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Jukeboxes Can Still Sing, Sing, Sing : Today’s Models Play CDs for $1, Not Platters for a Nickel

The Washington Post

It’s been a long century for the jukebox.

Of course, the juke as we know it today is really only in its mid-50s, approaching retirement age.

But its prototype was introduced Nov. 23, 1889, at the Palais Royale in San Francisco, and this year is the beginning of the industry’s centennial celebration.

That primitive machine was actually a coin-operated phonograph with no speakers, four individual listening tubes--and a coin slot for each tube. Even then, the underlying principle was as much money as music.

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Forty-five years later, they started building the classics, the kind where you slip your nickel into the dream machine and waited for the magic to happen. The nickel would drop down the slot--usually you could hear it join its brethren--and then came the sudden illumination of translucent plastic panels, sometimes creamy as unsunned skin, just as often rainbow-hued. There might be revolving color panels or oil-filled tubes, psychedelia before psychedelics.

You would stand at the machine, not necessarily conscious of its soft shoulders and gentle curves, the subtle seduction of its finely crafted wood cabinets. You would look at the card titles--or flip through one of those little carrousel remotes if you were sitting at a table in the malt shop--and press the buttons that matched your mood.

Searching for Selections

You could peer through the glass window and listen for the whir of the motor as the chrome-plated mechanism searched out your selection, moving up and down or sideways, looking for connection. Then it would stop and the tray would swing out, the chosen disc flipping into position.

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Then, the music.

During the golden age of the jukebox--about 1935 to 1950 for the manufacturers, another decade for the consumer--this scene was played out in front of 700,000 machines scattered across the United States in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, soda shops, any place people tended to gather.

Of course, if there was a jukebox, they would gather a little harder, often jitterbugging or what not to favorite songs of the moment--there to dance and make romance, as Chuck Berry would say.

The jukeboxes from this era are highly treasured now. They evoke a bygone era of innocence, which may be why Baby Boomers are willing to spend big bucks for them (into the low five figures for a 1946 Wurlitzer 1015, the Classic of Classics, and the most popular jukebox ever made). Having one in the basement--in working order, of course--creates an ambiance in which people can conjure up their past.

Some hip executives have even converted old Wall-O-Matic models into grand Rolodexes.

Symbol of Independence

In the Swing Era of the ‘40s and even more in the early days of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, the jukebox was a symbol of independence--musically, socially, aesthetically.

You didn’t hear a lot of classical music on the jukes; the emphasis was on American music rooted in American communities. Little wonder that during World War II, jukeboxes were often shipped to the troops overseas to give them a little taste of home. Rally round the juke, boys.

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After the war, with America feeling its oats, there was a sudden national compulsion to make everything bigger and better. This was particularly true in the auto industry, and pretty soon the big five of the jukebox world--Wurlitzer, Mills, Seeberg, Rock-Ola and AMI--were mimicking Detroit’s option consciousness.

They offered 100 or 200 selections where there had only been dozens before, and moved away from gracious curves, dark wood and colored plastics to angular shapes, metallic trim and a harsh fluorescent glare that reflected the more aggressive sound of postwar music.

Even in the late 1890s, when the sound was terrible, coin-operated phonographs were a familiar sight; there were “phonograph parlors,” forerunners of today’s video arcades, with dozens of machines, each with a linen towel to clean the earphone.

Of course, back then, not only were phonograph players and records rare, they were so expensive most people couldn’t afford to buy them. But they could afford to rent them, one play at a time. An industry was born.

Unfortunately, no effective selection system was developed until the 1900s. And even when the format moved from clumsy cylinders to the more convenient and longer-lasting 78 disc, the early models suffered from amplification problems, rendering them ineffective in public places. They competed with mechanical instruments (pianos in particular), and it wasn’t until the mid-'20s, with the arrival of the Simplex multiselection mechanism and AMI’s first electrically amplified phonograph, that people could gather to hear, and dance to, decently amplified music.

A Nickel’s Worth

Then came the Depression, when even a nickel’s worth of entertainment was a serious commitment. But with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the return of alcohol and good times, people looking for cheap entertainment could turn to radio (which replaced the phonograph as the dominant musical medium) and to the jukes.

Some places would rent a jukebox for the weekend instead of hiring a band, and the primal relationships that still fuel the industry--operators and locations splitting the money, hot music being hyped--were re-established.

