Wurlitzer Jukebox History
When the time was exactly right, Wurlitzer engineers dropped all Nickelodeon activities like a hot potato. They refocused their attentions on developing a method of playing and changing records automatically. Oddly enough this gadget was referred to as a “Changer.” This mechanism was to be initiated using the same mechanisms as the coin-operated nickelodeon-type machines.
Two problems surfaced immediately: How could the backside of a record be played; and how could the selections be cued to play in an as-selected manner.
The playing of side “B” was accomplished by an elaborate automated machine. The machine would select any given record from a predetermined location (address) of the machine stack. The selector would tell the machine what side was to be played, “A” or “B.” If it was “B,” the bottom side of some record, the machine would be cued to an alternate program. The alternate program moves the record to an area with adequate clearances to turn the record over 180 degrees, and returns it to the same position where the alternate program took control. From that point the regular record playing could continue. After playing, the record player unloaded in exactly opposite moves, until the record was stored in the same position as at the start of the sequence.
Watching the changer go through the player loading and unloading sequence was totally mesmerizing. I can’t imagine the number of man-hours wasted just watching the ballet! This was the first time most people had seen this kind of precision in motion, and to even jaded, hardcore engineers, it was breathtaking! To most children it was fascinating; many nickels were spent just to watch the changer. I am an old, jaded engineer and I still get excited about that mechanism; maybe that is what makes me jaded! As with all successful consumer products, it was extremely reliable.
In 1933, Wurlitzer bought the exclusive rights to an automatic coin changer. This changer had some limited intelligence built-in. It had the mechanical representation of Boolean functions: and, or, nor. It had a “Single Play” button that switched the changer into an “Alternate Program” mode, via tiny servos.
The changer provided the interfaces for the sales program, the alternate sales program, the player enable, and a “to-be-played” double buffering” system. The net result was an intelligent changer interfacing with an ingenious buffering system that provided systems control. The changer ended up being the “Executive” that also made change (getting closer to “digital“)!
The birthing process was ready to happen. All system elements were developed, including the power supply concept from Lyric Radio. The baby was named “Debutante” when she made her debut.
Debutante - - 1933
Well, there she was, all 200+ pounds, all girl! She was born capable of playing 10 tunes, change making, and sounding sweet! Even though Poppa Wurlitzer passed out plenty of cigars, he failed to recognize that the discretionary dollars were drying up. Sales were quite disappointing however; the depression had arrived. It was difficult to convince people to spend that nickel on a song, as opposed to that five cent loaf of bread. She was young, she was sweet, she was beautiful, she was melodious, but.................
After a lot of sales analysis, and soul searching, Wurlitzer fell back to his strong suit - - the dramatic. He made a command decision to start an alternate design effort. Maybe the staid, traditional wooden look was too conservative when trying to capture that bread nickel. Perhaps the concept needed a brash, bold, almost sassy look. Farny Wurlitzer hired a sharp young designer, named Fuller, to rework the “Debutante”.
His ideas and original sketches were outrageous! His design philosophy was functionality, maintainability, and ornamental. He advocated the extensive use of colors, plastics, clear plastic covers, and materials contrasts. He chose to showcase the changer as a focus; the innards were acceptable!
Wurlitzer set-up an independent design facility as a secret operation. This was so skillfully done that his own accounting department didn’t even know of its purpose. Fuller was to set-up a parallel operation at a remote location and to keep the group isolated. Wurlitzer told him the rules: “Keep your mouth shut, you answer to only me, and go create a winner, or you’re history”.
He then assembled his current designers and told them to update the Debutante concept and make the Debutante II. He wanted a winner. He challenged his designers to explore other materials to add some “Zip” to the design.
Meanwhile, he sent his marketing and sales people out to sell the Debutante and to gather information on the marketplace. They were told to listen, analyze, and feed him functional design information. They were to model and characterize this new market.
Essentially, Wurlitzer had two design groups: a traditional wooden-based, and the new metal and plastics group. The “wooden group” was already set-up, understood the internal operations of Wurlitzer; produced a new model in 1936. There was still significant sales resistance caused by the incomplete recovery from the economic depression, gathering war clouds and possible design tastes. The factors are academic at this point. These issues could be, and will be, argued in MBA classes for decades. The fact remains, however, that the country, and yes, the world, was not willing to accept this dark, grainy representation of the economic picture.
Model 412, released in 1936, was the wooden design group’s answer to the challenge laid down as a result of the Debutante attempt. Sales for this model were parallel and not very exciting.
In 1937 another attempt was made, with Model 616. It did slightly better in sales. It could have been the beginnings of the economic recovery, the increased record selections (now up to 16), the cabinet design, or some combination.
Finally, the first head-to-head competition between the two design schools occurred in 1938. All factors were normalized, so it was based on appearance only.
The Model 50 was a rehash of the previous failed designs. The Model 24 was a great departure from the old traditional Wurlitzer image. The Model 24 had a footprint that was approximately 24% larger than the Model 50. Under most circumstances, when floor, counter, or shelf space was equated in terms of revenue, the sale of a Model 24 would be more difficult. Just the opposite was true in this case; the Model 24 outsold the Model 50 by a ratio of 10 to 1! That fact speaks volumes about the design.
