The Story of the Scopitone

Long before MTV, a magical coin-operated box saturated '60s lounges and hotels across America with dazzling moving pictures and popular music. But the story of the forgotten Scopitone-in its time, the most incredible entertainment concept since the television-ended in a dark wave of bad luck and, ultimately, an abrupt disappearance.It wasn't just a new style, sound, or technology; Scopitone was a full-blown cultural phenomenon. The Scopitone movie-jukebox was brashly promoted at its West Coast unveiling in 1964 as a "revolutionary" concept-the most remarkable innovation in entertainment since television-because it combined the best features of music, motion pictures, and television. Yet in spite of the red-hot hype, Scopitone flared out comparatively quickly and today floats free in an outer orbit of America's pop-culture past, looming silent, dust-covered, and forgotten somewhere in the dark alcoves of old warehouses.From Earth it Came The "visual jukebox" was born in 1939 with the invention and placement of the Panoram by Mills Novelty Company in Chicago. This was a wood cabinet jukebox fitted with a 17-by-22 1Ú2-inch translucent screen, upon which the image was rear-screen projected. The Panoram played eight 3-minute musical shorts, which were spooled upon a single reel to play sequentially without requiring rewinding. Suddenly nightclubbers were treated to the thrill of seeing as well as hearing their favorite stars. Hollywood-based Glove Productions produced the 16mm black-and-white films-known as "Soundies"-with an emphasis on big-name jazz acts. Film production stopped when America went to war, and by 1946 the Soundie craze, which had seized the public's imagination and loose change in 1940, was over. The war's end in Europe produced a scarred peace, the tentative beginnings of international reconciliation, and a new world order. It also produced tons of junk. Vast stockpiles of mechanical war surplus had to be scrapped, or converted to peacetime uses. In the spirit of the times, two French technicians began to tinker with the notion of building a visual jukebox out of military surplus stock. They focused on the 16mm camera mechanism, which the French air force had installed in planes for high altitude reconnaissance, and reconverted it into a 16mm projector. Not until the late '50s was the project finished to satisfaction. There were two major improvements over the Mills Panoram; color film could now be screened, and the customer could choose specific selections instead of being limited to whatever appeared next on the reel. These revolutionary breakthroughs gave the jukebox the impact of a new invention. The strange-looking thing was christened "Scopitone." The French company that developed this new movie-juke had a name straight out of Jules Verne: Compagnie d'Applications Mecaniques a l'Electronique au Cinema et a l'Atomistique (CAMCA). CAMCA was a subsidiary of the giant Paris electronics firm CSF, often referred to as "the RCA of Europe." Early in 1960, CAMCA readied its first model, the ST-16, for the European market. The base of the ST-16 had a squat, bottom-heavy appearance that incorporated a classic '50s design. The pyramid-shaped "neck," which jutted up from the selection panel to hold the detachable 26-inch viewing screen, resembled a robot's profile rather than a jukebox. The Scopitone ST-16 was a success for CAMCA, but despite the pan-European appeal of French pop stars in the early '60s, and the filming of some Spanish, German (Viva Bach, The Kessler Sisters), and English-language (Paul Anka, Dion) acts, Scopitone never became as popular in other European countries as it was in France. In 1962, CAMCA introduced its second model, a sleeker version that they dubbed the ST-36.Invasion U.S.A. In 1963, word about this amazing new movie-jukebox filtered to America. The idea had a strong profit-making potential, and the timing seemed right. By the late '50s, the jukebox and slot-machine trades were threatened by the swelling popularity of television; people opted to stay home instead of going out to arcades and nightspots. A new invention was needed to pick the American public up by their heels and shake the coins out of their pockets. Scopitone looked like the answer, and a number of U.S. businessmen investigated licensing possibilities with CAMCA. The eventual winner was a 28-year-old Miami attorney named Alvin I. Malnik. Malnik formed Scopitone Inc., and brought in 11 co-investors to provide the fledgling company with working capital. Among the 11 were Irving Kaye, a Brooklyn billiard equipment manufacturer, and Abe Green, a New York City slot-machine baron whose documented links with mob figures would lator surface to hex Scopitone horribly. For the moment, though, everything looked good. Too good. Malnik paid CAMCA either $33,000 or $5,000 (both figures are cited in published reports) and royalties for the U.S. and Latin American rights to Scopitone. The contraptions proved so popular