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Preserving The Story Of The American Jukebox

Lucas Willard

At his home in Somers in northern Westchester County, Ed Liss has one of the largest collections of a uniquely American invention. Nineteen jukeboxes —  all completely restored and plugged in — line the walls of Ed’s rumpus room.

Ed’s home is filled with machines dating from the 1930s up through the decades. While some appear more modest, others have swirling colored lights and molded cabinets to look like an automobile or a locomotive, and Ed says they all capture the aesthetics of the era in which they were built.

“So these represented a Chrysler, this represented a Chevron. This was a 1960 Chevrolet, the fins’ curve.  The whole machine was designed for its time. The way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it works, and certainly the way it emotionally connects.”

Ed, who worked in the computer industry for 46 years, retired from his own business in 2009 and now devotes his time to his jukebox hobby that he has pursued for nearly four decades. What started out as simply searching for equipment to play records has transformed into a museum of chrome and music.

“I started doing this almost 40 years ago. My friends at the time thought I was nuts. You collect stamps, you collect cars, but you don’t collect jukeboxes. But looking back on it they kinda saw where I was going with it. Although it wasn’t my original intent, it’s just kind of where it ended up.”

It’s not long before Ed’s tour stops at a kaleidoscopic jukebox with bubble tubes running along its curves. It’s a 1946 Wurlitzer.

“This is the great American jukebox. This is the Wurlitzer 1015. This is the one I grew up with as a kid and it was my favorite and it always will be.”

Ed picked up this particular piece in 1975, but it wasn’t in the same shape as it is today, tossing swirling oranges, reds and greens in the jukebox museum. In 2000, Ed sent it away to the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, New York for a ground-up restoration. It’s now a new 67-year old jukebox.

“Most of the part I get for these machines or have to fabricate all come from here in the U.S. Jukeboxes were one hundred percent American made. Period. Before World War II or even after World War II when they started licensing some of them in Europe, these machines pretty much were all made in America. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. With the exception of raw materials and maybe speakers, everything that was made by these manufacturers was made in house.”

Ed punches in a selection on the Wurlitzer for a record he says he doesn’t play very often.

“The records are worth as much as the jukebox collectively. Because some of these are one of a kind. Like this Crazy?

Ed says this Patsy Cline 78 is one of one left in the world. Like all records, every time it’s played, the disc degrades a little more. Ed says if he had a restored Rolls Royce he wouldn’t drive it, but he would gladly drop a nickel into one of his jukeboxes. Listening to the record, he gets a little nostalgic.

“These machines were the ultimate multi-taskers. They had to do everything. They had to work all the time, they had to keep track of the money, the popularity of the song, accumulate the coins. A lot of things going on simultaneously. And you put your nickel in, you press a number, and you get your music. But the technology they used was complex and reliable. It was great American engineering, when made in America really meant something…”

The first electrically amplified jukebox dates back to a machine developed in 1927 by the Automatic Musical Instruments company. Now able to fill a room with sound, the machines were the evolution of the nickel-in-the-slot machines designed in the late 19th century.

Fondly remembered today alongside burgers and chocolate malts, the Fonz, and teenage dances, the jukebox didn’t always occupy such a warm place in American memory.

In its early days, much of the American public turned their nose up at the jukebox. Associated with African Americans, prejudice surrounded the jukebox.

“The gullah language for dance is ‘joog’ so it became ‘juke.’ A jukebox is a dance box. And it was always associated with blacks and low…and it didn’t have a good reputation only because of that. You’d find them in brothels, you’d find them in places of ill-repute. So, they never got the respect. When people thought of jukeboxes, they thought of that kind of stuff. But that’s not the case because jukeboxes were all made by honest, hard working Americans.

“The only place you could hear black music was in a jukejoint that catered to black people because they wouldn’t play it on the radio, it was ‘undignified.’ The irony was that white folks loved black music, but they refused to admit it publicly. Which was kind of stupid because a lot of those records was made in the hey-day of those great artists like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and everyone else under the sun. And a lot of that was lost to the public; it was just not allowed to play.”

Ed’s antiques are filled with the music of their eras. He prefers to listen to the music in its most native form. This Duke Ellington tune is playing on a prototype 1936 Wurlitzer, one of one. It’s an incredibly rare machine, but Ed prefers to his music the way it was enjoyed in the time it was recorded.

“Humans deal in analog. We speak in analog. We don’t talk in zeroes and ones. So our physiology, this is true, our physiology is made for music. Which is analog. It’s just the way it is. Humanism is analog. So even though the digital may sound different, maybe a little better if you have a noisy 78, you can never ever replace the original. You could say, ‘Well this could sound better.’ Yeah but it’s not original anymore, it’s been modified…”

With 19 twinkling machines, Ed isn’t done with his work. But to show his next project, he needs to take the tour beyond the wood-paneled gallery.

After backing the car out of the garage Ed turns around a wooden box, the shell of a 1937 Rockola. He marvels the details of the early machine.

“This is rosewood with it’s called ‘marquee walnut.’ It’s all done by hand. This is all done by hand.”

He didn’t have to go far to find this one. He found it in nearby Katonah, and its owner was happy to oblige his vision.

“A man had it for many years, it didn’t work and he didn’t want it so it was just taking up space, so I said ‘I’ll give ya a little money for it, not much.’ And he said, ‘Take it!’ I mean, a pile of junk until you get into it, but they’re all piles of junk until you get into it.’

Although he started out more private with his hobby, in recent years Ed has found the need to share the story of the American jukebox with his community. He’s produced his own short documentary on the machines, and has given talks to elementary school students.

“So part of what I’ve done is to try to share that with young people so they really understand where this stuff came from and why. It’s not about me, it’s about music. But I’m willing now to kind of share it with people, and certainly older people reconnect to it so they really like it.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.