Remember when you could put another dime in the jukebox and rock around the clock to your favorite song?
Believe it or not, those happy days aren’t over yet.
Though the dime is now more like 50 cents or even a dollar, you can still find a jukebox here and there on Long Island. It might be a classic, brightly lit model, the kind that spins real 45s on a turntable, or it might be one of the newer, all-digital types that look more like a video game. But the jukebox is still around and serving essentially the same function that it has for roughly a century: playing the music of your choice in exchange for a modest fee.
“The appeal is multifaceted,” said John Papa, owner of National Jukebox Exchange, a retail and restoration shop in upstate Mayfield. “You’ve got a visual thing going on, and then you’ve got the audio. And when it’s your record playing through the sound system like that, there’s nothing better.”
THE JUKEBOX: A SHORT HISTORY
Jukeboxes are almost as old as recorded music itself. It wasn’t long after the invention of audio cylinders in the late 1800s that manufacturers began mounting penny slots on phonographs. In 1928, a Swedish-born business owner named Justus Seeburg created an early version of the jukebox called the Audiophone — a bulky coin-operated machine with eight rotating turntables.
Seeburg’s namesake company would become one of the best-known jukebox manufacturers in America alongside Rock-Ola (named for its founder, David Cullen Rockola) and Wurlitzer, named after its German immigrant founder, Rudolph Wurlitzer. The companies reportedly tried to avoid the word "juke" — said to come from the Creole Gullah word for "bawdy" and typically associated with Black nightclubs called juke joints — but the name jukebox stuck. As cylinders turned into 78 rpm records and then 45s, the jukebox industry grew steadily; a pause came during World War II, when both Wurlitzer and Rock-Ola turned to munitions production.
Soon after the war, Wurlitzer created what remains the definitive jukebox: the Wurlitzer 1015. With its wooden panels, colorful lighting and now-famous bubble tubes — filled with a low-boiling chemical heated from below — the Wurlitzer 1015 married the Art Deco style of yesteryear with the space-age aesthetic of the coming decade. Wurlitzer is thought to have manufactured around 50,000 of the machines, though precise figures are hard to come by.
“It really is a work of art,” Papa said. “If you get hit on the head and wake up, and somebody says ‘jukebox’ — this is the one you’ll think of.”
During the 1950s and ‘60s, jukeboxes popped up in diners, soda fountains and bars all over America, becoming inextricably linked to postwar adolescence and rock and roll. It’s a jukebox that outlaw biker Marlon Brando stands next to when he explains what he’s rebelling against (“Whattaya got?”) in 1953’s “The Wild One.” When the creators of ABC’s 1950s-themed sitcom “Happy Days” needed a visual symbol of the decade, they turned to a jukebox — specifically, the Seeburg Select-O-Matic 100, which appears in the opening credits. Even into the 1980s, you could hear jukebox references in hit songs like the Flirts’ “Jukebox (Don't Put Another Dime)” and Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero.”
The CD era that followed turned out to be a mixed blessing for the jukebox industry. On the one hand, a CD can hold more than 70 minutes of music — as opposed to the two-song 45 — which offered patrons a larger-than-ever musical catalog. On the other hand, CDs could be prohibitively expensive.
“When an album comes out and it’s an album everybody wants to hear, and you have 40 to 50 jukeboxes on the street, it gets costly,” said Joe Timpanaro, owner of the amusement vending company Zoro Enterprises in Elmont. “And then as soon as you get that album, another album comes out. We were buying CDs like crazy.”
What’s more, the new technology brought new complications. “Some of the problems we ran into was the scanning infrared beam for the CDs,” said James D’Elia, 93, a retired jukebox repairman in Massapequa. “It would get clouded up by all the smoke in the bars.”
The dawn of digital, internet-connected jukeboxes — which can access literally millions of songs — made the old-fashioned models essentially obsolete, according to Timpanaro. “Now all your mechanical parts, your carriers, the armature that grabs the CD or the 45, are eliminated,” he said. “The only problem now is a heat issue: You need a lot of fans to keep the equipment from overheating.”
NOTHIN' FINER THAN A JUKEBOX IN A DINER
The classic diner with a classic jukebox — like Arnold’s Drive-In from “Happy Days” or Lou’s Cafe from “Back to the Future” — still exists on Long Island. At the Hauppauge Palace Diner on Smithtown Bypass, a Rock-Ola jukebox greets customers as they walk through the door. There are also seven tables with their own mini-jukeboxes. Drop in 50 cents, and your song will play at your table (plus any other table where the jukebox has money in it) and through the diner’s overhead speakers.
“I love it,” Angela Savastano, of Smithtown, said while having lunch at one of the Palace’s jukebox-outfitted tables on a recent Thursday afternoon. “We used to come here all the time when the kids were little, and we would put them right here and put the jukebox on and sing music to them.” The mini-machines, she added, brought back her own childhood memories of growing up in Manhattan and playing classic rock tunes at a local spot with her father.
