(Note: this is the last post I had ready to go before my hospital adventure. From now on I’ll have to come up with some new ones, so wish me luck! BG)
A good friend of mine, who has been gone for many years now, had a working vintage jukebox in his living room. But it didn’t look out of place, because he and his wife were lifelong collectors of everything from real antiques to quirky collectibles. A visit to their house was almost like a trip to a museum of Americana. In fact, he was the one who inspired me to begin collecting vintage fountain pens, which set up some fun times when he and I would go to giant flea markets. We’d start at opposite ends and race up down the many rows of dealers, trying to beat each other to good deals on pens. But I had an advantage because I was completely focused on writing instruments while he was interested in just about everything.
But back to jukeboxes. I’d be willing to bet that most of us have more than one memory of being around a jukebox at some point, because they’ve been a familiar part of the landscape for many years. Jukeboxes and their early cousins, coin-operated player pianos, were one of the first ways that smart inventors found to separate people from their small change.
One of the earliest forerunners of a jukebox was a gadget cobbled together in 1890 by a couple of guys who paired Thomas Edison’s Class M phonograph (the first true electric machine — it used a battery) with a coin mechanism. It turned out to be pretty successful and I’m sure Edison had a piece of the action, since he was not known for passing up a chance to make a buck. Over the next couple of decades designers kept coming up with new ideas, and by the 1920s, when records had pretty much replaced the early cylinders, those ideas even included record-changers.
You could almost look at the 1930s and 1940s as the beginning of the golden era for jukeboxes, because they seemed to be just about everywhere. Seeberg was probably the most dominant company but there was plenty of competition from Wurlitzer and others, even though manufacturing was curtailed during World War II. It was during this period that they first became known as jukeboxes, probably named from being present in so many juke joints (which in turn derived their name from an African word for rowdy or wicked). Jukeboxes became so popular that they even inspired best-selling records, like this big hit from Glenn Miller.
I think my earliest memory of a jukebox was in a small diner that was just down the street from the junior high school I attended in the 1950s. It was a place that seemed to draw all the cool kids, and a few like me who aspired to coolness but seldom attained it. The jukebox in that little place was filled with pop music and was always blaring, but it was tough for dancers because the diner was so small. And I’m pretty sure there was nothing like what happens in the latter part of the video below.
My next jukebox memory was a couple of years later. I liked to go into a drugstore near my high school and have a Coke while spinning through the pegs on the tabletop jukebox thingy. Remember those? Every booth had one and they were also spaced along the long lunch counter. You could work your way through the choices and pick your favorite, then insert a coin and the music would come out of wall speakers. (That is, if someone didn’t get their favorite in ahead of yours.) I’ve written before about the experience because of how a new Ricky Nelson song wowed me one day.
I’m sure that I’ve run into some other jukeboxes through the years, including a few in some shady places that are suspiciously fuzzy in my memory, but that’s all I’ve got to offer right now. However, it might be fun to finish this little discussion by posting two more jukebox videos that you might enjoy. First up is country music superstar Roy Clark with his take on that Glenn Miller song from decades earlier. The second one is another song played on an old machine, and it’s about a Jukebox Junkie. It’s not about me, but I am fond of them.