JUKEBOX JOINTS If you're looking for a jukebox of your own, collectors offer these tips: - Check rummage sales and auctions. - Call old jukebox operators. - Check with antique dealers. - If you are mechanically inclined, consider getting abroken machine (these usually cost about $200 to $500) from a jukebox operator and restore it yourself. - If none of those work, you can order reconditioned jukeboxes and parts by mail from the following sotres: ANTIQUE JUKEBOX COMPANY, 2222 E. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90021. Call 213/589-5903. BACK PAGES ANTIQUES, 389 Second Ave., New York City 10010. Call 212/683-8670. JUDITH JUKES, 827 Folsom St., San Francisco, Calif. 94107. Call 415/777-2930 or 415/861-8616. JUKEBOXES UNLIMITED, 11960 Wilshire Blvd. West Los Angeles, Calif. 90025. Call 213/820-4982. RINKY-TINK AMUSEMENT CO., 8758 SW 129th Terrace, Miami, Florida 33176. Call 305/253-8959. STATE SALES AND SERVICE CORP., 1825 Guilford Ave., Baltimore 21202. Call 301/837-7177. Old Wurlitzer parts only. VICTORY GLASS, Box 119, Des Moines, Iowa 50301. Call 515/223-0567.
The lights are dim and the musty room is as quiet as a neighborhood bar at closing time.
But Jim Wells is not.
He punches button No. 9: "Home on the Range" by Gene Autry.
Bubbles rise through two tubes along the side of a dusty old box. Colored lights shed a bright glow across the room. And a large disc slides into place as a heavy tone arm fits over it.
Oh boy, it's a Wurlitzer!
Gene starts chirping about being where the deer and the antelope play, and suddenly it is 1935 again. As the record spins, Wells slowly slips back into his childhood days in La Follette, Tennessee.
"My mother and father never let me go into a place that had a jukebox, because they thought they were immoral," Wells says, gazing at the box. "But I'd go anyway - to a place called Roy Roach's.
"It was on a Saturday night and I was supposed to be going to the picture show. That's what they thought. You know, you'd have 15 cents for your movie and 10 cents for a popcorn or Coke or Big Orange. But I'd take my money and go to Roy Roach's instead. Just to be with the gang.
"Roy Roach's was a roadhouse. They sold beer and all that stuff. Every old girl in the country hung out there. I was only about 14 when I first started going there, but you didn't have to be nothin" those days to get in. All you had to do was be able to get there and get back. It was the spot. Everyone went there.
"And that jukebox, that thing would light up the room.It was the center of attention. You'd go to a place then just because of the jukebox they had - to look at it. And the girls would all dance across the floor to the music..."
The record stops and Wells looks up, his eyes finally leaving the multi-colored music machine. It is 1979 again, and he is standing in a cluttered shed in Fairfax County amid a hodgepodge of about 100 old jukeboxes.
This is Wells' collection. He has square boxes, round boxes, counter models, consoles, one that looks like a big garbage can and even one with a peacock that changes colors as music plays.
"You'd call me an oddball. I'm not like the man next door," says Wells, 63, a meticulous man with short graying hair, a bushy moustache and glasses he keeps in a pouch in his pocket. "It's a crazy world. But crazy is being happy to some people, and I'm happy every day."
But Wells is no longer the only crazy-happy person who likes to fiddle around with old Wurlitzers, Seeburgs and Rock-Olas.
Those classic boxes that used to play the latest Frank Sinatra or Buddy Holly tunes at the corner drug store or malt shop after school are spinning discs again in thousands of homes, and people are paying as much as $15,000 just to have their very own.
The craze started back in the early '70s. One of its creators, Don Muller, a record collector in Phoenix, started in 1971 while picking up a bunch of old 45s from a jukebox dealer to add to his collection.
The dealer kept his golden oldies in a warehouse with a bunch of old jukeboxes that were no longer being used.
After several hours of milling through old records the idea finally struck Muller: Why not get an old jukebox to play them on?
The jukebox dealer refused to sell Muller an old box, but soon Muller was tracking one down through local antique shops. He found a 1954 AMI model for $75, filled it with old 45s and put it in his home.
It was soon the hit of the Phoenix party circuit.
