From the mid-1930s to the start of World War II, today considered the ‘Golden Age of Jukeboxes,’ the number operating in America soared from 20,000 to 300,000, by one estimate.
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., which had been producing Mighty Wurlitzer theater organs since 1910 and other instruments for decades longer, soon emerged as the leading jukebox producer—though it preferred the more sedate term ‘automatic phonograph’—thanks in part to one of the few jukebox designers to be singled out for his creations.
Paul Fuller “was the master of the theatrical, romantic look, using wood, metal, plastic, color, lighting and animation in a way that made the entire jukebox the entertainment, not just the music it played,” Christopher Pearce wrote in Vintage Jukeboxes: the Hall of Fame.
Fuller’s design for the Wurlitzer model 24, so named because it was the first Wurlitzer to have 24 selections, with its glowing plastic frame and cascading Art Deco grille, “represented the start of what was to become the Golden Age of the jukebox,” according to Pearce. When the machine hit the market in 1937, Wurlitzer named its designer in their ads—rare in a field where most designers remained anonymous.
The jukebox, once encased in a tasteful but bland wooden cabinet, went Art Deco, with a pronounced grille, colored plastic, and a light show of ‘dancing bubbles’ thanks to heated gas.
Another designer who helped give jukeboxes their backlit glow is Nils Miller, an engineer and plastics pioneer at Seeburg in the 1930s.
Remote wall boxes and countertop boxes soon brought music to patrons sitting at the bar or in a diner’s booth. Rock-Ola introduced the dial-a-tune jukebox, with songs selected using a telephone’s rotary dial. There were even wireless ‘stroller’ jukeboxes that could be rolled across the floor.
And, in an attempt to provide listeners with thousands of songs to choose from, not just 16 or 24, jukebox companies turned to the telephone. Simply call an ‘automatic hostess,’ request a number, and the jukebox would play it. AMI promised that each lovely hostess would be both “as intimate as one of your own family and as remote as an angel in heaven.”
The Silver Age, beginning right after the War, may have seen a slowdown in production, but no slowdown in technical or aesthetic improvements.
The ‘40s and ‘50s, proved “the jukeboxes’ finest moment,” Pearce wrote, “when designers and engineers worked at breakneck pace…when every year brought something new.”
Parson, a jukebox collector and restorer who has one jukebox at his place in Palm Springs and many more at his home near Vancouver, describes how jukeboxes changed during the ‘50s.
Most significantly, they “held way more records,” with 100 and then 200 selections—versus the 24 that most held before. They also switched from large, cumbersome 78-rpm records to smaller, slimmer 45s.
Influenced by Detroit, Parson says, jukeboxes adopted the wraparound windshield look, fully exposing the record changing mechanism. “People were enthused about watching the record mechanism and the record playing,” he says. The wall of glass also calls to mind mid-century modern architecture.
The warmth of wood and nickel plating of the 1940s gave way in the 1950s to the glitzier look of chrome. Some jukeboxes, including the AMI Continental, took on definite space-age tones.