Times Staff Writer

Surprise! Forty years before there were music videos, there were "soundies"--short films of popular singers and bands performing their hit songs.

The astonishingly unheralded life of the Mills Novelty Co.'s Panoram visual jukebox is recalled at 9:10 tonight in a nostalgic special on KCET Channel 28, "Soundies," hosted by Cab Calloway.

As explained by Calloway, who appears in several of the old film clips, more than 2,000 soundies were made between 1941 and 1947. Each was shot in one day: The music would be recorded in the morning, then the artists would lip-sync a performance before 16mm cameras in the afternoon.

Fans could see the finished black-and-white film by sliding a dime into their neighborhood Panoram machine. The soundie was projected from inside the box while the music played over speakers.

How many Panorams were there? Where were they? How often did the selection change?

Don't ask. "Soundies" is less interested in the history than the music and spends most of its hour surveying the broad spectrum of material that was recorded for the short-lived medium--from the big band sounds of Count Basie and Jimmy Dorsey to star turns by Nat "King" Cole and Fats Waller to ethnic music and even a country-western song by Spade Cooley.

Unlike today's music videos, most of the soundies featured the artist performing directly to the camera. Occasionally special effects were used, as in one in which the small figure of a woman dances on Hoagy Charmichael's piano, and humor is the dominant theme in a drinking song by Spike Jones and His City Slickers.

What's also interesting is that many soundies reflect a form of sexism that is similar to, if many degrees milder than, their modern-day counterparts. While there were all-female bands making soundies, as well as singers such as Doris Day and Cyd Charisse, the evidence on view here is that most soundies used women as nothing more than window dressing: They stand by and smile prettily while the men make the music.

A co-production between KCET and Euphoria Productions, "Soundies" was produced by Tom Friedman and directed by Don McGlynn.

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