempts to take Emerson Romero's technique to build a new technology that would benefit entertainment for deaf people. 

Emerson Romero did provide a starting point — or at the very least — was the catalyst for the emergence of closed captioning, as we know it today. 

OLD TV CLIP: 

The following program has been Closed Captioned for the hearing impaired. 

JAIPREET VIRDI: 

It's important that we remember a person like Emerson Romero, a deaf silent movie star from Cuba who settled in the United States, because he tells us that so much of history is an individual story. Stories about people who enrich their lives, who build things, but don't end up in the history books because they're not deemed important enough, or groundbreaking enough. But their role in history, their contributions are still valuable — if we acknowledge them. 

So the next time you are sitting on the sofa watching a movie, maybe you're watching an episode of your favourite show, and you turn on the closed captioning… It's important for you to know, remember actually, that that black box is part of a long history of technology that is also part of a story of one deaf man who wanted to make movies accessible to deaf people. 

HOST: 

You've been listening to the secret history of closed captioning! Huge thanks to the Jaipreet Virdi for narrating. Jaipreet is a historian, and the author of a new book. It's called Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History.

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