that they prompted many requests for installations, and Malnik-who never had any desire to get into production or distribution-turned to Wall Street for advice. A broker put him in contact with Aaron A. Steiger of Tel-A-Sign, a Chicago-based manufacturer of large illuminated plastic signs for retail outlets. Tel-A-Sign was shopping for an auxiliary product, and Scopitone appeared made-to-order. Tel-A-Sign bought an 80-percent interest in Malnik's company, and Scopitone Inc. became a subsidiary of Tel-A-Sign, with Malnik continuing on as president.They are among us On May 12, 1964, Variety weighed in favorably on Scopitone's West Coast debut. At this point, 250 Scopitones were in operation in the U.S., concentrated in the Northeast and the Miami and Miami Beach areas. All were ST-36 models imported from France playing French-produced films which Variety lauded for their "jet-paced editing, exceptionally vivid color, and generally top-drawer production values." No one could dispute the novelty value and initial draw of the machines, but it soon became clear that Scopitone would be doomed without the introduction of American films. These French productions,which Variety praised too generously, would not indefinitely hold the interest of American coin-poppers, no matter how frequently pretty mademoiselles flashed bikini-clad flesh or lacy underwear. Moreover, even the top French pop acts of the period had virtually no recognition value or record sales in America, and the more obscure, marginal acts came across as a peculiar novelty. Tel-A-Sign begun hunting for an American production source in Hollywood. From the outset, Tel-A-Sign tried to avoid direct competition with the long-established and territorial jukebox industry. The company staunchly maintained that Scopitone was never a competitor to the jukebox, but rather a new entertainment medium. In any case, Scopitone aimed for a more mature audience; the 25¢ price of a play was expensive at the time, so Scopitone targeted classy resort hotels, cocktail lounges, and downtown restaurants that were off-limits to underagers and therefore had little use for jukeboxes. Yet Scopitone's bread-and-butter was a wide variety of locations, from bars, bowling alleys, diners, and bus and train terminals to dormitories, servicemen's clubs, and even offshore oil drilling rigs and logging camp canteens. "A Scopitone machine attracts new customers," sang a trade blurb, "and makes them 'regulars' at your establishment. Patrons will spend more time at your location increasing their consumption of food and beverages!"The jukebox industry eyed the emergence of Scopitone with a mixture of mild concern and open hostility. Competing coin-op visual-jukebox makers such as the Italian-originated Colorama, Color Sonic, and Phono-Vue, looked on with envy as Scopitone cornered market share and the public's imagination. Scopitone was also unpopular with local musician unions, whose members were losing paying gigs to the devices. Nevertheless, by midsummer of 1964, some 500 machines were "on location." On August 21, Time magazine reported, "For a quarter a throw, Scopitone projects any one of 36 musical movies on a 26-inch screen, flooding the premises with delirious color and hi-fi scooby-ooby-doo for three whole minutes. It makes a sobering combination." Malnik weighed in with characteristic brashness, claiming a backlog of 2,500 orders and promising to fill all the machines with American films that he himself would produce. "There's just no end to the storybook film devices we can prepare," he enthused. Tel-A-Sign purchased manufacturing rights from CAMCA and was tooling up a plant on Chicago's far southwest side for production of the newly designed 450, "the American model," which was slated to roll off the line in early 1965. The 450 would be an absurd 7 feet tall, and weigh 650 pounds crated. Steiger coolly predicted to The New York Times that they intended to manufacture about 5,000 machines in 1965, double that figure in 1966, and hold to the 10,000 annual quota for "some years." Scopitone was now more than an auxiliary product for Tel-A-Sign. It already dwarfed its parent company on paper, if not yet in hard financial return; for 1965, Steiger forecast $6 million in total sales for the plastic sign company against $20 million in total sales for Scopitone.Singing in the Technicolor sunshine The need for new American films was more pressing than ever, and in December 1964 Tel-A-Sign inked a five-year contract with Harman-ee productions, a subsidiary of the Beverly Hills-based Harman Enterprises owned by Debbie Reynolds and managed by ex-Columbia Pictures Vice President Irving Briskin. Harman-ee would become the main supplier of American films for Scopitone, with a deal to produce 48 acts per year. The first Harman-ee act brought before the cameras in late 1964 was, by no small coincidence, Debbie Reynolds herself singing "If I Had a Hammer." As more American films were added, the summer of 1965 would mark Scopitone's