Flo Petty and his Orchestra and the Telo-View Portable Theater
The Telo View Portable Theater
The following is a chapter from a forthcoming filmography covering the history of jukebox shorts from the 1940s .... SOUNDIES, as well as the antecedents and the competition. The following article, admittedly a work in progress, describes an audiovisual jukebox device that premiered in 1946, during the last full year of SOUNDIES operation. It is indeed one of the most audacious .... some might argue bizarre .... experiments in mass entertainment during the decade.
The second world war ended in August 1945, and by early 1946 some sense of “normalcy” was returning to life in the United States. Servicemen and women were returning from overseas duty. The transition from war to a peacetime economy meant that significant shifts were being made in what was to be produced and how. Initially, many veterans found it very difficult to find employment. On the other hand, men and women, separated by wartime service, married in large numbers, went back to school and started families. Those who were lucky enough to find jobs bought homes and automobiles. Within a few years, many would forgo the pleasures of a “night on the town,” preferring to stay at home watching the wonders of television.
This same period was a rough one for the big bands. People tended to go out to ballrooms less often. Musical tastes had shifted to bebop on one extreme, and popular vocalists on the other. The orchestras that disbanded during the period 1945-1947 included some of the biggest names in the business, and Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw were among those who gave up their touring bands. Promoting a live performance in areas outside of the major metropolitan centers was becoming an increasingly risky venture, and to fill this void there emerged one of the strangest jukebox experiments of them all: the Telo-View Portable Theater.
Telo-View was the brainchild of Gene Russell, president of Amusement Research Corporation. How, figured Russell, could entertainment be provided to areas of the country that could not afford the expense of hiring a big band? Presenting an evening of musical entertainment on screen, structured like an evening of live entertainment in a ballroom setting, was his answer. The Telo-View system allowed for the presentation of an evening’s entertainment on screen, meant more for dance accompaniment than for viewing per se. The establishments that installed the Telo-View machine— it is not clear if they were purchased or rented, but probably the former —had a choice of three screen sizes: 5’ x 7’, 8’ x 10’ or 9’ x 12’.
Whether the image was projected directly on the screen, or through a mirror (necessitating a reverse-image print) is not known. Note that the film presentation was not permitted for use “in competition with dance bands or live talent,” undoubtedly a requirement of the American Federation of Musicians (New York local 802), which had sanctioned the Telo-View program.
Billboard, June 8, 1946.
On August 3 of 1946 Billboard featured a new ad for the Telo-View system, now claiming distributors in 30 states (if true, a remarkable fourfold increase in just two months). In addition, the advertisement announced the first 3 hour program for the Telo-View Portable Theater: a presentation by Flo Petty and his All-Veteran Orchestra.
Billboard, August 3, 1946
Little is heard from Amusement Research for seven month, until ads in Billboard (March 15 and 29, 1947) announced the next release for the Telo-View system: “Freddie Slack, The ‘Cow-Cow Boogie’ Man who put the roof on ‘The House of Blue Lights’ and his Orchestra.” Sad to say, no evidence of these films exists, if they were indeed produced and released. Nor can one locate films of the next talent scheduled for film production: “’Pee Wee’” King and the Golden West Cowboys.” The ads also states that there are “other bands and talent to choose from,” suggesting that perhaps music could be provided from non-Telo-View film sources.
Billboard, March 15, 1947
Oddly enough, the next mention of Telo-View in Billboard (April 5, 1947), in an article titled “’Telo-View’ Movie Mchs. Made in N.Y.,” notes a shift from the original intent, to a delivery model based on older coin-operated devices: Telo-View Portable Theater will now play individual tunes for “either dimes or quarters.” The article continues, “Now new machines can be placed in any location, and can be rented out for private use.” Two machines were offered, differing in price and screen size. “A film, about three minutes in length, is vended for a dime. Three films can be vended for a quarter. Some locations vend two films for a quarter and do not accept dimes....”
