Old Collectible Jukeboxes          

Scoptione - The Visual Jukebox

by David Galassie

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 public.

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 rug.

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.





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