sunniest moment, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a business enterprise. Prospects looked ever brighter for signing new acts, and Scopitone piqued the interest of traders and sent Tel-A-Sign common stock rocketing from $1 a share on the American Stock Exchange in early 1964 to $9.50 in mid-1965. About 1,000 machines were now on location, and back orders were stacking up. A new timing device called a "stimulator" was attached to the machines; it automatically activated the jukes to spring to life and replay the last selected number after a period of inactivity. The stimulator reportedly prompted a spurt in collections. Scopitone was gaining identity as a solid exposure medium for popular American recording stars. In early July, Tel-A-Sign announced the release of 13 new films, among them Bobby Vee singing "The Night has 1,000 Eyes," and Jody Miller singing "Queen of the House"-her red-hot answer to Roger Miller's recent smash hit "King of the Road."Harman-ee on high Harman-ee was now producing some amazing films, unintentionally creating a "cinema of surface" replete with its own unique stylization and sense of aesthetics. Hal Belfer directed all the Harman-ee Scopitones, while Fred Benson coordinated talent and production under the supervision of Briskin, the executive producer. Steiger took an avid interest in signing new acts. Each film cost between $6,000 and $11,000 to make, and Harman-ee was crafting a high-gloss style of its own that stood in stark contrast to its French counterparts-often clumsy lip-synchs of hits such as "Twist and Shout" filmed in the woods, on beaches, or even in junkyards with no props or costuming. Not surprisingly, most of these French musical films left American audiences cold.Candy for the eyeballs "A new dimension of thrilling color makes the world of musical entertainment come alive!" gushed Scopitone. Indeed, color was now being used by Harman-ee as it had never been used before. Much as Hollywood manipulated action sequences in the '50s merely as an excuse to use the new 3-D technology, Harman-ee manipulated set designs and backgrounds to take advantage of the juicy color reproduction of Technicolor stock. Glowing primary colors transformed the screen into a Never-Never Land of pink bathtubs, purple walls, and AstroTurf lawns. The fantasy sets were no less intoxicating. As Kay Starr sings "Wheel of Fortune" on a casino set, a glittering wheel spins behind her with such dazzling brilliance that it looks as though it could only be rear-screen projected. Wholesome-as-a-glass-of-milk January Jones shimmies through a jazzed-up version of "Up a Lazy River" with rapid-fire bikini changes. The most expensive piece of Scopitone set construction was most likely the silver "stairway to heaven" in Debbie Reynolds' "If I Had a Hammer," but the multiple settings of Gale Garnett's "Where Do You Go To Go Away?" were definitely the strangest. The melancholy singer is first dropped into medieval England, where she assumes a throne; then she's off to exotic Bombay to perch sidesaddle on an enormous stuffed elephant; and finally she enters hell briefly to fondle the chest and private parts (offscreen) of a devil statue. The picture ends with Gale standing under a signpost pointing out the pathways to "confusion," "frustration," and, her new direction, "true love." A happy ending-Scopitone-style. Another outstanding set was created for Barry Young's film, "One Has My Name, The Other Has My Heart" that contained two rooms split by a common wall. One represents domestic drudgery with his wife; the other, erotic penthouse-living with his glamorous mistress. The film has the feeling of one-act live theater.Dance sensations sweepin' the nation Harman-ee could appreciate that the movements and contortions of Scopitone dancers needed to be exaggerated in order to reach out and grab viewers from the small screen. Of course, this approach would render the films absurd and ridiculous if magnified on much larger movie screens, where they were never intended to be shown. The dance crazes that swept America like a swarm of tornados throughout 1965 were made-to-order for Scopitone, and they rolled up their clam diggers and waded in. Scopitones such as "Sea Cruise," "Little Miss Go-go," "High Boots," and "Pussy Cat a Go-go" survive today as time-capsule relics from the age of the dance craze, and were able to swing without Harman-ee's trademark high-gloss production treatment. Belfer created original choreography that ranged from breathtaking to breathtakingly bizarre. The housewife in Barry Young's film waltzes around the kitchen in her nightgown spraying air freshener while getting Barry a breakfast bowl of Wheaties and rolling her eyes in boredom. In "Queen of the House," a delicious trio of leggy housemaids execute risqu* maneuvers with feather dusters and broom handles, and sneak peek into three lined up ovens as Jody Miller dreamily yawns and sashays through what resembles a giant candy-colored Barbie