In the early 1940s, the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America pursued a bold plan to introduce a new technology into the nation’s beer joints, bus stations, and arcades: visual jukeboxes.
The Panoram, manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company out of Chicago, didn’t just play music—it also displayed 16mm mini-musicals running slightly over 3 minutes each, with eight titles running back-to-back. Customers used to jukeboxes of the day discovered that they could now also watch the performers in action (an idea that would become the basis for a cable TV network in the 1980s).
Of course, these technological wonders required all-new content to display, and that’s were Soundies came in—it enlisted production companies to shoot the reels, which they then rented out to businesses with Panorams. This grand plan only lasted a few years (1940-1947), so it failed as a business concept—but as a creative endeavor, Soundies managed to document a parallel world of performers who otherwise might not have been captured on film. From vaudeville comics to jugglers, exotic dancers to hillbilly singers, “soundies” (as the short films would be called) featured a wide range of artists who were not quite the sort of marquee-level names that might interest Hollywood.
Of particular interest are African American musicians pulled from New York’s wide-open nightclub scene, many of them little remembered now.
“A good example is ‘No No, Baby‘ featuring the great jazz musician Skeets Tolbert,” says Bradley Reeves, a Grammy-nominated film and music archivist who’s collected 40 soundies so far. “It’s a hot, swinging soundie featuring scorching guitar work and some frantic jitterbug-style dancing. The chances of Tolbert participating in a Hollywood movie were slim, so this was a lucky occurrence. Many jazz enthusiasts are aware of the top bands of the era, such as Ellington and Basie, but there were hundreds of fabulous, but now-forgotten acts performing in nightclubs and burlesque halls during this time. The soundies were their only chance for celluloid immortality.”
Reeves operates Cinegraphic Archives and Preservation, a digitization service, when he’s not scouring attics and garages for music artifacts (especially rare 78s). He has been picking up soundies at estate sales, from other film collectors, and occasionally on Ebay, though that method can get very pricey for popular acts. Many of the early soundies are in a state of decomposition best described as “vinegar syndrome”—a common malady for film produced during World War II, he says.
Reeves is intrigued by the fact that soundies were produced and marketed to appeal to a very wide range of audiences. There are hillbilly music soundies, Jewish-dialect soundies, Irish-themed soundies, pop and classical music soundies, comedy routines, swing and big band, and jazz soundies produced for the African American market, he says. (And cheesecake elements can be found in many of them.)
“The soundies were fast, furious, full of humor, double entendres, and innuendo,” Reeves says. “They were produced to get one’s attention. The best word to describe the soundies? Fun!”
Soundies also documented well-known (or soon to be well-known) jazz performers like Fats Waller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway. While recordings of such vital performances are important in themselves, Reeves finds soundies’ context to be noteworthy as well.
“The sets, clothing, and attitudes depicted each represent American culture as it was during the 1940s,” he says. “Each reel is a mini-time capsule, though the racial stereotypes featured in some entries can be a painful experience for today’s viewers.”
The Soundies company’s business ground to a halt for a few different reasons. The Panoram machines were clunky and prone to breaking down. Producers had to generate miles of film to meet a constant demand for fresh material. Worse, by 1947 the novelty of the soundies had worn off with the public. Production slowed, then stopped. The remaining machines were pressed into service for peepshows showing burlesque and “art model” films. And the original film inventory was later sold off to the home-movie market.
Featured above is a soundie in Reeves’ collection from 1946: “Backtrack” by Dardanelle and Her Boys, with Moya Grifford. (Note: erotic dancing is featured, along with not-so-subtle camera work.)
Bonus video: In 1958, another attempt at popularizing visual jukeboxes was made with the Scopitone. Despite its superior technology, it too was doomed to failure. Here’s a rare Scopitone from 1964, also from Reeves’ collection, that features Frank Sinatra Jr. (Rather than a live performance as in the soundies, it’s lip-synced.)