Scopitone: '60s Music Videos You've Never Seen

September 22nd, 2011

Before MTV, and long before we could stream music videos on our cell phones, mid-1960s American hepcats gathered around 500-pound, 7-foot-high contraptions to watch 16-millimeter Technicolor films of B-list pop stars gyrating to their latest hits. The contraption in question was usually a Scopitone, one of several audio-visual jukeboxes found primarily in bars. Their reign, if you can even call it that, was brief, and by the end of the decade, the novelty of these then-high-tech devices had faded entirely.

Bob Orlowsky, a “recovering attorney” who runs a site called Scopitone Archive, collects the films that were the software for these machines. He was not one of the leisure-suited swells pictured in the Scopitone advertisements of the day. “I first heard about Scopitones in the early 1980s,” he recalls, “when I saw a broken machine at Busvan for Bargains in San Francisco. The films listed on the machine sounded intriguing, but I never got to see any of them until much later. They were kind of hard to track down in the pre-Internet days.”

Then, along came eBay. “I had sort of forgotten about Scopitone until I noticed somebody selling a bootleg videotape of Scopitone films. This was in 1998, maybe ’99. I bought it, got hooked, and started collecting the original films.”

When the French Scopitone (top) was introduced in the United States, a Chicago company called Tel-a-Sign redesigned the machine's exterior (above) but left the mechanical insides almost the same.

When the French Scopitone (top) was introduced in the United States, a Chicago company called Tel-a-Sign redesigned the machine’s exterior (above) but left the mechanical insides almost the same.

A self-described “music hound,” Orlowsky was particularly interested in footage of performers whose heyday was before his time. “Scopitones were like this secret treasure trove of films from early rock ’n’ roll and the Vegas lounge era,” he says. In fact, Orlowsky was more familiar with the precursor to the Scopitone than he was with the Scopitone itself.

“Of the American films shot in Technicolor, the color is as good today as the day it was made.”

“During World War II,” says Orlowsky, “people watched ‘soundies’ on a machine called the Panoram, which was made by the Mills Company. It looked much like a Scopitone, with a self-contained 16-millimeter film unit inside and a little screen on top. The films were in black and white, but the real big difference was that you couldn’t select the film you wanted to see. They ran on a continuous loop wheel of, I think, eight films. You just put in your money and got whatever was next in line.”

Not surprisingly, given these limitations, the Panoram disappeared right after the war. “For a long time, there wasn’t anything like that on the market. Then in 1959 and 1960, two different machines came out, one in Italy and one in France. The French one was the Scopitone.”

The visual concept was cemented early. “The films were generally three-minutes long, during which a popular song was acted out in some sort of fanciful way. There was usually a plot, or at least something creative going on other than just pointing a camera at a stage. Compared to the ‘soundies’, the Scopitones were pretty eccentric.”

A Scopitone-like machine made it onto the pages of "Archie." The video jukebox might have survived if it had featured acts like The Beatles, as this panel suggests.

A Scopitone-like machine made it onto the pages of “Archie.” The video jukebox might have survived if it had featured acts like The Beatles, as this panel suggests.

Scopitone films were deliberately exotic, designed to appeal to a target audience of men on the prowl in bars. “They had to grab people’s attention from across a room,” Orlowsky says. “They are the only type of film I can think of that’s produced for people who aren’t watching them. In general, nobody is choosing to look at the Scopitone machine. They’re mostly guys hanging out in a bar. The wild colors, suggestive dances, and bikini girls in the films were supposed to distract men from their drinking long enough to put more money into the machine to see what else might be in there.”

One Scopitone classic is Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” “That’s the first one I always show people,” says Orlowsky. “It’s just Neil in an ever-changing assortment of dinner jackets surrounded by a bunch of Las Vegas showgirls in very elaborate costumes, each themed for a different month of the year. It was guaranteed to get people’s attention in a bar in 1965. It’s just delightful.”

Another favorite of Orlowsky’s is Joi Lansing’s “Web of Love.” “Lansing was a fairly successful TV actress in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “She was on ‘Love That Bob’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ But she is mostly known today, I think, for her Scopitone films. She was quite beautiful, extremely well endowed, and from today’s perspective had this almost drag-queen persona. In ‘Web of Love,’ she’s caught in a giant spider web, boiled in a witch doctor’s cauldron, and chased by snakes. It’s about as over the top as you can get, but it’s also really entertaining.”

Adding to the exotic look of Scopitone films was the fact that most of the ones made in the United States were shot in Technicolor. “That’s why they’re so colorful even today. Technicolor doesn’t fade over time.”

