The Wurlitzer 1015

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The first coin-operated phonograph was installed in San Francisco’s Palais Royale Saloon on November 23, 1889, which makes the jukebox one hundred years old this year. It’s appropriate that the Wurlitzer 1015—seen in all its glory on the opposite page—was produced at about the midpoint of that century. No jukebox before it was as beautiful, and none since has been as popular.

The 1015 came along at a time when the jukebox was ubiquitous. (Probably West African in origin, the word juke has been linked to slang terms for dancing and partying.) The jukebox had flourished in the 1930s—in the depths of the Depression, at a nickel a play, it was the next best thing to free. By 1940 Americans were dropping five million nickels a day into the nation’s 250,000 jukeboxes, which were located not just in bars and diners but, according to Nation’s Business magazine, “bus stations, beauty parlors, airport waiting rooms, rest rooms, hotel lobbies, passenger liners and excursion boats.” By February 1946 the New York Daily News would grouse: “There is no such thing as a quiet saloon or eatery, these days, because of a loud and garish cabinet that stands in the corner. This is the juke box. It has made every beanery a poor man’s night club.”

Into this setting came the designer Paul Fuller of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. A man of modern sensibilities, he had moved Wurlitzer juke-boxes away from the boxy lines of the early 1930s to undulant, streamlined curves, and the rest of the industry had followed. But since May of 1942, like everyone else in the business, he had been chafing under wartime production restrictions. Before the war he had done brilliant things with plastics, culminating in his 1941 Model 850, which spun polarized acetate disks in front of incandescent light bulbs to create a prism effect; in wartime he was limited to glass and wood, old-fashioned materials. He did the best he could, but his wartime Model 42, the “Victory” model, had a stodgy look. It was a step back at just the moment when Fuller most wanted to move forward.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when controls came off in 1946 Fuller came up with the most beautiful juke-box he, or anyone else, had ever designed. With the 1015 Fuller broke away from the Art Nouveau decorative motifs he had used before the war. The 1015’s only decorative traces were clean, austere musical notes, form following function. In all its other particulars the 1015 was purely forward-looking—the perfect machine for a war-weary nation that wanted to dance ahead into the future. The arching side, top, and center tubes were fabricated of formed plastic. The trim was bright chrome and molded plastic, fire-engine red. The New York dealer John Johnston describes the 1015 as the “most animated” jukebox ever made, and indeed, even when it wasn’t playing, the long bubble tubes made the machine seem to move. (These may have been Fuller’s greatest touch. The tubes were filled with a chemical selected for its low boiling point, and small heaters were attached at the bottoms.)

The 1015 was forward-looking—the perfect machine for a war-weary nation that wanted to dance into the future.

The response to Fuller’s new machine was immediate. Although at $750 the 1015 sold to distributors for about twice as much as pre-war models, demand was enormous. In 1946 and 1947—a time when the average manufacturing run for a new jukebox was 10,000—Wurlitzer shipped 56,246 of the 1015s. The company stoked the public’s appetite with the largest promotional campaign in the industry’s history, including napkins, coasters, decals, and billboards. The success of the 1015 ushered in a great postwar boom in the juke business; the number of boxes soared from four hundred thousand just after the war to a high of about seven hundred thousand in the fifties.

What happened then is a sad, familiar story. The interstate highway system drove countless little roadhouses out of business. Portable radios got smaller and cheaper; home phonographs got better and cheaper. Top 40 radio took over as the arbiter of the hits. Wurlitzer saw the writing on the wall and diversified. By 1973 juke-boxes, which had once accounted for 80 percent of its revenues, made up just 15 percent. In 1974, as the strains of the polka “Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye” played, the company shut down its jukebox production line in North Tonawanda, New York. Today there are only about 225,000 jukeboxes operating in America.

The 1015, though, has survived its time. It is the single most sought-after piece among jukebox collectors; a reconditioned 1015 may fetch as much as thirteen thousand dollars today. Scholars of pop culture may see in it the perfect expression of a precise moment in twentieth-century history, a confluence of trends in economics and entertainment and materials technology. The 1015 is that. But to collectors it is something else: a gaudy, romantic, beautiful thing that stands five feet high, glows in the dark, and plays great music. That’s plenty.