By Bob Orlowsky
My first encounter with Scopitone came about during the course of a joyride with out-of-state friends in in the summer of 1971. As evening fell they thought it would be amusing to leave me by the side of an unfamiliar suburban road in Connecticut, as a test of character. This sounds like the opening scene of a film noir or a creature feature, but instead I found myself in a roadside soda fountain filled with teenagers eating ice cream and watching dancers move on the screen of an unusually big jukebox. (Thinking back, it was more like Back to the Future than A Nightmare on Elm Street.) What I saw certainly wasn’t the kind of cinema I’d been taught at Columbia University. Although I didn’t know at the time that I was witnessing the last gasp of a proto-music video delivery system, I never forgot the user-driven access to movies that the machine provided, nor the mysterious mechanical sounds—the shuffling and gentle banging noises—it made as its hidden film collection moved around inside. By the time I came upon the Scopitone again, over 30 years later, it was like something I’d only dreamed about had come true. In today’s digital culture, when easy access to moving images on mobile devices is taken for granted, the oversized physicality and analog functionality of the Scopitone makes it an appealing museum object. The fact that it also represents a pioneering effort to bring commercial cinema out of theaters and put it into the hands of consumers in alternative ways and in public spaces only adds to its significance in an institution dedicated to the exhibition of both classical film and new media. That evening in 1971, the first Scopitone film I saw was Pussycat A-Go-Go, with Stacy Adams, and it pleases me that visitors can still see this short as it was meant to be seen at MoMA. – Ron Magliozzi, Associate Curator, Department of Film
One of the first things a visitor to Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye will notice—if only because of its sheer bulk—is MoMA’s own Scopitone ST-36 film jukebox, which Museum staff sometimes refers to as “The Robot.” This refrigerator-sized behemoth, in eye-catching red and silver, was designed in France in 1963 and first imported to the U.S. in 1964. It’s an astonishing Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that contains 36 separate reels of 16mm color sound film on a rotating carousel that can be individually selected and projected via a series of mirrors to a 26-inch screen at the top. The films that it shows are unmistakably what we think of today as music videos—but on film, and nearly 20 years before MTV. As one of the first devices that allowed viewers to choose what to watch, when to watch it, and how often to watch it, it is not only an ancestor to MTV but to YouTube, as well.
The Museum acquired its machine in 2007 from Dick Hack, the world’s last remaining Scopitone repairman (and an expert on mechanical music machines of all types). Thanks to Hack’s meticulous restoration, MoMA’s Scopitone looks brand new and still plays as well as it did in 1964. To keep it in top shape, MoMA fires up the machine only once a week, on Friday evenings at 5:45 p.m. As far as we know, this is the only original working Scopitone machine currently on public display anywhere in the world, although there is a modified machine at Third Man Records in Nashville that plays modern music videos. (Please let us know if you know of any other Scopitone machines that still show films to the public!)
I’ve talked about the history of Scopitone at several of the Friday screenings and it has been such a kick to watch the reactions of the crowd. For most of the visitors who attend these screenings, it is likely to be the first time they have ever seen a Scopitone machine in action. The younger visitors may be familiar with Scopitone films from seeing them on YouTube, but some have told me how surprised they are by the impact of seeing and hearing the films in their original context on the machine. (The films have magnetic soundtracks for enhanced sound fidelity in glorious mono.) The older visitors are even more fun to watch because they often have a puzzled look that says, “Wait, this is my era, why don’t I remember this?”
The reason for the confusion is that the Scopitone era in the United States was quite brief. The machine was introduced in the U.S. in mid-1964 to great fanfare. In July 1964, an article in The New Yorker described it as “the hottest bar attraction we’ve seen in some time” and mentioned that celebrities like Helena Rubenstein and Hoagy Carmichael were coming to see it. Stars like Dean Martin, Betty Grable, Ray Bolger, and James Darren attended its Las Vegas and Los Angeles debuts. A Hollywood film company owned by Debbie Reynolds was hired to make films in Technicolor for the machine. By February 1965, sales of Tel-a-Sign, Inc., the American manufacturer of the Scopitone machine, had doubled over the previous year, and more than 1,000 machines were said to be on location in the U.S. by the summer of 1965.
The internal workings of the ST-36. Video by Jim McDonnell
In April 1966, however, The Wall Street Journal published a long article about a federal grand jury investigation that the paper said was “understood to be related to whether hoodlums have succeeded in taking over or intimidating some of the independent franchised concerns that distribute Scopitone machines; or whether unsavory Cosa Nostra henchmen had a financial stake in an intermediate company that was interposed between Tel-A-Sign and Cameca Corp., the French company that developed the device.” Sales plummeted and Tel-A-Sign went into bankruptcy in August of 1967. The Scopitone era was largely over in the U.S., only three years after it had begun.
Nearly 50 years later, however, the films are still entertaining the audiences that are lucky enough to see them. What kind of music can you see and hear on Scopitone? The French films are a who’s who of French pop music in the 1960s, with films featuring stars like Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, and Charles Aznavour, many of them directed by Oscar-winning director Claude Lelouch at the dawn of his career. The American films, in eye-popping Technicolor, are a time capsule of early 1960s Las Vegas lounge acts, pre-Beatles-era pop styles, and pre-feminist social attitudes, with stars like Neil Sedaka, Lesley Gore, Brook Benton, and Buddy Greco featured in bizarre scenarios conjured up by the wildly inventive director/choreographer Hal Belfer. Come to MoMA some Friday evening and see for yourself!
Bob Orlowsky will be talking about the history of Scopitone, and showing an assortment of Scopitone films on the Museum’s Scopitone ST-36, on Friday, November 13, 5:45–6:45 p.m., in the Making Music Modern exhibition on the third floor.
Read more here:: See and Hear Your Favorite Stars on Scopitone!