When Scopitones were introduced to the U.S. in 1964, there were actually no American films for the machines. “I can’t imagine any business doing that today,” says Orlowsky. “It seems unwise, to say the least, to launch a big product in the U.S. that only plays French films. So once Scopitone got a toehold here, they looked around for a company to make films in America. They settled on Harman-ee Productions.”

An investment for Debbie Reynolds, the films made by Harman-ee Productions were the vision of Hal Belfer, who was known in Hollywood for his choreography. “He choreographed the Elvis film ‘Kissing Cousins,’ ‘Don’t Knock the Twist’ with Chubby Checker, and ‘Meet Danny Wilson’ with Frank Sinatra. He had a very eccentric visual imagination, and his vision is what makes the Technicolor Scopitones so unusual.”

Debbie Reynolds, who was the main investor behind the company that produced Technicolor films for Scopitones, contributed standards, as did a curvy chanteuse named January Jones.

Debbie Reynolds, who was the main investor behind the company that produced Technicolor films for Scopitones, contributed standards, as did a curvy chanteuse named January Jones.

Unlike the films made for Scopitones in France, which featured the biggest French pop stars of the day, American Scopitones needed gimmicks like Technicolor and jiggling bikini girls to survive. “In France,” Orlowsky says, “people went to the cafes specifically to watch the Scopitone. You had Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Vartan, Francoise Hardy, Claude Francois, France Gall; these were all people with top-10 hits in France. You also had artists from the older generation, like Charles Aznavour. So there was teen stuff as well as accordion instrumentals, which, based on the number of Scopitone accordion films that were made, were apparently hugely popular. But in the United States, you didn’t have Frank Sinatra; you had Frank Sinatra Jr., or women in bikinis singing middle-of-the-road standards. It just didn’t have the same star quality.”

“From today’s perspective, Joi Lansing had this almost drag-queen persona.”

Scopitones in America had another strike against them—rumored links to the Mob. “It was alleged that members of the Mafia in Miami had invested in the U.S. Scopitones at a very early stage; the goal was to sell their stake to somebody once the machines became successful in order to make a lot of money. It sounds almost like a legitimate investment scheme, but I don’t know what the truth of the matter really was. There were Grand Jury hearings and charges were filed, but they were eventually dismissed; apparently, there were problems with the wiretaps that made it difficult to prosecute anybody. Whether they were involved in it or not, I have no idea, and there was no allegation that Tel-a-Sign, the maker of the machines, or Debbie Reynolds was involved. But once word about the alleged Mob connection got out, that was the kiss of death for Scopitone in America.”

Surprisingly, the one thing that worked relatively well was the machine itself. “The French model, of which there were maybe 5,000 made, was supposedly more reliable than the American model, which numbered only 700 or so,” says Orlowsky. “Some people say they were all really quite reliable and surprisingly sturdy, given all the moving parts in them, but I collect the films, I don’t have any of the machines, so I don’t really know.”

Above all, Scopitone films were designed to catch the eyes of men in bars, who were the appliance's target audience.

Above all, Scopitone films were designed to catch the eyes of men in bars, who were the appliance’s target audience.

Dick Hack knows. As the owner of Hack Mechanical Music, he’s repaired player pianos, nickelodeons, jukeboxes, music boxes, and Scopitones, perhaps 30 of which have passed through his hands. “The French machines were brought into this country first,” he says, “then the Tel-a-Sign company in Chicago decided they were going to manufacture machines here. Their machines were somewhat similar in operation to the French machines, but there were some differences. One is as easy to repair as the other.”

The differences were mostly cosmetic. “The French machine is all Formica and chrome. The American machine is covered in a vinyl wrap. It looks like a 1960s bar, sort of a walnut with black arches. The typical problem with the American machines is that they have been stored in unheated warehouses. They were made of non-exterior-grade pressed wood. When that swells up, the vinyl starts peeling off, and you wind up with a real mess. The French machines hold up a lot better.”

What the machines had in common was their ability to play 36 films, any of which could be selected by the customer. “The machines have a carousel in them,” says Hack, “and there are two levels to the carousel. Each film has a take-up reel and a feed reel. So there are actually 72 reels in each machine. Half of them are on the upper tier, and half of them are on the lower. The films are all threaded from the bottom to the top, so the top is the take-up spool. When you make a selection, the whole carousel rotates and then the film is loaded into the projector. I guess there’s probably 2 feet of exposed film.”

The inside workings of a Scopitone machine show how the films were mounted on a carousel, which rotated until the consumer's selection was aligned with the projector.

The inside workings of a Scopitone machine show how the films were mounted on a carousel, which rotated until the consumer’s selection was aligned with the projector.