“I think it’s nice to keep certain traditions,” Savastano, 54, said. “When you have something as simple as a jukebox, it brings you back to times that were simpler, when you were younger — and just really good memories.”
The jukeboxes may not bring in much money, according to James Gonias, the Palace’s co-owner — but that’s not the point. “It’s not really here for the moneymaking part of it, it’s really here for the ambience,” Gonias, 45, said. “It’s just nice to have.”
THE LI LAWYER WHO COLLECTS JUKEBOXES
You can also find jukeboxes in some unlikely places on Long Island — for instance, at the office of attorney Anthony Ballato on Merrick Road in Massapequa.
“You might wonder, is it a law office or is it a collectibles store?” Ballato, 63, said on a recent afternoon surrounded by old radios, phonographs and the hulking player piano that decorate his family law practice. Collecting, he said, has been “a passion of mine for maybe 35, 40 years.”
Ballato’s hobby began in 1986, when he spotted an illustration of Marilyn Monroe standing next to a brightly colored jukebox on the cover of a Sharper Image catalog. As a student at Touro Law Center, he said, he bought his first jukebox — a Wurlitzer 700 model from 1940 — for roughly $2,500. He restored the machine himself between long stretches of studying for the bar, he said.
“I studied six days a week and the seventh day I’d take off,” Ballato said. “And my little therapy, or escape, was working on the jukebox.”
Ballato eventually bought the same jukebox that graced the cover of that catalog — a Wurlitzer reproduction with bubble tubes, painted satyrs and an old-fashioned mechanism that pulls out a 45 and lays it gently on a platter. Though the machine dates only from the 1980s, Ballato said, it’s becoming something of a rarity in its own right.
Jukebox collecting is a small and shrinking world, according to Ballato. “A lot of the collectors and the restorers have either died or retired. One of the huge problems is getting someone who knows how to fix these things — or even getting parts,” he said. “The internet kind of killed the hobby, just like Amazon killed retail.”
THE 21st CENTURY JUKEBOX
The internet hasn’t killed the jukebox entirely, though. Walk into a bar today and you might find a sleek, modern, app-driven jukebox. The old bubble tubes have been replaced by flat-screen TVs that display album covers or even music videos. And while these newfangled devices don’t offer the visual treat of a mechanical arm manipulating a vinyl record, they still have a strong appeal to patrons.
“Your song and my song isn’t B29 anymore, that’s for sure,” said Ryan Schlotter, 41, co-owner of the Oyster Bay Brewing Co. When Schlotter relocated the business to its current spot on Audrey Avenue roughly eight years ago, he installed an internet-enabled jukebox that allows patrons to select songs through an app on their phones. Charges go straight to a credit card.
“It’s the most popular machine we have,” Schlotter said. “We have pinball and Golden Tee golf, and people play them — but not to the extent that they did before they had all these games on their cellphones.”
James Schnacker, 29, a regular at the brewery, estimated he spends $20 per month on the bar’s jukebox. “You throw in maybe five bucks at a time and play random songs throughout,” said Schnacker, a college student who also works at a nearby hardware store. “My favorite thing is watching the person at the other end of the bar. I see them start bobbing their head or singing — I’m like, ‘All right, cool. I found what they like.’”
Schlotter, the brewery’s co-owner, said he misses the days of flipping through plastic song cards and punching buttons. But it turns out that the jukebox, whatever its form, hasn’t lost its appeal. Even today, Schlotter said, he’ll occasionally slip a group of happy-looking customers five bucks and ask them to put on some music — a trick he learned during his bartending days.
“It really ties them into the experience, and they stick around longer,” Schlotter said. “Putting on your own music and listening to the songs that you want to hear — it’s something that people need.”
Jukeboxes have provided a popular reference pont in many songs over the years. Here are five:
I love rock 'n roll/ So put another dime in the jukebox, baby — Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, "I Love Rock 'n Roll"
Up to the corner and 'round the bend/Right to the juke joint, you go in/Drop the coin right into the slot/Youe gotta hear somethin' that's really hot — Chuck Berry, "School Day"
Don't rock the jukebox/I wanna hear some Jones/'Cause my heart ain't ready/For the Rolling Stones — Alan Jackson, "Don't Rock the Jukebox"
In the corner of the bar there stands a jukebox/With the best of country music, old and new/
You can hear your five selections for a quarter/And somebody else's songs when yours are through — Olivia Newton-John, "Please Mister Please (Don't Play B-17)"
Well, we found a little place that really didn't look that bad/I had a whisky on the rocks
And change of a dollar for the jukebox — Stray Cats. "Rock This Town"