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Unearthing musical nuggets from archives

PBS' `Soundies' offers a glimpse of musical luminaries in mini-movies from the '40s.

March 03, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

AUG. 1, 1981 was considered a watershed chapter in television history when MTV launched a showcase for music videos. In reality, it was a new variation on an old theme.

The music videos were just a hipper, glossier version of the 1941-47 phenomenon called soundies -- three-minute, low-budget black-and-white musical films that featured big band, jazz and swing artists. Viewed for a dime on a movie jukebox machine called a panoram, built by the Mills Novelty Co. in Chicago, these shorts were seen in various public spots such as nightclubs, roadhouses and restaurants.

Over six years about 1,800 soundies were produced featuring Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Les Paul. Doris Day, Yvonne De Carlo and Cyd Charisse made early screen appearances on soundies

Newly restored versions of several of these jukebox movies are featured in the new PBS documentary "Soundies: A Musical History," premiering at 7 tonight on KCET.

Hosted by singer and music historian Michael Feinstein, the documentary also features interviews with historians and performers who were involved in soundies, including Kay Starr and Ginny Mancini.

"These were done so quickly that they are primitive and deliciously so," says Feinstein, who first encountered soundies as a teen-age film collector. "They are not Hollywoodized so you get to see [the performers], as they really were, which is wonderful."

The soundies, he says, captured the last gasp of the big band era. "People don't have a sense of what that era was like as far as the showmanship of the bands and how they looked physically. All that stuff is documented. There are many performers who are obscure who are documented on soundies."

One such performer was violinist David Rubinoff. "He was a friend of mine as a kid," Feinstein says. "He was one of the greatest stars of radio in the 1930s -- the most amazing virtuoso. He's completely forgotten."

The soundies, says historian Mark Cantor, show early racial integration of entertainment in public because the loop of shorts would feature black and white acts.

The documentary also delves into the political incorrectness of some shorts, especially the ones of so-called "jungle" music.

"That is a tradition that stretches back a previous decade to Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club," Cantor says, adding African Americans weren't the only minorities depicted in racist ways. "There were also stereotypes of Hispanic Americans, Jews and the Irish."

The mob also had its fingers in the soundies industry.

"Don't forget that the people who manufactured the machines and distributed the films and the machines were based in Chicago," Cantor says.

"There is nothing in writing that connects the mob with soundies, but over the years I have located any number of people who were involved in the production of soundies and I have asked them that question. They said they don't know how it worked or the extent, but it was there."

Over the past 26 years, MTV has evolved from merely a music video showcase. The network and its spinoffs have kept fresh with a mix of reality shows, musical variety series, documentary specials and comedy shows.

The soundies weren't so lucky. They ceased production in 1947 as GIs were returning from the war, moving to the suburbs, starting families and staying home with the new medium of television.

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