How A Charlie Chaplin Impersonator Invented Closed Captions

Genova - Italy - October 23, 2016: Mime dressed like Charlie Chaplin, Charlot, in the streets of Genova. Italy

A lot of changes can occur once a person receives the results of audiology tests, and this can lead to the implementation of adjustments to ensure they can enjoy everything they used to.

One of the most important of these is closed captioning, which along with induction loops allowed people who were hard of hearing to continue to enjoy watching television and films.

Whilst it is a ubiquitous part of watching media in the modern age, the person who pioneered the technique had a very close relationship with both the deaf community and filmmaking.

Occasionally credited as Tommy Albert, Emerson Romero was an actor born in Havana who became completely deaf as a result of complications from whooping cough.

After dropping out of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Mr Romero moved back to Cuba to act in silent films produced by his older brother Dorian. These films, such as A Yankee in Havana, were not successful and are lost media today, but he learned a lot that would help him in Hollywood and beyond.

He learned how to edit film, shoot on location and how to set up the title plates used for silent film scenes of the time. Ultimately, it also drew the attention of Richard Harlan, who suggested he move to California and work with big stars there.

He appeared in 24 short comedy films within a two-year stretch under the name Tommy Albert, doing his own makeup, performing his own stunts and perfecting a routine similar to The Tramp himself, Charlie Chaplin.

Sadly, mid-way through his acting career, The Jazz Singer released and ushered in the “Talkie” film era. This meant an end to subtitles, an end to deaf people having an equal film experience, and an end to Tommy Albert.

After returning to New York and his old Federal Reserve Bank job, Mr Romero became highly active in the deaf community, and in 1947 started to experiment with ways to create captions for films by slicing film strips and adding caption images between frames, turning talkies into captioned silent films.

This would be the first closed captioning system ever used in a film and would eventually get the attention of American School for the Deaf superintendent Edmund Burke Boatner, who would expand on his ideas and gain government support for the idea in the process.