The Panoram is now best known for the vast library of short, three minute music videos that were created for it. Called soundies, these films featured most of the great musical stars of the period, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway. Many of the filmed interludes survive and are considered a priceless archive.
The Panoram was priced more than $10,000 in 2006 dollars. It was generally seen in bars, cafes, and upscale dancing establishments where they ran as a curiosity. Following World War II, the device never recovered its previous popularity due to competition from Television.
The Soundies were printed backwards (mirror image) so that they would appear in a correct orientation when played in a Panoram machine. A Panoram was the size of a refrigerator and employed a series of mirrors to reflect the image from a projector onto a 27-inch, rear-projection, etched-glass screen in a tight, enclosed cabinet. The popular machines were first produced in 1939 by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, Illinois, (which also made art-deco, fancy slot machines) and found their way into countless soda shops, taverns, bus and train stations and other public places across the nation. The specially-made 16mm films ran in a continuous loop and stopped when an in-line metal strip passed a sensor. The patron then put another nickel (or dime) in the machine to run the series of four to six 2- to 3-minute films again. The Panoram mechanics were housed in an Art Deco, high quality wood cabinet, the Soundies being 8 to 12 minute films that typically showed jazz and other musicians of the day, as well as dance troups and other acts. With the beginning of World War II, production of the Soundies and Panoram machines was drastically reduced due to a wartime raw material shortage and the Mills Panoram's 1940 success quickly faded.