Indiana man restores voice to vintage ‘talking machines’

Early 1920s Brunswick console phonograph. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Grand View Antiques and Auction

Early 1920s Brunswick console phonograph. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Grand View Antiques and Auction


TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) – When Jim Cooper bought a nearly century-old phonograph at a neighbor’s yard sale, it began a two-year love affair that has seen him purchase and restore 30 vintage “talking machines.”

The Brunswick record player – made by the company now known more for billiards and bowling – had been painted black and Cooper set out to restore it to its original grandeur. Scraping with fine steel wool revealed its tiger oak construction, “which is beautiful wood,” he said.

Inside the turntable motor, he found original, 100-year-old grease that was “like tar.” After he rebuilt the motor and refinished the cabinet with what he called a homemade “stain-like concoction,” his neighbors hinted they’d like to have the piece of Americana back, he said with a laugh.

“I just love the sound of them,” Cooper said of phonographs collectively, but incorrectly, referred to as Victrolas, but that name was a trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Co., later acquired by the Radio Corporation of America. “You can’t go anyplace else and get that sound. It’s clear as a bell. There might be some worn out records that are not, but if you have a good needle and a good record, you’re going to have some good music.”

Victor was the market leader at the peak of popularity for upright phonographs that featured internal horns for sound amplification. Earlier models had external horns. Variances in needles, made from steel or bamboo, determined sound level. Victrolas were so popular that products of other manufacturers bore such names such as Robinola, Tonkola and Saxola.

At one point in the late 1910s, more than 400 companies produced upright phonographs and some table models, according to the website of the Antique Phonograph Society. Victor, Brunswick, Edison and Pathe were considered industry leaders. Others included the now obscure Crippen, Steger and Cheney, sponsored by the Chicago department store Marshall Field, as well as such still familiar names as Columbia and Emerson.

A native of Ehrmandale in northeastern Vigo County and a Fontanet High School alumnus, Cooper, 74, worked as a carpenter before taking a job at Terre Haute’s Wabash Fibre Box Co., where he worked in the pressroom for 34 years. He gained mechanical experience at that job where he revived machines he said “everyone else had junked … and sent to the dump.”

As for the internal workings of the antique phonographs, Cooper said he “just learned by feeling my way through them. You can’t get shocked. There’s no electricity there.”

Turntables of Victrolas and similar phonographs operated via a crank-wound spring. It wasn’t until 1925 that even half of American homes had electrical wiring. After electricity use grew, RCA marketed an Electrola model for a time and continued to use the name Victrola until the late 1960s, even for portable models.

Cooper installed glass windows in one vintage Victrola to showcase its internal workings. He also restored some phonographs by installing turntables from one model into the cabinet of another and by custom building cabinets.

While original Victrolas and other “talking machines” played only 78 rpm records, later models can play seven-inch 45 rpm records and 33 1/3 rpm “long playing” records.

Cooper acquired thousands of records via his acquisition of phonographs in need of refurbishing. The recordings he selected to demonstrate his machines show a definite hankering for the Hanks – Williams Sr., Snow and Thompson. “I’m a country fan because that’s what I grew up listening to as a hillbilly,” he quipped.

He has some spoken word recordings featuring early to mid-20th century comedians and political figures and other notables, including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt. Harry Truman and Babe Ruth. He also has big band music, jazz, pop, rock and “probably” some opera, although he said he “wouldn’t ruin a needle playing it.”

After his wife, Georgia, declared “enough is enough,” Cooper moved most of his collection out of the couple’s home on Terre Haute’s northeast side to “A Long Long Time Ago,” an antique shop at 1537 Ohio Street.

Thousands of people across the country collect antique phonographs but Cooper is concerned he may have “flooded the market” in Terre Haute by restoring so many. While some rare models can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, Cooper’s gems are valued in the hundreds of dollars each.

Even as technology change how music is delivered, he believes audiophiles will continue to enjoy Victrolas and other “talking machines” for at least another 100 years.

“I haven’t seen anybody yet that, when I crank one up for them, they don’t have a smile on their face.”


By DAVE TAYLOR, Tribune-Star

Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star,

Information from: Tribune-Star,

Copyright 2017 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-01-06-17 1001GMT