house.Jungle Dolls and Lizard Men TV and B-film star Joi Lansing joined the Scopitone roster in November 1965. The generously endowed blonde would go on to win "Miss Armed Forces Day of the World" in 1967 and star in Hillbillies in a Haunted House the same year, but without a doubt, the 2 1Ú2-minute Scopitone she shot in early 1966-"The Web of Love"-was the most outrageous kitsch of her career. Clad in a cave-gal skin and prowling a set overgrown with low-budget jungle exotica, Joi takes a dip in a smoking stew pot as her witch doctor stirs and an elderly goggle-eyed extra slinks about in a green lizard suit. Joi lip-synchs and mugs her way through the song with the melodramatic sexuality of a female impersonator. No one was seeking authenticity or realism on a jukebox screen in some cocktail lounge, and Belfer wasn't trying to give it to them. The fact that these pop stars were obviously lip-synching their hits exaggerated the atmosphere of the unreal. Harman-ee was providing addictive, joyous fun for three minutes, while unintentionally fashioning unparalleled camp cinema. A cheerful celebration of flimsy artificiality, cheesy costuming, and juicy colors was already on display in a series of short 8mm and 16mm films made by the 23-year-old twin brothers and Bronx natives, Mike and George Kuchar. Their films, culminating with Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), would pioneer the camp aesthetic in the realm of underground and avant-garde film. Subsequent popular TV series such as Batman and The Monkees would soon bring camp to mass, mainstream audiences, but nothing would ever surpass the jaw-dropping excesses of the Harman-ee films for sheer, concentrated power. What effect Scopitones had on the Day-Glo flowering of the '60s movement can only be guessed, but they did not go unnoticed; in her seminal 1964 Partisan Review essay, "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag refers to Scopitones as examples of full-fledged camp. Sex, of course, was the spice of Scopitone, and Harman-ee poured generous amounts of T&A into their films so that guys would pour quarters into the machines. But they got more than frosting for their loose change; they got a glimpse into an ever-sunny world where male pop stars such as James Darren, Vic Damone, and Andy Russell wondered through a leafy paradise of scantily clad, divinely stacked babes who were happy, willing, and smiling. The sex on display was almost always female; the outlook, invariably male. Once in a while the woman was in command, but more often than not, the near-naked gal protagonist was the one punished for some transgression with playful S&M-undoubtedly more to the taste of the lonely liquored-up traveling salesman groping for quarters at an Iowa City Holiday Inn. At the conclusion of Frankie Randall's "Yelow Haired Woman," the flaxen-haired man-stealin' vixen is caught in one of the skimpiest bikinis ever and trotted off down Main Street tied to the saddle of a horse. Jody Miller's "The Race is On" features several bikini-clad female dancers tethered and bucking like randy race horses-another original piece of Belfer choreography that would go over with all the subtlety of a depth charge in today's politically correct environment. Since Scopitones were installed in a wide variety of public places, toplessness and pornography were not part of the equation. The aim, instead, was to simulate or signify sexual content with play-acting and connect-the-dots exaggeration. The odd mix of naked intent and playful-sometimes brainless-innocence easily resulted in a product more shameless than "the real thing." Camera shots often focused close-ups on female crotches, and gal dancers executed leg-spreading maneuvers and dance steps that would give new meaning to the word "prurient." Yet the shots were done with such disarming obviousness, and in some cases with a choreographed beauty, that the edge was taken off what would otherwise seem to be pure sleaze. There were some topless Scopitones put into distribution for adult-only locations. Crazy Horse Saloon sponsored a series of French-produced topless and stripper films, the strangest being Touchdown Girls. Here we see a grim-expressioned chorus line of strippers laced into fully revealing shoulder pads and helmets, marching in place to the shop-worn frat house anthem "Mr. Touchdown," while the film cuts to archival American football footage circa 1940. Other independent American Scopitones featuring strippers also surfaced here and there. There was one notable exception to the "adults-only" rule for topless Scopitones: Africa Ablaze. Shot on a bare soundstage in France, the film featured the still-active Guinean dance troupe, Les Ballets Africains, in a frenzied tribal group dance that revealed, with National Geographic matter-of-factness, the bare breasts of the female dancers, one of whom was particularly buxom and athletic. The film was struck in large quantities and dumped into general distribution. It ain't rock 