The image of Happy Days’ Arthur Fonzarelli knocking a temperamental jukebox into life with a quick and cool flick of his wrist is one that inexplicably fills us with a sense of nostalgia for a time and place most of us never actually knew and probably did much to make them the bona fide collectors’ items they are today. However, the garish statement of 1950’s Americana that we know and love today is a long way off from its earliest incarnation. The first jukeboxes were nothing more than simple wooden boxes with coin slots and a few buttons.
But as they began to carve out a place for automatic pay-per-tune music in cafes, diners, fairgrounds, amusement parks and other public places, they became more and more decorated, using colour lights, rotating lights, chrome, bubble tubes, ceiling lamps, and other visual gimmicks that would appeal to a youth market. Many consider the 1940s to be the “golden age” of jukebox styling with the gothic-like curvaceous “electric rainbow cathedral” look. World War II and the Great Depression were over, so the new designs and sales choices reflected the festive mood. The first model manufactured after WWII was the Model A, produced by AMI. Affectionately referred to as the “Mother of Plastic”, it featured large areas of opalescent plastics and coloured gemstones.
Styling progressed from the plain wooden boxes in the early thirties to beautiful light shows with marbleized plastic and colour animation in the Wurlitzer 850 Peacock of 1941. But after the United States entered the war, metal and plastic were needed for the war effort. Jukeboxes were considered “nonessential” meaning manufacturers had to be more inventive with their designs. Though production was greatly reduced, it did not halt and the period resulted in designs like the now classic Wurlitzer 950, which featured wooden coin chutes to save on metal.
Advances in technology had a profound effect on the way jukeboxes were manufactured and used. Starting in the 1980s, compact discs became the norm for modern jukeboxes. Towards the end of the 20th century several companies started introducing completely digital jukeboxes which did not use physical recordings. The music selection and playback system was replaced by a computer. A selection of songs suitable to the bar or cafe where the jukebox is located are generally cached in the local storage of the machine.
The advantage of this design is the seemingly endless selection of music available instantly to the customer by automatic download from an internet connection. Of course the downside of this, according to aficionados, is the loss of romance and the sterilisation of jukeboxes. The hiss and crackle of an old style jukebox as the needle meets the vinyl is all part of the experience and something that cannot be artificially recreated. Even the digital jukebox manufacturers themselves show an awareness and appreciation of the love we have for original jukeboxes in the way new jukeboxes often remain true to the classic look and make up of old models even though they contain no records and could actually be much smaller.
Whether contrasted against current popular trends like art nouveau or minimalism or as part of a classic diner style kitchen full of the usual faux leather booths, coloured linoleum tiles and voile curtains a jukebox can be a real feature in any home.