Complex Link-Up of Phone Lines, Old Phonograph Records : ‘Human Jukebox’ Spins Sounds for the Heart
Drop two bits into an old-fashioned, mahogany jukebox in a Pittsburgh tavern, and Helen Reutzel will spin a memory in the form of a song.
It’s a jukebox with a twist--a human jukebox with a collection of more than 100,000 records dating back to the 1920s and an assortment of customers who would never plunk a quarter into cheap, mechanical imitations.
“If you want to hear ‘Squaws Along The Yukon’ or head-banging music, you can. Helen has everything,” said Dan Casagrande, 39, owner of Brandy’s Restaurant, which has had Reutzel’s “telephone music” for 10 years.
“You can come in here depressed, and you hear these songs and all of a sudden it really does boost you up,” said Nancy Delaney, 54, of Pittsburgh, as she stirred a drink at Brandy’s bar. “I hope this woman is a millionaire because she deserves to be. If she only realized the pleasure she brings to people.”
Pick up a black phone on top of the jukebox, and a raspy voice at a studio across town cheerily asks your preference.
Not sure of the title? No problem. Hum a few bars and chances are Reutzel knows it.
Afraid the song is a little dated or obscure? For an extra $1, she’ll head to the attic and blow the dust off the less-popular tunes.
Want to personalize the song? An additional 50 cents buys a dedication.
“Attention, your attention, please,” Reutzel broadcasts into one of the five bars she services. “This next song is a special dedication to Scott from Arizona. We hope you get lucky tonight, Scott.”
How it all works is not quite clear to Reutzel. Her father devised the system about 60 years ago by using old radio tubes and copper telephone lines. When he died 12 years ago, the secret of telephone music went with him, and his daughter claims no one has been able to duplicate it.
Songs are played over telephone lines from a studio on the city’s North Side to speakers in the bars around the city.
“Studio,” though, may be too grand a word. It’s actually a second-floor walk-up hidden--because of the extensive record collection--in a boarded-up brick building approached from a dimly lit courtyard off a back alley.
The linoleum is worn, the walls need a fresh coat of paint, and any unusable space is covered with papers, ashtrays or coffee cups. Row after row of records line the perimeter of the small room, and opposite a switchboard are three tiers of turntables.
“Everybody has a wild fantasy of what the place looks like. It can be anything they want,” said Reutzel, a salty woman who calls everyone “babe” or “honey.” “They imagine me as a 27-year-old blonde or whatever. They think we’re beautiful and sexy.”
Although Reutzel won’t give her age, she was slightly miffed when a local columnist said her “salad days are wilted.”
Upon hearing a shrill ping-ping sound, which signals two quarters being deposited in a jukebox, Reutzel plugged a wire into the switchboard and picked up her handset.
“Telephone music. What do you want to hear, hon?”
No one answers.
“Number please. This is your jukebox talking. I can hear you laughing . . . What were you doing? . . . You lost a quarter under the machine,” she said, chuckling. “Don’t do that, if you move it and it don’t play, I’ll be on your you-know-what. Go ahead, honey, I’ll give it to you. Don’t worry about it. We’ll leave it for the sweeper.”
The caller requests “Teach Me Tonight” by the DeCastro Sisters, one of several irreplaceable records held together by duct tape. Other records, especially the old 78s, are so warped that coins have to be placed on the arm of the turntable so the needle doesn’t skip.
Although the quality of the recordings isn’t first-rate, a corps of regular telephone music customers would rather have a scratchy song than none at all.
Decades ago--Reutzel isn’t sure how many--her father owned several studios and had 120 jukeboxes distributed in bars around the country. But telephone music waned with the popularity of radio and home stereo systems and, little by little, the slick, handmade jukeboxes were put into storage.
When her father died, Reutzel took over the business for sentimental more than monetary reasons. Bar owners get 40% of each quarter dropped into their jukebox and Reutzel gets 60%. With only five jukeboxes out, the trickle of quarters isn’t enough to pay the volunteers who help her on weekends.
“I inherited it from my father and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It was his baby, his dream.”
Dream analysis is her true love, and she’d rather devote more time giving classes than spinning records. But she says she keeps hanging on “like a rat terrier,” even though there have been times she’s been unable to pay her bills.
“It’s a love thing with the people on the jukebox,” she said. “People will call up that haven’t been in town for years and tell me what they’re doing. One guy came on and said: ‘Do you remember me?’ He said: ‘There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think of you and this jukebox and what all it meant to me.’ ”
“I would hate to see it go, plain and simple,” said Casagrande, who has a group of customers who conduct impromptu sing-alongs with the help of the jukebox every Friday night.
“It’s not the money. We make more on a couple of drinks than on the jukebox,” he said. “It’s just the fact that it’s part of the entertainment. People come here with that in mind, to hang around the jukebox.”
Reutzel is also more than a source of music. Her contagious laughter and easygoing banter can shake the blues for many a lonely customer, like the time she dedicated the song “Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places” to a downhearted patron who lost his girlfriend to another man and wanted to hear “Your Cheating Heart” a dozen times.
“We’re psychiatrists, psychologists, girlfriends. It’s not just a record. It’s that 1-on-1 conversation,” she said.
“Most people in bars are lonely. They’re sitting there and nobody’s talking to them. So they go up and they put a buck in the jukebox and turn around and say: ‘What do you want to hear?’ Everybody looks and says: ‘Hey, baby, I’ll take this.’ It’s a way of making friends because music is a common denominator, she said.”
Music is also a way to reminisce through that special song that tugs at romantics’ hearts or makes an old man tap his toes.
“How many people can be instantly gratified for whatever moment they want?” Reutzel saids. “When you have over 100,000 selections, you can reach everyone.”
Reutzel doesn’t profess to having favorites, but there is one tune that breathes life into the distant past. When the requests slow down and she’s feeling nostalgic, she plays a song her father recorded decades ago as a member of the Steel City Four, a barbershop quartet.
It’s a special song for many reasons. Reutzel was reared by her mother but always longed to be closer to her father, and hearing his voice among the thousands of records he collected over the years helps keep the bonds alive.