'n' roll, but É In September 1965, A.A. Steiger and three associates purchased all of Irving Malnik's Tel-A-Sign and Scopitone holdings. Malnik left Scopitone considerably richer. For his $4,963 block of Scopitone stock, Malnik received 499,500 shares of Tel-A-Sign stock with a market value of $2,060,437. On October 9, 1965, Harman-ee inked a contract with Mercury Records and their affiliate labels to produce films for new acts, including such chart-toppers as Johnny Mathis, Roger Miller, and the Walker Brothers. Scopitone's fortunes continued to rise throughout early 1966. Irving Briskin crowed in a February 23 Variety piece about a tripling of print orders, and forecasted a doubling of current output to 100 films per year. Briskin noted that Harman-ee's inventory to date didn't include much hard rock, or in his words, "long hair" music. In fact, neither Harman-ee nor the European producers would ever lens much that could be termed real rock 'n' roll, as distinguished from the youth-oriented pop that jammed the airwaves in 1964-65. European films featured Paul Anka, Dion, Petula Clark, Johnny Hallyday, and Sylvie Vartan, while Harman-ee put Neil Sedaka, Leslie Gore, Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell, and Dick and Dee Dee before the cameras, and even shot ship-deck dance-a-thons with The Hondells and Gary Lewis and The Playboys-all this solidly in the pop-rock vein, with an accent firmly on pop. One surprising exception was a European-produced Scopitone of Procul Harum singing "Whiter Shade of Pale," which was interspliced with shots of hippies hanging out in London's Trafalgar Square. This rare curio presents the young English group running through fields in slow motion. Filmed home-movie style with a handheld camera, the piece features lots of off-kilter close-ups. The Exciters, a black Philadelphia girl-group, recorded two British-produced Scopitones of their chart hits, "Tell Him" and "He's Got the Power," and Ike Turner recorded a song at one point. Over-the-hill rockabilly stars Billy Lee Riley and Vince Taylor filmed Scopitones, too. Riley was shot performing "High Heeled Sneakers" at L.A.'s Whiskey A Go-Go. Taylor's hottest number-and probably the closest Scopitone ever got to the true spirit of rock 'n' roll-was an electrifying reverb-laden cover of "Shakin' All Over" in which badass Vince prowls a surreal set that looks like a ramp to oblivion. Although Scopitone would film some country-and-western and jazz-flavored acts, they focused on musicians and groups acceptable in all areas of the country. The marketing stategy was to place the bulk of machines in adult locations and stock them with acts that grown-ups wanted to hear: familiar artists singing familiar songs. Had Scopitone ever attempted to seriously exploit rock 'n' roll, it would have required a major readjustment in thinking. Since the cost of making a film was a lot higher than cutting a single, more risk would be involved when gambling on the unpredictability of this "long-haired" sound that had new groups coming out of nowhere every month. It was probably just a passing fad, anyway. So Scopitone passed on rock 'n' roll.Strong arms and strip poker In March 1966, Harman-ee filmed a country-chorus group called The Backporch Majority performing the song "The Mighty Mississippi." It was intended to play out as a rousing old-fashioned hoedown in the mold of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, but the finished product contained too much cheesecake for the group's management to swallow, not to mention a highly suggestive fadeout. Claiming that the smut was added without their consent, they hit Scopitone with a $5 million lawsuit. The suit was unsuccessful, but foreshadowed a wave of bad luck that was about to come crashing down on Scopitone-so suddenly, in fact, that they would barely have a chance to look up to see what was coming down next. On April 26, 1966, the bombshell dropped. The Wall Street Journal ran an innuendo-laden article headlined: "Movie Jukebox Probe: Grand Jury Looks Into Everybody Linked With Scopitone: Tel-A-Sign Assails Inquiry." According to the article, for more than a year a federal grand jury in New York was "digging into the background of everyone and everything connected with Scopitone" as part of the Justice Department's continuing search for possible gangster influences on legitimate businesses. As the paper stated and reiterated in follow-up reports, the integrity of Tel-A-Sign management was never in question. Rather, the investigation focused on whether hoodlums had muscled in on some of the independent Scopitone distributors, and whether the Mafia played a hand in the original partnership group formed by Malnik, specifically via invester Abe Green. The investigation seemed to be more than a fishing trip; convicted mobsters Gerardo Catena and Joseph "Doc" Stracher were involved in Green's Runyon Sales Company. Reached by phone in his cabana at the tony Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, Malnik