The article goes on to describe the arrangement between Amusement Research and the American Federation of Musicians, noting that the two signed a contract in Chicago in November 1946 that would probably supersede an arrangement made earlier with the New York local. “Projector machines are manufactured by DeVry in Chicago,” the article states, “...[and] are assembled at the Amusement Research headquarters, 45 South Broadway, Yonkers, N.Y.”
Four months later Amusement Research announced that it was moving its entire production facility to Atlanta, Georgia. Company president Gene Russell expressed optimism that new units, presumably the new coin operated models, would be ready for shipment in October 1947. Other changes included an arrangement with Strictland Film Company of Atlanta to produce musical films under the direction of Bill Clark, a veteran band leader and musician in the Atlanta area. The changes, both in operational location, leadership and film production, apparently led to a change in the name of the coin-operated device, which was now called the Music View Machine.
And from this point nothing else is heard from Amusement Research, Telo-View Portable Theaters or the Music View Machine. Like so many of the early competitors of SOUNDIES , this amusement devise quietly passes away, with little evidence of its existence. In this case, however, at least ten film shorts made for the original Telo-View Portable Theater are extant, leading to the next part of the Telo-View story.
Flo Petty and his Orchestra
At present the only known films from the Telo-View experiment are by Flo Petty and his All Veteran Orchestra, issued and copyrighted under a generic title, MUSICAL VARIETIES. As might be expected, no production documents exist for Telo-View, and as a result many details about the film’s production remains in question. However, noted musician Harvard (Harvey) Davis, who played first trumpet (and occasional solos) with the band recalled the Flo Petty orchestra, and the Musical Varieties shorts. Mr. Davis and I corresponded for a period of close to eight years before his passing in January 2000, and I found that his memory was usually “spot on” for events that had occurred many decades ago. When we first started to talk about the Flo Petty orchestra, Davis recalled,
“We were told that the films were for big screens to be set up in rural locations —dance halls and bowling alleys— places that couldn’t get live entertainment, and that the films were supposed to entertain people for something like 2 1/2 hours. People could drink or bowl, and dance to the music. Lots of bands were supposed to make these films. I think Woody Herman did some of them, or at least there was talk that he was supposed to, but they ran into union troubles and I don’t think many were ever released.”
One of the unanswered questions about the Flo Petty orchestra is exactly how three black musicians ... Harvard Davis, George Wilson and Lester Fauntleroy ... would have been brought onto a white band, making films for distribution to areas far from the major urban centers. This is, in itself, a rather startling aspect of the film series. Davis commented,
“Well, there were certainly mixed bands before this. Benny [Goodman] had one, and Roy [Eldridge] traveled with Gene Krupa. Do you remember Bob Bon [Tunnell]? He was colored and he traveled with Jan Savitt’s band. I recall a little later that white guys played regularly with Lucky Millinder, and his band was black. Anyway, we didn’t give much though to being called for the recording session. That sort of thing happened all of the time. I just expected that someone might take our place on screen, but no, we were called back later in the week for the filming part. But we got along so well with the white band members, nobody said anything because there really wasn’t anything to say. We were just making beautiful music together.”
Harvard’s memory of his involvement in jazz was generally impeccable, but in this case he errs in terms of the productions date for the film series. In our conversations, as well as in interviews with David Griffiths (originally published in Storyville, then expanded and reprinted in Hot Jazz - From Harlem to Storyville - David Griffiths, Scarecrow Press, 1998) Davis dates the production of the films as the fall (perhaps October) 1943.
“I had just left a band at Small’s Paradise [fall 1943] and went with Petty for just a short while. We did the film and played some club dates, one at the Brass Rail. Petty was big at one time in the postal department and he knew a lot of people. Maybe that was how he arranged things with the union, and that might also have been the way that he connected with Lester [Fauntleroy], who got my buddy George [Wilson] and I the job. Anyway, the films were made in 1943 after I left Small’s.”
