I'm trying to convince my son that his generation did not invent music videos. I remember in the 1960s going to bars in New York that had juke boxes with video screens. It was 40 years ago, but I swear I watched Neil Sedaka sing "Calendar Girl" on one of these things.
-- Old Dad, Chula Vista
And exactly how old did you feel when the kid said, "Neil who? "You're right about the video jukes of the 1960s, but I suspect your son isn't going to be very impressed by Sedaka, or Bobby Vee, or Kay Starr, or Vic Damone-- some of the pop stars who made these three-minute films. Scopitone was the best known producer and the name given to the jukeboxes and the films themselves. Actually, the idea went back to the 30s and 40s, with small-screen music films called Soundies available in bars and restaurants, made by the likes of Billy Eckstine and Louis Armstrong.
Scopitone video jukeboxes originated in France in the 1950s, where they often featured sexy femmes dancing to the recorded tunes. A group of investors (including Francis Ford Coppola) bought the U.S. rights; Debbie Reynolds's company handled the production; and a guy who turned out to have Mafia ties got bars and other likely locations to install the machines. Not surprisingly, their first release was by Reynolds herself: "If I Had a Hammer," backed by a glittery, three-tiered set and a full-out Broadway production. And if that didn't make you want another drink, I guess nothing would.
Reynolds's production company wrangled Paul Anka, Nancy Sinatra, Petula Clark, and Dion (sans Belmonts) into lip-synching to their hits. A virtually unknown Procol Harum laid down "Whiter Shade of Pale"; Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Crazy Horse (before it was Crazy Horse, without Young) can also be seen on Scopitones. Performances were shot in 35mm (many of them in Technicolor, with performers in garish costumes on spectacular sets), and then the master was reduced to 16mm, with a magnetic strip to hold the sound. Spools of these films fit into a huge, heavy, box-like player with a 26-inch screen, and for 25 cents you got one song.
Scopitone trivia: Claude Lelouche directed one of Petula Clark's recording sessions; Robert Altman directed one for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass; and Coppola suffered the first of a lifetime of major financial setbacks when Scopitone went bust in the late 60s. The company succumbed to its many logistical problems, to a change in musical tastes, and to the fall-out from Bobby Kennedy's hunt for Mafia influence in American business. Today, Scopitone collectors haunt eBay looking for old reels, and some of the films have been assembled into theatrical shorts that occasionally appear at small movie houses. And I still say the MTV kid will be totally unimpressed.