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The ‘30s also marked the emergence of the legendary manufacturers. Henry Ford-like characters came forth, foremost among them Homer Capehart, designer of 1928’s Orchestrope, the first automatic machine able to play both sides of its 28 selections (it also spun off those remote-control wall boxes). Unfortunately, the Orchestrope didn’t work particularly well and it wasn’t until after the Depression that the industry took hold.

Over the next 15 years, classic model after classic model was shipped out: Wurlitzer’s Model 950 and its famous 1015; Rock-Ola’s Rhythm King and Monarch; Seeberg’s Gem, Crown, Casino Royal and Symphanola (in 1938, the first light-up jukebox); AMI’s Streamliner, Singing Tower and Model A, a huge, garish machine dubbed “Mother of Plastic.” Seeberg even had its Play-Boy, a juke that was wheeled around from table to table, much like a dessert wagon.

For the Defense

During World War II, and with jukeboxes hardly a vital commodity, the manufacturers converted to defense work. Since most of the world’s shellac came from Japanese-controlled Southeast Asia, there was an immediate record shortage; new releases were few and far between. There was also a two-year musicians’ union ban on recording, fueled partly by the popularity of jukeboxes and their ability to put musicians out of work (the head of the union referred to jukes as “Public Scab No. 1").

After the war, renewed competition between the various companies was marked by industrial espionage and one-upmanship.

New models came out every other year, and when Seeberg brought out its M-100A Selectomatic, for example--offering 100 selections where the norm has been half that--it vaulted to the top of the pack. Suddenly, anything with less than 100 choices seemed archaic.

The next advance was the introduction of the 45, and in 1950, Seeberg once again lead the way. Seeberg sensed that the smaller, lighter format was perfectly suited to the jukes, and could in fact expand the capacity to as many as 200 records per juke; its M-110B was the first jukebox built strictly to accommodate 45s.

Owners’ Choice

It took some of the other manufacturers two or three years to make the same commitment and, just as today’s consumer has to choose among album, cassette and CD, early ‘50s jukebox owners had to choose among machines that played 78s, 45s and even LP’s.

Also in the ‘50s, the cost of a single play went from a nickel to a dime (it helped that the cost of a phone call went up at the same time). The last juke to accept nickels was built in 1951.

By this time, the classic Art-Decoish designs were a thing of the past. Instead, you could see the influence of Detroit in models like Rock-Ola’s Rocket, Comet and Fireball, some of which mimicked the grills and the tail fins of the autos du jour. Jukeboxes became symbols of the developing youth culture. In almost any youth-oriented film of the time, a jukebox figures somewhere in the action.

Then, without warning, times changed.

By the early ‘60s, the music-industry focus had shifted to albums. A mass suburban migration meant there just weren’t as many venues receptive to jukeboxes.

Now it was car radios--and later, cassette players--that gave young folks their music. The ‘50s suddenly seemed hopelessly passe. Television took hold. Fast-food restaurants sprouted up, undermining the casual culture of diners, drug stores and malt shops. Restaurants shifted to Muzak, radio or tapes. Bars stuck televisions in the corner, often unplugging the jukebox. In the ‘80s came video games, stealing all the quarters.

Over these years, jukebox designs became more subdued and functional than grand and artistic; the jukes were consoles now, no longer dream machines. They are no longer the center of attention, but mechanical employees, often at bars and bowling alleys, working for tips.

Thousands Play

Still, there are a lot of them out there (225,000 according to the Amusement and Music Operators Assn., which estimates that 48 million songs are played each week, and that 78 million people hear them.)

Wurlitzer’s last model came out in the early ‘70s--the 1050 was a nostalgic (but technically updated) version of the classic 1015, but it didn’t take hold.

Seeberg went bankrupt, then went back into business in 1983 and now manufactures only the LaserMusic CD jukebox, the one with a thousand-plus selections, three for a dollar. You can play a whole album on the LaserMusic machine, which doesn’t take coins: only dollars bills. AMI-Rowe manufactures a jukebox that plays both singles and CDs and there are several models of video jukeboxes, though they seem only marginally more popular than the Mills Panorama models that failed in the ‘40s.

Rock-Ola’s recent Nostalgia jukebox--with a bubble top, plastic panel, fancy grillwork and light shows based on a Wurlitzer design--didn’t really catch on. But Wurlitzer’s German division has started manufacturing the Wurlitzer One More Time--a faithful recreation of the 1015, with modern electrical components--and it has done well.

Costly Machines

The new machines cost between $3,000 and $9,000; for quite a few dollars more, you can get the real thing at a place like suburban Maryland’s Home Amusement Co., which has hundreds of old jukes on its premises.


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