Rise and Fall of the Scopitone Jukebox In the hip and swinging days of the 1960s, a strange contraption called the Scopitone jukebox seemed poised to be the next big thing. The machine the size of a refrigerator projected short films on a 26-inch screen that were precursors to modern music videos.

Rise and Fall of the Scopitone Jukebox

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Alex, if you're Jiminy Cricket, who am I?


Tinker Bell maybe. I don't know.

BRAND: Tinker Bell? I'll take that as a compliment. Ok. Let's remain in that earlier era. A time after Jiminy Cricket but before MTV, when for a few brief moments, America was captivated by a contraption called the Scopitone jukebox. Here is DAY TO DAY contributing writer Jennifer Sharpe.


If you'd been hanging out in a cocktail lounge somewhere in the United States during the mid-60s, you might have fed a quarter in an odd, hulking machine, stared up into its 26-inch screen, and experienced a little-known precursor to the music video.

(Soundbite of song, Web of Love)

Ms. JOI LANSING (Actress, Singer): (Singing) Drat, I'm trapped…

SHARPE: Maybe you would've seen Web of Love, set in a fake African village inhabited by a dancing witch doctor, who hops obsequiously towards Joi Lansing, a B-movie actress with big, blonde hair. Or maybe you would've seen Jody Miller's Queen of the House, featuring a creatively choreographed lineup of women dancing with their brooms and ovens.

(Soundbite of song, Queen of the House)

Ms. JODY MILLER (Singer): (Singing) Up every day at six, bacon and eggs to fix.

SHARPE: Invented in France, where it was a huge sensation, the Scopitone jukebox was brought to the United States by a young Miami businessman, named Alvin Malnick. He debuted the machine in 1964 at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel. And despite the jukebox's novel charm, Americans quickly lost interest in its French films.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SHARPE: Seeking to create domestic titles, Malnick turned to Harmony Productions, an entertainment company headed up by Debbie Reynolds. Lavish Technicolor films were shot, and soon the strange French titles were replaced by equally unfamiliar American ones.

(Soundbite of son, Where Did All The Good Times Go?)

Mr. RICHARD GOSTING and Ms. DEE DEE PHELPS (Dick and Dee Dee Recording Duo): (Singing) Where did all the good times go?

SHARPE: When I Googled some of the artists in them, I was surprised to find Dee Dee Phelps of Dick and Dee Deen, living just seven minutes from my house. Phelps was bewildered by Scopitone's choice to shoot their song, Where Did All the Good Times Go? rather than one of their hits, like Mountain High.

(Soundbite of song Mountain High)

Mr. GOSTING and Ms. PHELPS: (Singing) I was a lonely star, until you…

SHARPE: As regulars on the TV show Shindig, Dick and Dee Dee were used to being on camera, but this was different. Shot on the Santa Monica pier, the director framed their song with go-go dancers and a heightened sense of arcade excitement.

Singing with plumes of cotton candy in their hands, Dick and Dee Dee look morose.

Ms. PHELPS: They told me to get up on a mechanical horse, and then they put the quarter in. The thing's rocking back and forth, and I'm trying to have this sad look on my face, because I'm thinking of the words I'm singing: last night I saw you kiss another, tell me where did all the good times go?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, Where Did All the Good Times Go?)

Mr. GOSTING and Ms. PHELPS: (Singing) Oh tell me, where did all the good times go?

SHARPE: When Phelps saw the finished product out at a restaurant bar in Malibu, she was astonished by how disjointed it was.

Ms. PHELPS: Strangest thing you've ever seen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHARPE: When I asked her what she thought of the other films in the jukebox, she said she hadn't had the opportunity to see any.

Ms. PHELPS: Ours was the only one on there.

SHARPE: Actually, more than 70 films were made.

(Soundbite of song, These Boots Are Made For Walking)

Ms. NANCY SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) …walk all over you.

SHARPE: But by 1966, just as big artists like Johnny Mathis and Roger Miller were starting to sign on, key Scopitone players were charged with having ties to the Mafia. Sales stalled, but America's attention had already shifted, anyway, to an aesthetic Scopitone had completely overlooked.

(Soundbite of song, Don't You Want Somebody to Love?)

Ms. GRACE SLICK (Lead Singer, Jefferson Airplane): (Singing) When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies…

SHARPE: Four decades later, it's hard to find a working Scopitone jukebox. I managed to track down the last Scopitone repairman in the country, Dick Hack(ph), who lives in Maryland.

Mr. DICK HACK(ph) (Scopitone Repairman): They were a nightmare for the operators. They had a lot of little things that could go wrong.

SHARPE: Hack pointed me toward a surviving Scopitone jukebox owned by a collector named Michael Choate(ph). He was just an hour away from me, out near Laguna Beach.

(Soundbite of machine whirring)

SHARPE: Perched on the arm of his sofa, we spent the afternoon mesmerized by how beautiful the films looked flickering across their native screen.

(Soundbite of music)

SHARPE: Just as Choate explained that his machine works better than most, as if to spite him, it started to malfunction. Perhaps trying to underscore the Scopitone's inability to stay in tune with the times, it kept playing the same wrong selection…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DEBBIE REYNOLDS (Singer): (Singing) All over this land.

SHARPE: …Debbie Reynolds doing a strangely out-of-step rendition of a popular 60s anthem.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. REYNOLDS: (Singing) …all over this land.

BRAND: Producer Jennifer Sharpe has provided us with some examples of Scopitone's sounds, and they really have to bee seen to be believed. And you can find them at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of song, If I Had a Hammer)

Unidentified Woman #4: (Singing) If I had a hammer…

BRAND: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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