NEW YORK – Long after gaining a foothold in the United States in the 17th century by selling German-imported musical instruments, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. became synonymous with jukeboxes in the early 1930s. The firm was founded in 1856 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and later relocated to Detroit and Tonawanda, N.Y. It was well known for pianos and band organs before expanding into jukeboxes.
In 1933, Rudolph’s son and his corporate successor, Farny Wurlitzer, had a fortuitous meeting with Indiana businessman Homer C. Capehart that led the company on this new path with the latter selling to Wurlitzer a mechanism for automatic record changing along with his company. Capehart convinced Farny that the jukebox would be a success and that he would sell 25,000 machines within three years. The first model was the Debutante in 1933. Sales were even better than predicted and the firm reportedly sold over 40,000 jukeboxes in 1936 alone. The jukebox quickly became a fixture of soda shops, restaurants and roadside bars and at its peak of popularity in the mid-1950s, about 750,000 jukeboxes were in use across America.
Originally called nickelodeons, jukeboxes – depending on what source one reads – may have gotten the name from a West African or Gullah word, jook, with one meaning referring to a kind of a dance hall. Its first recorded use was in Time magazine when swing-era bandleader Glenn Miller spoke about the boost to his career from jukeboxes.
Several companies competed hotly for their share of the jukebox market, particularly in the late 1930s to the 1960s, including Wurlitzer, Seeburg and Rock-Ola. Chief among the Wurlitzer models that collectors most gravitate to is the 1015 Bubbler model, which debuted in the 1940s just after World War II ended. Frustrated by years of wartime restrictions, Wurlitzer’s designer Paul Fuller created this exuberant model that had the quintessential look jukeboxes are now renowned for with an arching top and colorful bubble tubes.
“There are a lot of other models that are very desirable. There are Wurlitzer models that are worth more than the 1015,” says longtime jukebox collector Nick Rosa, a past president of the American Historic Juke Box Society. “It’s just that the 1015 is so well-known and so loved and even from an engineering point of view … fantastic amplifier and excellent mechanism. It’s just a great jukebox all the way around.”
“The most valuable Wurlitzer is the 950. It came out in 1941 but no sooner did it come out then World War II broke out so Wurlitzer had to cease production,” Rosa said, noting that since the company made only about 4,000 of them, they are in high demand and valuable owing to their scarcity.
Earlier models had a more conservative, squared-off look with straight edges and straight corners. Limited in the war years to glass and wood since metal was needed for military use, Fuller “did the best he could, but his wartime Model 42, the ‘Victory’ model, had a stodgy look,” according to the American Heritage website.
John Papa Sr., of the National Jukebox Exchange in Mayfield, N.Y., agreed that the Wurlitzer 1015 was a very happy looking jukebox and a far cry from its predecessors. “From a design point of view, it really just looks happy. The Wurlitzer jukebox just prior to that, the 950 and the Victory are very serious-looking jukeboxes, especially the Victory,” he said. “Operators complained about the Victory because they said it look like a coffin.”
Fuller was a master in manufacturing with plastics, such as his Wurlitzer Model 850 of 1941 that used polarized acetate discs positioned in front of incandescent light bulbs to create a prism effect. Rosa actually prefers the look of the 850 and says it is highly coveted but less rare since some 10,000 were made.
“What makes a jukebox valuable and collectible is the visibility of the mechanism and any kind of animation it has – be it bubble tubes, rotating color cylinders, rotating title board and things of that nature.”
Papa said the Wurlitzer 850, which is known as the Peacock model, was the largest jukebox Wurlitzer ever made and probably the most elaborate. On its glass front was a peacock with polarized film behind the glass that turned, creating the illusion of the peacock’s feathers turning colors. “They were trying to do anything they could to attract someone to the machine to put a nickel in it.” he said. “The 850 is really elaborate. If you look at it from a design point of view or artistic point of view, there’s a lot going on there.”
Jukebox collectors are passionate about their collections. Papa was a car collector 40 years ago on a sales call when he saw his first vintage jukebox, restored, in a client’s office. “I spent almost an hour checking that thing out inside and out. I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. When he got home (this was pre-Internet), he placed an ad in his local paper seeking to buy an old jukebox. “I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know if I would get any calls but the phone rang off the hook. Within a year, I bought over 100 jukeboxes.” He taught himself how to fix them and began a restoration business.
Rosa, who bought his first jukebox after seeing a sign for a slot, pinball and jukebox show in 1987, which he still has now along with two dozen other jukeboxes. Collectors are drawn, he said, to models with a striking look and all the bells and whistles from rotating color cylinders to bubble tubes and a visible mechanism. “Certain jukeboxes like certain cars have a look about them that attracts a lot of attention.”