asserted that there had been "no undesirable elements in Scopitone to my knowledge." Major mob bosses, such as Meyer Lansky and Thomas Eboli, were being questioned and subpoenaed. Even Roy Cohn's name popped up-he was a major holder of Tel-A-Sign stock in the early '60s. A parade of shady characters was being called before the grand jury as the whole thing puffed into a noxious cloud of bad press. It was a public relations nightmare. Meanwhile, Scopitone was flying too high to be shot out of the air by one slug of bad press. Harman-ee announced the signing of hit-makers Gary Lewis and the Playboys to an exclusive five-year contract. Still, behind the scenes, fallout from the article was raining down on Scopitone. In May, only three machines were sold; closing on sales contracts had become a hopeless endeavor. People connected to Scopitone found it difficult-or impossible-to obtain financing because of the negative publicity. Film revenues plummeted; stock values skidded. Yet even in the midst of this terrible turn of events, major stars were signing up for production. Eartha Kitt, Vicki Carr, Bobby Vee, April Stevens, Herb Alpert, and other stars signed exclusive contracts in June to make Scopitone films, and Scopitone estimated that 2,000 of the units would be on location by July 1966. If the ground was shaking, you couldn't tell by the big front office smiles. The August 20 Cash Box ran an upbeat 17-page factory report on Scopitone, and November shipments of prints were expected to be the highest in history. Tel-A-Sign renegotiated a more favorable agreement with CAMCA over royalties and guarantees, and plans for adding paid advertising to the machines were in the works. This defiant success couldn't last, though, and Scopitone reported a $148,000 loss for the six-month period ending August 31. At the annual Tel-A-Sign shareholders meeting in early November, a chastened Steiger expressed guarded optimism, but laid it bluntly on the line. More than 1,600 machines were presently in use, he stated-revealing recent public estimates to be puffed, at best-and more would be produced "as needed." Steiger admitted that The Wall Street Journal article was a shock to the company and put sales in a deep freeze. On top of everything, a major West Coast distributor rubbed salt into Scopitone's wounds with a $1.4 million default, which stuck the company with a cash loss of $1,100,000-of which $640,000 had been written off. Some of the machines shipped to the distributor had been "recaptured" by Tel-A-Sign, Steiger reported. The remainder of 1966 and the start of 1967 brought no more good news. Scopitone's Chicago plant did not produce a single machine through the first three months of 1967.The Fall Even as the purple gloom closed in around Scopitone, the company threw a party. The bash was held in the ornate Empire Room of Chicago's Palmer House Hotel in February 1967. A.A. Steiger capped a dinner reception awash in self-congratulation by personally presenting January Jones with a Scopitone award as "most popular Scopitone artist of 1966." It would be the only award ever given to a performer by Scopitone. January would later break her big toe on the award after getting up for a glass of water in the middle of the night. Steiger's luck would get worse. Within two months of the Palmer House presentation, he was ousted from Scopitone-Tel-A-Sign. Tel-A-Sign was now just another floundering business operation fighting rear-guard actions on several fronts. Enter J.D. "Jack" Gordon, the 54-year-old industry veteran who served a variety of roles with Seebury Company, a major juke manufacturer, since 1946. Gordon attempted to reverse the tide by developing a new model Scopitone, the "Theater 16." This new machine boasted a larger 35-by-34-inch built-in screen, or an attachable 5-by-7-foot auxiliary screen designed to hang 3 to 5 feet in front of the jukebox. The Theater 16 was short-lived, yet its resemblance to today's big-screen video projection television suggests an invention ahead of its time. Due to some demand for the Theater 16 version, another model was introduced in 1968-a copy of the 450 with slight cabinet changes and a larger screen. It came and went, virtually unnoticed. Tel-A-Sign's pulse was fainter than ever. On October 28, 1969, The New York Times announced the indictment of Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo, 65, for giving false and evasive answers in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the financial affairs of Tel-A-Sign, a publicly held company "under investigation since 1964 when it acquired Scopitone." The investigations never amounted to more than a sideshow of character studies caught in a murky web of largely irrelevant lies and evasions. But it hardly mattered now; in November 1969, Scopitone Inc. went out of business.Analysis of a failed enterprise A combination of mistakes, miscalculations, and bad luck proved fatal to a business enterprise that only five years earlier appeared to