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Soundies were three-minute American musical films, produced between 1940 and 1947, each containing a song, dance, and/or band or orchestral number. Produced professionally on 35mm black-and-white film, like theatrical motion pictures, they were printed in the more portable and economical 16mm gauge.
The films were shown in a coin-operated "movie jukebox" called the Panoram, manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. Each Panoram housed a 16mm RCA film projector, with eight Soundies films threaded in an endless-loop arrangement. A system of mirrors flashed the image from the lower half of the cabinet onto a front-facing screen in the top half. Each film cost 10 cents to play, and there was no choice of song; the patron saw whatever film was next in the queue. Panorams could be found in public amusement centers, nightclubs, taverns, restaurants, and factory lounges, and the films were changed weekly. The completed Soundies were generally made available within a few weeks of their filming, by the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America.
Several production companies filmed the Soundies shorts in New York, Hollywood, and Chicago: James Roosevelt's Globe Productions (1940-41), Cinemasters (1940-41), Minoco Productions (owned by Mills Novelty, 1941-43), RCM Productions (1941-46), LOL Productions (1943), Glamourettes (1943), Filmcraft Productions (1943-46), and Alexander Productions (1946). The performers would record the music in advance, and mime to the soundtrack during filming.
The movie-jukebox idea spawned several imitations and variations of the technical design; the most successful of these imitators were the Techniprocess company (led by Rudy Vallee) and the Featurettes company, which used original novelty songs and usually unknown talent (17-year-old Gwen Verdon appears in a couple of the Featurettes, as "Gwen Verdun"). As Soundies quickly became the market leader for jukebox films, the other companies disbanded, and some sold their films to the Soundies concern.
Soundies emphasized variety from the very beginning: the first three bandleaders who signed up for Soundies were the boogie-woogie specialist Will Bradley, the established pop maestro Vincent Lopez, and the Hawaiian singer-leader Ray Kinney. Soundies covered all genres of music, from classical to big-band swing, and from hillbilly novelties to patriotic songs. Jimmy Dorsey, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Louis Jordan, Spike Jones, Stan Kenton, Kay Starr, Cyd Charisse, Les Brown, The Hoosier Hot Shots, Martha Tilton, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, Sally Rand, Nick Lucas, Gene Krupa, Anita O'Day, Jimmie Dodd, Merle Travis, and Lawrence Welk were a few of the Soundies stars. Many stars of the future made appearances in Soundies at the beginning of their careers, including Ricardo Montalban, Liberace, Doris Day, Alan Ladd, and Yvonne DeCarlo. Two breakout stars were singers Gale Storm and Dorothy Dandridge.
Many nightclub and recording artists also made Soundies, including Gloria Parker, Hildegarde, Charles Magnante, Milton DeLugg, and Gus Van. More than 1800 Soundies mini-musicals were made, many of which have been released on home video.
Beginning in 1941, Soundies experimented with expanding its format, and filmed comedy Soundies with Our Gang star Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Broadway comic Willie Howard, dialect comedians Smith and Dale, and silent-movie comedians The Keystone Kops. Most of these films were non-musical, and were not as well received as the musical Soundies. Soundies abandoned the comedy-sketch idea, but continued to produce filmed versions of comic novelty songs. They were regularly described and reviewed in the entertainment and music trade publications, such as Billboard.
The Soundies were a runaway success during its first year, making millions of dollars (in dimes). In the days before television, the concept of seeing as well as hearing musical artists was very attractive. The company was headed for even more success when World War II intervened, and the federal government restricted the use of rubber and precious metals. This meant that Mills Novelty could no longer build and sell Panoram machines, and had to confine its activities to keeping the existing projectors supplied with films. The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America remained active until 1947. With commercial television just around the corner, the Soundies machines and films became obsolete. The library of 1,800 Soundies films was sold to home-movie companies Castle Films and Official Films, then to syndicated television, and ultimately to home video (via England's Charly Records).
Today Soundies are perhaps best known for preserving rare performances of African-American artists who had fewer opportunities to perform in films. Artists such as The Ink Spots, Fats Waller,Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Dorothy Dandridge, Big Joe Turner, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, The Mills Brothers, Herb Jeffries, Cab Calloway, Meade Lux Lewis, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Stepin Fetchit all made Soundies (some of which were excerpted from longer theatrical films).
In 1958, the Soundies concept was revived by the French company Cameca as Scopitone. Similar to Soundies, Scopitones were short music films played on a specially designed coin-operated jukebox, but with new technical improvements: color and high-fidelity sound. Scopitones were printed on color 16mm film [often in premium-quality Technicolor) with magnetic sound instead of Soundies' optical sound.
By the mid-1960s Scopitone jukeboxes had spread across England and the United States. Many well-known American and French pop music acts of the '60s made Scopitone films such as The Exciters, Debbie Reynolds, Vic Damone, Dalida, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Procol Harum, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Vartan, Brook Benton, Ray Anthony, Gale Garnett, Buddy Greco, Tommy James & the Shondells, Della Reese, Bobby Rydell, Petula Clark, Bobby Vee, Lou Christie, The Shadows, Jody Miller, Kay Starr, Dionne Warwick, Jane Morgan, Nancy Sinatra, Françoise Hardy, and Julie London. The Scopitone lasted until the end of the decade.