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Jukebox for Two Bits (and Change)

March 20, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

To many modern wage slaves, the American Dream means owning your own home. To me, it means owning my own saloon.

Not for profit, mind you. Nothing so crass. My saloon would be in the cavernous basement of my own house (note: as of this writing, this entire scenario is an immense, babbling fantasy) and would be open every day after work to anyone who wanted to drop by for a few laughs. It would be cozy, homey, user-friendly. Silly behavior would be encouraged. Drinks, snacks, the odd pizza, a starting time on the Astroturf putting green--everything would be free.

Everything except the music. The jukebox, a Wurlitzer Model 1015, would accept only quarters, and the take would pay the freight on the entire place. I'm absolutely convinced of this because, while people may wear their fingers raw clipping coupons to save a dime on cat litter, they'll feed quarters into a jukebox as if they expect the thing to pay a jackpot.

People have always been nuts for jukeboxes. So when stereo mega-systems supplanted scratchy 45s in most former juke joints, and the neon monsters began to show up on the open market, a kind of specific nostalgia craze was born.

Less specific, however, was the issue of what to call the in-home jukebox. Was it an investment? An antique? A music system? Furniture that glows? It all depended on your point of view, for the old jukeboxes were fairly unsophisticated affairs--fascinating to watch in operation, often dazzling to behold, but sometimes hugely expensive and with rotten sound reproduction. What to do?

Over the years, true collectors have been undaunted. For whatever reason, they've wanted the real thing, says pioneering jukebox restorer Don Muller. They've hung out at places such as Mr. C's Rare Records in Orange, where owner Everett Caldwell says he receives about eight restored jukeboxes a year.

When Muller, who lives in North Hills, began restoring jukeboxes in 1971, specimens and parts were plentiful and prices were relatively low. However, he said, when material began to get scarce in the United States and restorers had to go to Mexico to find both boxes and parts (many of which were in poor shape), prices went up, even as the quality of the restored product decreased.

Today, however, parts for vintage machines are being remanufactured and high-quality restoration is again possible. So, Muller said, it's worth knowing where the guts of a prospective purchase came from before you buy. And, whether you buy your restored machine at a shop or an antique trade show (where many are regularly available), you'll want to bring a fat wallet. A well-restored 1946 Wurlitzer Model 1015--the most popular jukebox ever, according to Muller--can cost more than $10,000.

Still, an old jukebox is hardly a state-of-the-art music system. Which is precisely why Wurlitzer and another manufacturer, Antique Apparatus in Torrance, have begun to market reproductions of old models. And once again, the popular winner is the Model 1015, although the original builders would marvel at the mechanisms offered today.

The original 1015 played 24 shellac 78 r.p.m. records, said Terry Hopple, the authorized California distributor for Wurlitzer. The new 1015 as manufactured by Wurlitzer under the model name One More Time is a remote control stereo machine and can play either 50 45 r.p.m. records (which Hopple also sells at his Fullerton location) or 50 to 100 compact discs. Prices vary by retailer, but Hopple said the 45 r.p.m. model may sell in the $5,500 range and the 50-CD model in the neighborhood of $6,500 (the upgrade to 100-CD capability costs about $200).

While vintage machines are often seen as "a piece of furniture and not something you're going to play 10 hours a day, seven days a week," said Hopple, the CD reproduction models, which offer a random selection feature, are "like having your own radio station."

Antique Apparatus, which recently bought the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Co. of Chicago--a venerated old jukebox name--builds not only modern Rock-Ola style boxes, but replicas of old Wurlitzers, including the ornate Gazelle and Peacock models as well as the 1015, Hopple said. And, he added, the fascinating sight of individual records being plucked from the stack and placed on a turntable by a robot arm is still a part of the new models. It all just sounds better.

The bad news, at least for the die-hard collectors: The appearance of the razor-sharp reproduction models inevitably caused the value of the real things to slip. The good news: The old ones still accept coins. So, if you're out there somewhere living my saloon fantasy, tell all your guests what a great jukebox you have. And charge 'em.

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