be riding the crest of the future's wave. Scopitone's meteoric rise resulted in unsupportable growth and unrealistic expectations. Coupled with the "novelty" tag it could never shake, the company was hexed as a solid, long-term investment. And although never proven in a court of law, the allegations of stock manipulation, statement rigging, and mobster ties ate away at the company's credibility like acid, giving heavy ammunition to its enemies in the coin-op field. The coin-ops obliged, battering away with an organized smear campaign that ironically also tarred competing juke-pix concerns. Scopitone's relationships with inexperienced (and in some cases unreliable and dishonest) independent distributors also hurt the company's chances. And, at least near the end, the company engaged in such shady tactics as serial number shuffling to make the jukebox production appear larger than it actually was. It is said that the machines themselves were bug-ridden film eaters prone to breakdowns and adjustment problems. This mechanical unreliability is often cited as a major factor in the demise of Scopitone, but it is disputed by collectors. Considering the complex mechanisms involved and the fragility of 16mm film stock compared to record vinyl, it is fair to say that they were more or less satisfactorily engineered and produced. Ultimately, the biggest blow to Scopitone may have simply been the ever-fickle public-the same impatient public that abruptly lost interest in Soundies years earlier. The public wasn't in the mood for the same old song anymore, and Scopitone wasn't positioned to deliver the new beat that might well have carried them into a new era.The mummy rises After Scopitone's death, a company called INFORMX was created to find uses for the jukeboxes in the field of information. Training films were shown to medical staff on Scopitones, NASA showed films of rocket launchings to Space Center visitors, and machines were even installed in French coal mines to screen shorts promoting safety procedures to miners. Other machines were hauled to peep show arcades, fitted with discreet "viewing hoods," and stocked with nudie and porno films. However, many of the monstrous machines, lacking any real value on the jukebox collector market, were junked for scrap metal or component parts. Others, too heavy to move and too expensive to ship, just sat where they were, forgotten and gathering dust in storage sheds and garages. Some were hoarded by a cult of collectors. A few were refurbished and installed in museums. It's been said that writing about Scopitones is like trying to breathe life into an Egyptian mummy. But the mummy rose: Scopitones are now conceded by those in the know to be the forerunners of music videos, in format if not style. In France, Scopitones are shown on TV and collected on video, and celebrated as manifestations of '60s French pop culture. The same has not happened in America-despite the reintroduction of Soundies via TV specials and video releases, Scopitones remain an unknown quantity. Harman-ee productions are now especially sought after by 16mm film collectors for their Technicolor-an extinct lab process since 1967-that is still glowing and fabulously vibrant. The French-produced films, on the other hand, which were printed on Eastmancolor stock, have faded badly. The necessity of obtaining a magnetic-sound 16mm projector-rare in America-to show the films on has contributed to their obscurity, as does the complicated copyright entanglements that have apparently nixed several proposed TV specials. So, Scopitone has passed into the Technicolor twilight of an American pop-culture mythology, already ajumble with old Coke machines, Victrolas, and Wurlitzers. To discover one of these movieboxes still "on location" would be the stuff of a Twilight Zone episode. Yet at a 1985 Chicago jukebox convention, Scopitone collector and newsletter publisher Fred Bingaman talked to a Michigan man who had a jukebox service route. During their conversation, the fellow told Fred that he still had one operating Scopitone on his route. It got very few plays per week, he reported, but he still kept it on. Returning home to St. Louis after the convention, Fred was full of questions about it, so he wrote to the guy. He never heard from him again.ResourcesRobin Edgerton's "History of the Scopitone" site offers up some more pith on the subject, and-best of all-gives you the chance to hear (and see) nine Quicktime Scopitones. Enjoy "Locomotion," "I Got Stung," "Itsy Bitsy Bikini," and more-all sung in French. Resources New York houses one of the largest collections of silent and sound shorts and features, soundies, and much more. They will perform a free search of their databases if you send them a fax on your company letterhead listing the films you're trying to locate. Contact them at 220 West 71st St., New York, NY 10023; voice: 212.724.7055; fax: 212.595.0189; e-mail: For more information, visit

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