Not much is known about Nai Bonet’s early life. She was born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and a French Father, in 1944. At some point her family moved to New York City, moving from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Yonkers. While visiting a friend who was practicing the craft, Nai Bonet tried belly dancing for the first time. She was a natural, as later evidenced by her debut headlining gig at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. She was only 13 years old.
Fast forward to 1966. Now 22 years old, with a few small theater and TV parts under her belt, Nai tries her hand at singing. Still known primarily known for her dancing ability, she wisely chooses a silly little tune called Jelly Belly. And the Karate Records graphic designer wisely uses the back of the sleeve to break the dance down step by step.
However, someone at Karate not-so-wisely forgot to put the artist’s name on the record label, thus necessitating the use of a rubber stamp before sending it out to the radio stations that would hopefully play the song, this being a promotional copy.
Also, they seemed to lack faith in Nai’s singing ability, as the B side is an instrumental.
Which is a shame, because Bonet isn’t a bad singer, at least as far as half-spoken novelty songs go.
The story of Ms. Bonet (no relation to Lisa) and the crude exoticism of this video could be the subject of a great thesis paper on cultural production and autonomy filtered through the mirror of mixed race “otherness” and the sex-positive—though ultimately self-defeating—tack of using colonialist stereotypes of Oriental (cleverly, in both uses of the word) eroticization to exercise one’s agency in the pursuit of supporting oneself in the creative field. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write that paper, though I’d have loved to when I was an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence. I will say that this clip holds high value both as camp fun and as a clear example of how American pop culture made itself look pretty stupid when even lightheartedly approaching other countries’ cultures.
This clip also holds significant value to archival nerds like myself because it is a Scopitone film.
A Scopitone was a jukebox that played 16mm film clips of songs that were projected right on the built-in screen. It was invented in France in 1960, and it’s popularity spread to many other countries—particularly England and Germany. American company Tel-A-Sign acquired the rights to manufacture and distribute Scopitones in the USA in 1964.
This predecessor to MTV wasn’t even the first of its kind. “Soundies” were film clips of songs that played in self-contained machines as far back as the 1939 World’s Fair. However, soundies played on a continuous loop, whereas the Scopitone machine allowed the customer to drop in a quarter and choose one of 32 clips. Each clip was played from a film cartridge that was attached to a rotating drum inside the machine.
At $3,500, the machines were not cheap, but they did well in bars and night clubs. Not much effort was made to tap into the burgeoning album-oriented rock music that was popularized by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, though, so the machines lost popularity by the end of the decade, finally ceasing production entirely in the late 1970’s. Scopitone machines needed a lot of upkeep and working examples are rare.
Apparently, Jack White’s Third Man record store has one, retrofitted to play new clips for the artists on his record label. 16mm film is still used, but the sound is now high fidelity optical, played by a laser, rather than magnetic tape. That, I would love to see. And hear.
As for Nai Bonet, she continued to get small roles in B movies, blaxploitation flicks, and a soft-core porn take on the Brothers Grimm (Tagline: “Someday Your Prince Will Come.”) She eventually wrote and starred in two of her own films, one of which was called Nocturna and had her playing Dracula’s granddaughter in Disco-era New York City. It is now a cult classic, but the film did poorly at the time (perhaps it was overshadowed by the more family-friendly vampire in disco-era New York City movie Love at First Bite) and Nai soon retired from show business altogether. Unconfirmed reports say that she is living quietly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and running her own religious items store. Go figure.