Biographical / Historical
Referring to both the films and the machines that played them, a Scopitone is song-length film viewed on a juke-box like machine with a screen. Introduced in the late 1950s in France, and based on technology developed during World War Two, the Scopitone machine offered a selection of up to thirty-six titles. Patrons would insert coins (twnty-five cents per play in the United States), press the button for the film desired, and the film would appear on a small screen that formed the top of the machine. The Scopitone films were three minute-long 16mm composite magnetic track prints that featured performers singing popular songs of the time. Like their predecessor, Soundies, and paving the way for music videos, Scopitones included basic sets, costumes, and choreography. Scopitones were made in France, Great Britain, and Germany. Scopitones (both the machines and the films) were most popular in France. Consequently, a large number of the films are in French and star performers well-known in France. One of the major producers of American Scopitone films was Harman-ee Productions, a company owned by Debbie Reynolds. In the United States, Scopitone machines could be found in bars, restaurants, and lounges. Performers as varied as Debbie Reynolds, Neil Sedaka, and Ethel Ennis appeared in American Scopitones. In many of the films the stars sang the songs while surrounded by scantily-clad dancers. On occasion the production numbers told the "story" of the song. More often, the sets, dance moves, and costumes appeared superfluous. The "look" of the films reflected the times with choreography influenced by the Twist and other contemporary dances and clothing and hair-dos straight from a mid-1960s teen fashion magazine. Scopitones flourished in the United States for a very short period of time. First introduced around 1962, interest in producing and viewing Scopitones had ended by 1968. Most American machines and films were tossed in the trash. Collectors acquired the remaining machines and films. Scopitone films, once a mostly forgotten genre, are now easily viewed on Youtube, introducing this short-lived cultural phenomenon to new generations of viewers. The donor, Norman Coe, became involved with Scopitone as a business in 1964 when he purchased ten machines from the Scopitone division of Tel-A-Sign, Inc. of Chicago, Illinois. Coe placed his machines and the films in bars and restaurants around the Albany, New York area. He left the business in the late 1960s, selling all but one of his machines and several cartons of Scopitone films. He donated his remaining machine and films to the National Museum of American History in 2011.