There is a message here. Appearance has a lot to do about perceived values or acceptability. So the adage of judging a book by its cover has some thought provoking aspects. Even though these machines were functionally alike, it was the one with the “glitz” that sold and became “acceptable.”
With the resounding success of the Fuller designs, Wurlitzer released a plethora of these colorful designs, adding countertop models. Each new generation of designs added features or capacity ultimately increasing the record cart capacity to 24.
The product line was stretched to include the new Fuller designs, as well as all of the wooden designs. As new designs came on-line, the wooden designs were subject to being discontinued.
The models above were all produced in 1940 and 1941, and may have been the “coffin nails” for the wooden design group.
The Model 780 was the last of the wooden consoles produced by Wurlitzer. It was a do-or-die effort by the wooden design group. The group knew this was it.......they threw everything they could dream of into this design effort. While furniture purists loved the design, Joe T. Lunchpail wasn’t enamored. The production run was less than a year. Fuller was now made “Mr. Design” and reconfigured the Design Department so that no jobs were lost. “Now I have the manpower to really do my thing”.
With the additional manpower, Fuller was able to implement one of the most successful branding campaigns ever launched. This was largely done by the repetitive themes in the designs. For decades the “Wurlitzer Arch” was second only to Coke as the most recognized mark world-wide! For years the arch was synonymous with jukebox.
In 1942, with the world at war, Wurlitzer had several challenges: a large part of the plant was taken over to produce war materials, some metals and plastics usages were greatly curtailed, a goodly number of personnel were serving in the military, AND the product demand remained high due to the increased number of military outposts. One of the best morale boosters was a “blaring jukebox in every Officer’s, NCO, and Enlisted Clubs, wherever they were.”
Wurlitzer met these challenges by producing the Model 42 “Victory.” Fuller created a design of wood that was still colorful and preserved the arch image. These models were shipped wherever new areas were liberated, Pacific Island by Island, Europe, Africa, and anyplace that our service people were established. This certainly helped Wurlitzer establish and maintain a post-war presence world-wide.
Model 1015 was the first post-war model produced by Wurlitzer. The public was ready for a new look. It was fabulous!!
In 1949, the recording industry dropped a bomb! They announced they were, immediately, dropping the 78 RPM recording format. So the Model 1100 was the last 78 RPM jukebox by Wurlitzer. It was, also, the last of the Wurlitzer Arch design. It marked the end of an era.
The recording industry was going through some major changes in the 1949-51 time-period. Music is music, but technology requires more lead time than a few rehearsal sessions. This was not quite understood by the music executives. The commercial electronics industry made an enormous error - - they allowed one segment to create a standard. Rather than an orderly change, turmoil ensued.
Technology takes many years to mature adequately for public acceptance. That was the case with the change from 78 RPM to 45 RPM records. Unfortunately the support systems for a smooth transition were out of sync with each other. The public was force-fed this change and were ill-served in the big picture. The hardware companies weren’t quite in tune with each other. Most were just recovering from supporting war materials for WW II when they had to gear-up again for Korea.
This couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for Wurlitzer. Even though they knew the change was coming, the war support activities slowed the overall transition activities. For example, the record changer had to be retrofitted for a period of about 2 years while the new technology was developed.
The preceding 3 models used the retrofitted changer and had a capacity of 48 selections.
Model 1550 and the subsequent 2 models, used what was known as a stacked or interleaved changer. This permitted 104 selections. Any reliability problems were compounded. Sales were not satisfactory. Fast foods places (fewer sit-down eating places), entry of marginal producers as competition, FM radio, were some of the factors that were writing a funeral dirge for the jukebox industry.
A new changer was used in these final three models manufactured by the illustrious Wurlitzer Corporation. They offered 200 selections, but otherwise were now passé.
I guess I was inoculated with a Wurlitzer needle. It is hard to face the facts. It’s over.
Somehow, in my heart of hearts, Wurlitzer was never just a manufacturer of jukeboxes. It was a way of life. Wurlitzer provided a touch of the glamour and elegance of a royal salon in Europe, with the magnificence of a grand piano, polished to a high gloss sheen. It was the sound of a massive organ in a centuries old cathedral, praising God. It was a framework, a stability for hundreds of families. It was what I grew up with, an anchor.
The first jukebox was built in 1933. By 1942, with the Fuller designs, they produced a phenomenal 450,000 units! Overall production is guesstimated to be in excess of 5 million units.
The plant, once an industrial gem, a model of flow and efficiency, the center of the musical universe -- reduced to a set of buildings partitioned into grotesque geometries and wearing company signs that are strange and unrelated to the past. Businesses that exist, but no one knows why, or even worse, cares about.
Ohio Street is no longer a dead end street. It now serves as a gateway to a subdivision of several hundred homes named “Wurlitzer Park Village.” Wurlitzer School has been closed and turned into a professional building.
Ideas are a dime a dozen, most can be discarded, but remember, be careful about what ones you toss. A single genius can affect you greatly. Be very circumspect and careful in your scoffing.
And the beautiful fish pond is full of concrete, the ornamental trees have died, and the fountains turned off.
To date, the famous Wurlitzer Arched Jukebox!
Copyright 2004, Ken Mountain
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