Soundies - A new form of entertainment
Written By Nigel Bewley
Soundies were a brand new form of entertainment conceived in early 1940, born in January 1941 and then suffered a lingering demise mid-way through 1947. They were three minute black and white films with an optical soundtrack designed to be shown on self-contained, coin-operated 16mm rear projection machines situated in bars, diners, nightclubs, roadhouses and other public places throughout the States and Canada.
The most widely distributed of these projectors was the Panoram, a complicated device using a system of mirrors and with a screen mounted on top of a stylish cabinet. They were made by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, market leaders in the manufacture of juke boxes and coin-operated machines, at the cost of $600 (about $12,000 today).
The range of Soundies catered for all tastes and included swing, big bands, jazz, blues, country and western, hillbilly, Gospel, Latin American, Hawaiian, dance, musical comedy, vaudeville and even swimmers, ice-skaters, knife throwers and gymnasts! One reel of eight Soundies was released each week, with more hitting the Panorams at holidays and other peak periods.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's son, James, formed a company to make the films in 1940, but distribution did not commence properly until 1941 after the Panorams were perfected. A few rival companies set up to produce the films, but the biggest was RCM Productions, named after James Roosevelt himself, songwriter Sam Coslow and Herbert Mills the Panoram manufacturer.
Soundies were unpopular with cinemas and other exhibitors and ran into trouble with the film projectionists' union but between 1941 and 1947 more than 1,800 were produced and distributed, many of them reissued.
War time restrictions spelled doom for Soundies and by summer 1946 only around 2,000 projectors were in use throughout North America compared to the 10,000 only three years previously.
The films are glorious little time capsules of music, social history, dance styles, fashions and modes from a seemingly carefree America of the 1940s. There are some absolute gems: The King's Men performing The Chool Song is a bizarre episode of Baroque swing dance when a group of bewigged and powdered chamber musicians begin with a piece of Bach whilst two dancers, Collins and Collette, gracefully dance a minuet. Gracefully that is until Collins (Dean Collins, the legendary swing dancer) stands on Collette's skirts, which come off, and the band breaks into a fast boogie whilst the two swing dancers show off their moves. There's Meade Lux Lewis playing hot boogie-woogie and look out for Dorothy Dandridge performing 'Cow-Cow Boogie' to a saloon bar full of swinging cowboys and girls. The Mitchell Brothers and Evelyn Keyes knock off some great tap dancing and 'Tuxedo Junction' sung by Edna Mae Harris with dancing by the Lenox Lindy Hoppers is astonishing. There's Cook and Brown with the Jungle Jivestars and a host of Big Bands such as Claude Thornhill's, Charlie Spivak's and Will Bradley's. Louis Jordan fans are looked after and up there amongst the very best of the shorts is Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra with 'Cotton Tail' featuring Ben Webster on tenor saxophone. This Soundie features Whitey's Lindy Hoppers dancing the most extraordinary routine. Sit back, if your feet will let you, and watch them all. You'll be amazed.
Charly Records released a series of Soundies on video in 1991, these are now deleted and in summer 1993 Channel 4 broadcast a series of programmes of Soundies called The Jazz Package.
The Charly publications sometimes turn up in second-hand record shops: happy hunting and happy viewing!