Scoptione - The Visual Jukebox
Today we take music videos on MTV and VH1 for granted. But did you know
these musical cinematic gems have roots dating back to the start of
World War II? And that they developed out of a "visual jukebox" called a
Scopitone which was fashionable in the early 1960's?
In 1939, a device called a "Panoram" was invented by the Mills Novelty
Company of Chicago. The Panoram played eight three-minute musical shorts
in a wooden jukebox fitted with a 17 x 22.5 inch translucent screen.
The image was projected in a rear-screen manner via 16mm black and white
film. These shorts became known as "soundies" and starred many of the
most well-known jazz acts of the day. When World War II erupted,
production halted and by war's end, the craze that had captured the
public's attention so much in 1939 and 1940 was totally over.
After the war ended in Europe, two French technicians saw all the tons
of war surplus and military spare parts lying around and decided to use
some of it to recreate the soundie experience and, hopefully, improve
upon it. Using a 16mm camera that had been used by the French Air Force
for reconnaissance flights, they converted it into a 16mm projector.
Mastering the problems of providing enough light and devising reliable
mechanisms for threading and rewinding the films cost them lots of time
and it wasn't until the late '50s that the invention was ready for the
The resultant machine was the size of a refrigerator and was dubbed
"Scopitone." Much improved from the 1939 version, the Scopitone played
color films and, like a conventional jukebox, the customer was able to
choose which video to watch, instead of whatever was conveniently loaded
on the machine.
Wildly popular in France, word of its success traveled first to West
Germany, then on to England, and eventually the US. By 1963, the William
Morris Agency devised a development deal to license the machines
throughout the country.
By 1964, after market testing in Miami and Miami Beach, the devices
proved to be so popular and resulted in so many requests for
installation that soon the northeast part of the US was inundated with
the novelty. By mid-1964, approximately 500 machines were installed,
mostly in upscale resort hotels, cocktail lounges and fancier downtown
restaurants, totally leaving teenagers out of the equation.
In retrospect, this seems a foolish strategy (today, we're all well
aware of the economic power of the 16-24 demographic) but back in the
early '60s, the buying power of teenagers wasn't as well respected.
Moreover, the strategy had the added advantage of avoiding direct
competition with the long-established jukebox industry.
Additionally, the Scopitone distributors emphasized that this was a
revolutionary entertainment medium in its own right and required special
venues for display
This elitist attitude would come to haunt the industry in a short while.
Trade ads touted Scopitone in this way: "A Scopitone machine attracts
new customers and makes them regulars at your establishment.
Patrons will spend more time at your location increasing their
consumption of food and beverages!" And at 25 cents a pop, for 1964, it
was an expensive entertainment medium. Such a price was tailor-made for
such classy locales.
In its August 21, 1964 issue, Time magazine wrote: "...in some 500 bars,
restaurants, and servicemen's clubs throughout the US, the center of
attention these days is a monstrous new machine called Scopitone.
It is a cross between a jukebox and TV. For $.25 a throw, Scopitone
projects any one of 36 musical movies on a 26 inch screen, flooding the
premises with delicious color and hi-fi scooby-ooby-doo for three whole
minutes. It makes a sobering combination."
At this point, optimism reigned supreme in the world of Scopitone. The
New York Times in 1965 reported of plans to manufacture about 5000
machines, 10000 in 1966 and similar amounts for future years to come.
But by 1967, reports of bad management and mob involvement in the
industry led to grand jury investigations; it soon became evident that
Scopitone was losing money hand over fist.
By 1969, Scopitone had closed its doors for good. What had seemed like a
sure thing only five years before, faded away in a sea of accusations
and murky accounting practices. The fickle American public didn't even
seem to care.
So what was the appeal of the Scopitone videos? In 1964, with the big
introduction to the clubs and restaurants, new American films needed to
come faster than ever. The previous dependence on French videos and
story telling simply could not last to maintain interest here.
Harmon-ee Productions, a subsidiary of a company owned by Debbie
Reynolds, became the main supplier of American films. Debbie herself
starred in the first American Scopitone video, singing "If I Had a
Hammer," the Trini Lopez hit. Later, she covered Gale Garnett's "We'll
Sing in the Sunshine."
In keeping with the strategy of keeping teenagers out of the mix, the
artists viewed on the Scopitone tended toward the lounge acts of the
day- Vic Damone, Julie London- only occasionally a
Bobby Vee or Petula
Clark might surface. But in spite of the seemingly static nature of
these artists, the resulting videos were visually stunning, if not
mystifying with their direction.
If anything set the Scopitone films apart from anything else, it was
their use of eye-popping colors, wild scenery and wilder enthusiastic
girls dancing the Twist, usually in bikinis, in the backgrounds as the
singers performed in the craziest of places- on trains, in the woods, in
cars, on carnival rides.
In many cases, what was filmed didn't seem to make sense in the context
of the song- for example,
Dion singing "Ruby Baby" while seated in the
cockpit of an obviously stationary airplane on a runway or Dionne
Warwick singing "Walk on By" while lying seductively on a white bear
Some of these films have been described as risque, even by our standards
today, not surprising, considering their French lineage and their appeal
to cocktail lounges and clubs where "sophisticated" gentlemen could be
found. In an age when Playboy magazine was redefining the American male,
is it any wonder then that certain Scopitones would gravitate towards a
more permissive point of view?
Jack Stevenson, who wrote a definitive article on Scopitones, stated,
"...people were reduced to decoration. They were lip-synchers, gyrating
dolls and puppets and mannequins." It was a hypnotic effect and for
those three minutes, it was riveting.
The Scopitone may have gone the way of the dinosaur but many remain
safely in collectors' hands. And you can still find one out there,
though you may have to travel a bit to find it. The
Belcourt Theatre in
Nashville, Tennessee has what they've termed "the last public Scopitone
in America" in its lobby.
It has embraced the Scopitone so much that it recently held a
Scopitone-themed membership drive, complete with "fashion contests,
nonstop Scopitones and '60s-themed food and drink." Just the thing if
you're in a groovy, kitschy mood.
And while it's not the same as seeing it on the real thing, many
Scopitone films are available online and on DVD collections. Just try a
Google search on the word. You'll be delighted with what you see.
About the author:
David Galassie is a human resources specialist in Columbia, SC. When not
writing in his free time, he pursues genealogy, Wisconsin history, and
comic book collecting. A frequent contributor to Rewind the Fifties, he
has been published online in The Comic Book Electronic Magazine, Long
Story Short, and in print in Good Old Days Specials magazine.