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The Scopitone films that time forgot

Two local collectors are putting on their second annual event dedicated to the passé precursors to contemporary music videos.

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About 15 years ago, vernacular photo collector Nicholas Osborn was rummaging through a flea market in Wisconsin when he came across a bunch of 16-millimeter reels. They featured kitschy performances by B-list 1960s music acts, formatted in a way that resembled the modern music video: one was of singer-songwriter duo Dick and Dee Dee poorly lip-synching their tune "Where Did All the Good Times Go" while a bevy of scantily clad dancers moved clumsily behind them on the Santa Monica Pier; another captured platinum-blonde model Joi Lansing singing the torch song "Web of Love" while ensnared in a giant spiderweb.

Osborn was fascinated by what was on the reels, but he was equally delighted with their quality. "They were obviously directly from a distributor, so they were pristine and in perfect condition," he says from west-suburban Brookfield, where the items are stored. "And they were shot in Technicolor, so the films were stunning to look at. The colors were so vibrant, they just popped."

What Osborn found was a collection of three-minute films that were originally played in Scopitone jukeboxes, which for a brief time in the mid-1960s were a staple of American taverns and pool halls. He now owns about 60 reels, and with the help of his friend and fellow vernacular photo collector Ron Slattery will showcase the best of them at the second annual Scopitone Party at Comfort Station in Logan Square. It's part of the Vernacular Photography Festival, a 23-day show curated by Slattery that kicked off on June 10. The Scopitone show will last somewhere between one and two hours, and based on the response to last year's screenings, there should be a good turnout.

"We had to turn people away [last year]," Slattery says. "Young crowds go crazy over them."

The Scopitone films are descendants of the better-known "soundies," musical shorts distributed in coin-operated jukeboxes called Panorams, which were around in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The production of Panorams was halted during World War II, and the technology didn't resurface until the late 1950s in France, when the CAMCA company (an acronym for Compagnie d'Applications Mecaniques a L'Electronique au Cinema et a l'Atomistique) reproduced the jukebox in a vertical cabinet. CAMCA gave the device its new name, Scopitone, and soon top French pop stars like Juliette Gréco and Johnny Hallyday were being featured in segments for the European market. Miami lawyer Alvin Malnik, reportedly backed by the east-coast Mafia syndicate, brought the jukebox to America in 1963 and soon after partnered with Chicago-based Tel-a-Sign to manufacture it; Tel-a-Sign then contracted with Harman-ee Productions, a company owned by actress Debbie Reynolds, to produce the content.

From the beginning of its time in America, Scopitone had problems. The Wall Street Journal reported on its mob ties in 1966, and the company was sued by the folk group Back Porch Majority for inserting "lewd" shots of dancers in its Scopitone film The Mighty Mississippi. And the machines were constantly breaking down in bars. "They were difficult to keep running," Osborn says, "because they aren't conventional jukeboxes, due to the film factor."

The Scopitone company formally went out of business in 1969, and the jukeboxes disappeared from bars shortly afterward. Today they're collector's items, fetching prices as high as $8,000 on sites like gameroomantiques.com and showcased as museum pieces in places like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Third Man Records, the hip Nashville record emporium owned by Jack White. A vintage Scopitone jukebox, which Slattery currently houses in his cluttered storage space in Brookfield, will make an appearance at the Comfort Station screenings.

Slattery often has problems firing up the 60s-era techno wonder—it makes sputtering, wheezing noises when it's plugged in—but it's still a marvelous-looking device. It stands about seven feet tall, and the lower half of the machine looks like a traditional jukebox, dominated by a huge speaker and an area where a customer can insert a coin and make song selections near the center. On the top of the Scopitone is a 26-inch screen where the shorts are projected. Turn the machine around, open it up, and see how it operates: 36 tiny reels are queued up, side by side; when a customer makes a selection, the chosen film drops into an area where it's threaded and illuminated.

"When it's working, [the jukebox] is a beautiful thing to watch in action," Slattery says. "To hear the mechanism turning, it's just a killer."

But the main attraction, of course, is the films. The closest thing to "celebrities" featured in the Scopitone shorts are R&B singers like Lou Rawls, pop crooners like Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton, and Vic Damone, trumpeter Herb Alpert, and somewhat surprisingly, English progressive-rock band Procol Harum. Yet the performers are overshadowed by the gaudy, eye-popping Technicolor and the well-recorded audio. The Scopitone reels had magnetic soundtracks (most films in the predigital age had optical soundtracks) that give the audio more resonance.

The most noticeable aspect of the Scopitone productions is the straight-male- oriented, 60s-era sex. Invariably, female dancers wearing either bikinis or bra and panties perform period dances like the frug or suggestively thrust and kick toward the camera. Many times, the choreography has no relationship to the song—in Brook Benton's "Mother Nature, Father Time," a medium-tempo R&B ballad, the dancers are shaking and undulating three times faster than the music. "The titillation factor is huge, and part of what makes the Scopitones special" Slattery says. "It's like a blast from the past that you didn't know existed."  v

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