Do you remember the Scopitone?


Music Videos are nothing new

Back in the summer of 1965 when I was 15,  while walking near the corner of Brooks and Washington Street E,   I noticed two unusual looking guys wheeling-in tall machines from a big truck right behind the "Corner Lounge" on Washington Street at Brooks.  The Corner Lounge was your standard beer joint but a little more upscale.  Later, a gas station would be built on it's spot.  On Brooks Street behind the lounge was an empty storefront.  This is where I saw the machines being delivered.  


The guys unloading the machines were your typical New Yorkers (spelled MOB) and wore all black with white ties.  They had black leather coats and one wore a black leather Pork-Pie hat.  One guy was short and looked just like Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas" and "Casino".  The other was a tall guy that resembled Sylvester Stalone.

So I walk up to them and ask "what kind of machine is that?"  They precede to tell me it's a "Scopitone":  A juke-box that you can actually SEE the person singing the song!   Now,  as this machine had only been in the country for about a year,  it was a pretty big deal to have them in Charleston!  One of the guys said "Co-mere... I'll show you how it works".  We go inside where he had one plugged up,  and he chooses a song, and there was Bobby-Vee singing "The night has a thousand eyes"!.   Oh sure,  the song was a little old but I SAW HIM SINGING IT!   I watched several more songs and was so amazed that I asked them if I could have a job helping deliver these machines all over the area. They hired me on the spot,  and I helped lug those things all over town.  I still remember dragging one up a bunch of steps on Rt 35 in Putnam County at a truck stop.   

This part time job only lasted the summer because by the following year,  there probably wasn't a Scopitone to be found in the state.  Between the problems concerning Hollywood and the film production,  not to mention the music rights.... it seems as though the East Coast Mob had pulled some shenanigans that the Feds didn't approve of.  So ended the Scopitone just as quickly as it had started.  Of course,  it wouldn't have lasted very long in my opinion due to several factors: 1... it cost a Quarter to play a song when records were 3 for a Quarter.  2... How many people want to actually stare at a relatively small screen while drinking beer with their friends?  3... Technology would advance from film to other media that would do the same thing for much less.  Fact is that didn't happen due to 1,2 and 3.

I have a pretty good collection of Scopitone films on my computer.  These better ones don't seem to be on the internet yet.  But even the best ones were filmed very cheaply, and in many cases laughable if not for the history itself.  If you want to see what's available on the Net,  just go to YouTube and type in Scopitone.  Most of the results will be French (where Scopitone started) but you'll see some that were made in the U.S. also.

Here are typical Scopitone films that I watched:

Nancy Sinatra

And Bobby Vee

Here's the inside of a Scopitone


If you're interested in the Scopitone,  here's more reading:


Scopitone films are the 1960s ancestors of today's music videos. They were distributed on color 16mm film with a magnetic soundtrack, and were made to be shown on a Scopitone film jukebox. The first Scopitones were made in France in 1960, and the Scopitone craze spread throughout Europe (particularly in West Germany and England) before crossing the Atlantic to the United States in mid-1964. By the end of the 1960s, they were gone.

In its August 21, 1964 issue, Time magazine wrote: " 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 cents 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.


See more great Scopitone video's here:



This is the Panoram


Panoram was the trademark name of a visual jukebox that played music accompanied by a synched, filmed image (the effect being the equivalent of today's music videos) popular within the United States during the 1940s. The device consisted of a jukebox playing a closed-loop 16mm film reel projected onto a glass screen.

The Panoram is now best known for the vast library of short, three-minute music videos that were created for it. Called soundies, these films featured most of the great musical stars of the period, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway. Many of the filmed interludes survive and are considered a priceless archive.

The Panoram was priced more than $10,000 in 2006 dollars. It was generally seen in bars, cafes, and upscale dancing establishments where they ran as a curiosity. Following World War II, the device never recovered its previous popularity due to competition from television.



Scopitone Blog with video

History of the Scopitone



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