When I was looking for something on You Tube the other night, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the Kessler Sisters. I hadn’t seen them in forty years, and they still looked terrific. Paul Desmond introduced me to them in 1965 at the Hilton Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Desmond had just played a concert with the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Willamette University down the road in Salem. I couldn’t go because I was working. When I got off the air, I met him for a drink. Here’s the story from Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.
In the Hilton bar, he was high on the success of the concert he had just played and delighted to see the Kessler sisters again. The Scopitone was a film jukebox. The first ones were made in France, in part from used World War Two airplane reconnaissance camera equipment. The more finished version that made its way from Europe to the United States in 1963 looked rather like a big old soda fountain Wurlitzer with a screen at the top. Scopitone films on sixteen milimeter stock with magnetic sound tracks ran on endless loops through a projector inside the jukebox. They were descendants of the Nickelodeons of the first decade of the twentieth century and the soundies of the thirties and forties, and ancestors of the music videos seen on MTV and VH-1. French businessmen persuaded U.S. investors, who in turn persuaded bar and lounge operators, that Scopitone was going to get Americans away from their television sets and back out to night life. The films ran two or three minutes, with production values on a scale from almost absent to spectacular, and featured artists with talent to match. At the low end of the scale were groups like The Casualeers singing on a fire escape while two mostly nude girls gyrated. At the upper end were Scopitones starring the Kessler sisters, a pair of blonde, leggy young women who sang and danced with exhilarating zeal through pieces like “Cuando, Cuando” and “Pollo e Champagne.”
Desmond pumped quarters into the Hilton Scopitone, sending the Kessler Sisters cavorting again and again through an amusement park, singing as they leapt on and off a train, with a corps of dancers in the background executing routines that would have done Busby Berkeley proud. He was convinced that the Scopitone was going to be bigger than television and almost had me persuaded that we should invest large sums in the phenomenon. The more Dewars we had, the more sensible the investment plan became. Fortunately, the Oregon closing law kicked in before I committed to anything irrevocable. I don’t know whether Paul signed up for a share of the company, but I am glad that I didn’t. By the end of the decade, Scopitones were gathering dust in warehouses all over the world.