Looking at the guts of a Scopitone, you’d think all that exposed film would be an engineering nightmare, but not so. “Scopitone films came on a plastic reel that you just loaded into the machine,” Hack says. “The films rewound automatically. In fact, you could play another selection before the first one was finished rewinding. The rewinder clamped onto the film and then followed the carousel around. It would continue to rewind while the carousel was rotating to the next selection so there wouldn’t be any lost time.”

Another difference between the U.S., and French machines was its amplifier. “The French machine has a tube amplifier in it, which was probably one of the last technologies of tube amplifiers around because solid state was coming in about that time. The American machine’s amplifier is solid state. One works about as well as the other, although I think I actually prefer the tube amplifier. It’s a toss-up.”

The biggest difference between the French and U.S. Scopitones, though, had nothing to do with the machines themselves. “There were French films and American films,” says Hack. “The French films were not Technicolor, so the color has faded on those. Of the American films shot in Technicolor, the color is as good today as the day it was made, in my opinion. But they only made around 74 American films, and I think a half-dozen of those were not Technicolor. So you can see why the machine probably wasn’t much of a success here, since there were only 74 American productions. There were hundreds of French films, but they were all in French.”

Scopitone film collector Bob Orlowsky poses between a U.S. Scopitone (left) and a Panoram (right), both owned by Dick Hack.

Scopitone film collector Bob Orlowsky poses between a U.S. Scopitone (left) and a Panoram (right), both owned by Dick Hack.

According to Hack, a fully restored Scopitone machine will cost a collector about $6,000. That includes 36 films, half in Technicolor and half in French. “You can buy unrestored machines for quite a bit less,” he says, “but they take an awful lot of work to get them to a point where you could call them reliable.”

“Scopitones were like this secret treasure trove of films from early rock ’n’ roll and the Vegas lounge era.”

Probably that’s why Orlowsky sticks to the films themselves. “From a collector’s standpoint,” he says, “it’s perfectly legal to collect the 16-millimeter films that were produced for these machines. You just can’t make digital copies of them and sell them. It’s the same thing with buying a book. You can own a book, and you can sell that book after you’ve read it, but you can’t print more copies.”

The rights around Scopitone, says Orlowsky, are especially complicated for the American films. “With the French films, it’s perfectly clear who owns them. They’re still under copyright as far as I know, and anybody who does some research can figure out whom to talk to. But the American films? Tel-a-Sign went bankrupt in the late ’60s, so tracking down the title of who owned the films after that is an expensive proposition.

“It’s also pretty clear,” he continues, “that Debbie Reynolds didn’t have much interest in these films. People have tried to interview her about this stuff for years, but she’s never expressed any interest in it. She lost a lot of money when Tel-a-Sign went bankrupt, and I think she would prefer to put that behind her. According to her autobiography, Scopitone was not her only bad investment.”

(Images from Scopitone Archive, Hack Mechanical Music, and Scopitones.com)

7 comments so far

  1. Charlie Perry Says:

    I remember seeing a film that a high school teacher found in the audio visual room and showed our class. It was the Zager And Evans – In The Year 2525–sound track with striking film clips or slide show of thought provoking scenes.
    I have searched for it everywhere and just now wondered if it might have been made by Scopitone–the year would have been right around 1969.
    ???
    Charlie

  2. Phil Morris Says:

    I saw one of these go up in 1984 at a small auction, before the auction started they were playing the wonderful videos and I was shocked how great they all were. The machine sold for 400 dollars, Canadian.

  3. Hunter Mann Says:

    This is such a great website! I hope more people can explore the wonders and cool films that Scopitone brought to the world.
    Cheers to Bob Orlowsky for his enthusiasm, many years devoted to Scopitonality, and the impressive knowledge bank he has for the legendary Scopitones!

  4. Dennis James Says:

    I recently purchased 2 scopitone machines…they are french made but have been in the U.S. for many decades…..is there any repair info on these anywhere???? I would like to make one good one out of the 2….they both appear complete mechanically….help!!!

  5. john e Says:

    This is hysterical. How much for a working Scopitone machine? Can I call it educational and add it to my collection?

    http://www.retroedtech.com

  6. Roland charpentier Says:

    In 1965 I saw a music-video machine at the Tokyo Japan USO, and I played it.
    My choice was the song. Locomotion, in English the video had a girl riding on the front of a train singing the locomotion as it went down the tracks. There is a French version of this on the web. Does anyone have info on the English version I remember. My web is vistabigguy@aol.com. Thanks

  7. mark morgan Says:

    great machine do you know anything about 16mm films in metal 3 1/2in can with the label music hall varieties property of official films inc 776 grand ave ridgefield n.j. return on completion of contract i thought they might be out of some machine trying to find out . i have not seen any yet i cant find a 16mm projector any information on these please e mail mark lall4@verizon.net


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