However, the copyright for the film is dated September 3, 1946, and the band is credited on screen as “Flo Petty and his All-Veteran Orchestra.” It seems unlikely that a band would be so-credited in October 1943, still relatively early in the war. A later production date is further supported by the Billboard announcements of the release of the Flo Petty films in 1946. Most important, one of the song titles, “Oh, What It Seemed To Be” was introduced in 1946. Therefore, a production date of ca. spring 1946 seems likely.
As an official for the post office, it is unlikely that Petty had much involvement in big band music beyond this particular orchestra. Regardless, according to Davis, the band was a good one!
“These were very good musicians who made the film. All of them were young, less than 22 or 23 years old. There was a female vocalist, too, and maybe some of the guys sang on some of the numbers. The music was put out [at the recording date] and we ran it down once for dynamics, then recorded it.....55 titles in three days! That was it. All of the sidemen were young guys...and they probably ended up in the studios or radio bands. [Pianist Lester] Fauntleroy had an office in midtown New York, around the Brill Building, and he had contacts; that’s probably how George Wilson and I got called to go on the band. I did the first trumpet parts for all of the 55 numbers, some solos. too! It was pretty exhausting, but I was young and up to the task. I remember that the engineers gave us copies —they were like long playing records— of the music. Mine got away from me and I don’t know anyone who has any of them today.”
Production, according to Davis, took a full week:
“We recorded 55 numbers in three days, and then did the filming in around two days. The recording was Monday-Tuesday- Wednesday, then the filming on the last two days of the week.....Thursday-Friday. A full week of work. They had strong funding and we were paid a fabulous salary for the week The recording and the filming were both done at Nola Studio, 50th or 51st and Broadway. (Lots of bands held their rehearsals there.)
The band, beside leader Petty and the three black musicians, has yet to be fully identified. The instrumentation includes three trumpets, two trombones, four reeds, piano, string bass and drums. There have been two suggestions for members of the reed section. It is possible that the tenor sax to the far left is Frank “Jano” Salto. Also suggested is Musky Ruffo, and while my notes, made during a screening many year ago, state “third from the left,” it is the alto player second from the left who looks most like Ruffo.
The opening credits on the film reinforce much of what we know about the Telo-View Portable Theater system:
“This is the first in a series of musical programs to be offered, featuring both the new bands of the future, and the Nation’s top bands of today. This program is produced for showing with the Telo-View Portable Theater and its use for any other purpose is unauthorized. FLO PETTY’S BAND is a member of American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, New York City”
Musical Varieties: Flo Petty and his Orchestra - A Filmography
To date, only ten of the 55 titles recorded and filmed by Flo Petty and his Orchestra have been located by the author, Some are correct image prints, some reverse image. It is not know which type of print the original machine used; obviously, if reverse image, then correct image prints were made after the fact, possibly for home movie release; or possibly reverse image prints were made to accommodate other SOUNDIE-type rear projection devices.
Musical Varieties - Flo Petty and his All Veteran Orchestra
Amusement Research Corp.
Gene Russell, producer
Gene Russell and Bill Hayes, directors
copyrighted September 3, 1946
recorded and filmed ca. spring 194,6 at Nola Studios, New York City
Flo Petty and his Orchestra
(Flo Petty, leader; trumpets, left-to-right: unidentified, unidentified, Harvard Davis; trombones, left-to-right: unidentified, George Wilson; reeds, left-to-right: possibly Frank “Jano” Salto, tenor sax; possibly Mascagni “Musky” Ruffo, alto sax [although it is possible that Ruffo is the next alto sax man in the section]; unidentified alto sax; unidentified tenor sax; Lester Fauntleroy, piano; unidentified string bass; unidentified drums.
Harvard Davis, although unrecorded, had a remarkable career in jazz, working with such musicians as “Hot Lips” Page, Edgar Hayes and Buddy Johnson. Since he also appears with Lee Norman’s band in the black cast feature Keep Punchin’, the subject of a future article, we’ll leave further biographical comment about Harvard until that time. However, David Griffiths’s Hot Jazz: From Harlem to Storyville should once again be noted as the finest coverage of Davis’s career available. His bandmate George Wilson was also active on the Harlem scene, appearing on record with Fats Waller and Roy Eldridge. Davis suggested that Lester Fauntleroy was involved at this time in publishing and booking, although he recorded in the late 1940s with both Cootie Williams and Freddie Mitchell.
As noted above, neither Frank “Jano” Salto nor Musky Ruffo have been confirmed as appearing with the Flo Petty orchestra. Salto was a big band sideman, recording with the the bands of Will Osborne. Gene Krupa and Charlie Spivak. Musky Ruffo had a most remarkable career, recording on close to 125 big band sessions, mostly under the direction of leaders Gene Krupa and Harry James. Assuming that I have correctly identified him on screen, this might represent his only solo work available.
As noted above, 10 of the 55 songs that make up the “Musical Varieties” program have been located to date. The credits on one print give credit to “...a new composer, Jerry Marlind.” It is possible that one or more of the unknown titles below may be by Marlind: “It’s You,” “I Can’t Make My Way” and/or “I’m Tired of Waiting For You.” Another song noted in the credits is a composition by Lee Pearl, Art Berman and Eugene West, “Don’t Say You’re Sorry Again.” Once again, it is not known if this is one of the unidentified titles below.
Here are the songs currently known to exist from the series, although they are almost certainly not presented in the order found on the original release:
1. unidentified title Medium tempo with very attractive theme, interesting arrangement; a short trumpet solo by Harvard Davis, sounding somewhat like Harry James, is spit with an alto sax statement (Musky Ruffo?), very much in the manner of Johnny Hodges
2. Oh, What I Seemed To Be Ballad presentation of this 1946 composition, probably a new song at the time; Ruffo plays some straight sax, again in the Hodges mold, and there is a 16 bar solo from pianist Lester Fauntleroy, sticking close to the melody.
3. unidentified title Another ballad meant to get the dancers on the floor in a romantic mood; no solos
4. unidentified title Great medium tempo piece featuring the alto sax player; if this is Ruffo, it certainly redefines Ruffo’s place in the music; here he plays in the style of Johnny Bothwell; but for the lack of an up-tempo section, this could be one of the features for Bothwell with Boyd Raeburn, or perhaps his own band recording on Signature; Harvard plays it straight in his brief solo statement
5. unidentified title A pop song that is oh so familiar, but I can’t attach a name to it; played a ballad tempo for dancing; the tenor sax identified as Frank “Jano” Salto, as well as Harvard, take solos, sticking close to the melody
6. Honey, yet another ballad The trumpet player seated in the in the middle of the section takes a solo, but doesn’t have much time to stretch out
7. unidentified title A ballad with an implied bolero beat, short closing theme statement from Ruffo
8. It Started All Over Again A presentation of the hit ballad made famous by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey in 1942; Fauntleroy takes the release on one of the chorus, sticking to the melody
9. unidentified title Another familiar piece - a Latin title, I think, but not played in much of a Latin style here
10. I Want To Be Happy This is the hottest piece of the ten, with solos from the middle trumpet, the unidentified tenor sax to the right, and Salto to the left; none of the soloists is astounding, all competent and playing within the conventions of the Swing music of the war years
In some ways the story behind the films ... the tale of the Tele-View Portable Theater system ... is more interesting that the music that we have at hand. However, the music is good and should not be ignored. As Harvard Davis states, these were indeed “good musicians,” and this is a thoroughly professional outfit playing typical Swing and dance music of the war years. The reeds blend well, and Harvard Davis’s lead trumpet is strong, and the rhythm section drives the band in the few medium and uptempo numbers. The biggest surprise, aside from the fact that it is an integrated band, comes from the Hodges-inspired alto sax who we have tentatively identified as Musky. It is very hard to know whether the ballad orientation of the the extant performances is representative of the band’s complete film output since we are missing 45 titles. In any case, it is clear that those dancers, in Poughkeepsie, Shrewsbury, or perhaps Banghor, who danced to the music of Flo Petty and his Orchestra would have had an interesting evening out on the town!