"Our parties before had been pretty dull," Muller explained. "I had a good stereo, but people never dance to that. They just screw around with your records. We usually ended up sitting around drinking until about 1:30 when somebody would get drunk and everyone decided to go home.
"But when I got that jukebox, people would get up and start dancing right in front of the box. It became the center of attention. The atmosphere was electric.
"Now my parties run to three or four in the morning, and I have to tell everyone to go home. Then afterward we have to sit down and decide who to invite to the next one. Our house accommodates about 35 or 40 people, but it's gotten so there's a waiting list for people we want to invite."
Muller decided that to ease the crowd and spread the fun around he should find some more old jukeboxes and sell them to people for their homes.
So Muller bought a bunch of old boxes from local jukebox operators and ran an ad on TV.
"Our commercial went on at 12:05 a.m. on a Saturday night after a lousy movie on an independent station. It gave them my home number to call if they wanted a jukebox. We were offering them for $125 delivered with a one-year guarantee. I didn't expect much response."
But Muller had more than he bargained for.
"tthe phone started ringing after the ad and didn't stop until 5 a.m. We sold 50 to 60 boxes that one night."
The 36-year-old music enthusiast has since opened up a store, Jukeboxes Unlimited, in West Los Angeles, andhas 10 employees who sell more than 300 reconditioned jukeboxes a year. He is now thinking of opening up stores in other cities also.
"I see no end to this," says Muller. "Our sales have doubled in the last year. People want jukeboxes. If this keeps up, we'll have stores in 30 cities."
There is no end to the prices either. Those same boxes that sold for $125 in 1971 are going for $1,600 today. And some of the rarer models have sold for $10,000 to $15,000.
"The price keeps going up because every one of these we sell means there's one less on the market. I've completely eliminated the old machines in four states myself. Now I've got to travel across the country just to get the stuff."
Muller says that there are still a number of the old boxes stashed away in warehouses in small towns. The trick is finding them. He's seen them locked away in everything from fallout shelters to old schoolhouses.
"One place you don't find them is in Manny's Diner in Idaho," explained Vincent Lynch, manager of Judith Jukes, a jukebox reconditioning and repair store that's been in business in San Francisco for three years. "Thise kind of places - the old diners - got rid of their machines long ago. We mainly get them from old operators who had them in storage or sometimes antique dealers who dig them up." But if you want an old jukebox, says Lynch, who plans to write a book on the subject later this year, you better start digging. His shop sells about 20 reconditioned boxes a year, and he says, it's getting more and more difficult for him just to find that many.
"We get a lot out of Mexico. That's where you'll still find them in bars. In some of them they're still using 78 records down there. But the Mexican machines are getting pretty picked over, too. After they run out, I guess it's the Third World."
Home jukeboxes have become so popular that a 1974 Wurlitzer which was designed as an immitation of the company's 1946 model is selling to collectors for as much as $5,500 today. When it came out five years ago it retailed for just over $2,000.
"I think "Happy Days' and "American Graffiti" have had a big influence," Muller said. "Kids seem to like to have a little of their parents' past and parents seem very happy to have that.
"In our first ad we were aiming at young single guys, because we thought this would appeal to them as a way to attract young ladies to their place. But we ended up selling them to people in their 30s who had two kids. You just can't figure it out."
But Wells can.
"People like things that move," he says, gleefully strolling through his rows of boxes. "The reason jukeboxes they make today aren't popular is they took away the mechanical parts and hid them so you couldn't see 'em. People want to see the parts move; it's part of the show. These people who come in with their new ideas, they forgot that the old thing was the best. The old boys knew what they were doing."
And so, ever since 1960, Wells, a former used car salesman, has been collecting jukeboxes made by the old boys. He keeps them stashed away in his shed still full of the old records they used to play. And whenever he's in the mood to go back to Roy Roach's, he just hits a button.
"I usually get my boxes from old jukebox operators around here that had 'em, and I just keep 'em around," says Wells. "I never sell none of them. I just like to play with 'em."
He has about 100 boxes to play with, but he doesn't know exactly how many there are becuase he's never counted, and he refuses to count them because he says it doesn't matter.
Wells' latest acquisition was a 1940 Cinematone model that has 10 tunes and plays each one for a penny. They have to always be played in the same order because they are all on one record that gets played over and over again.
At one time Wells opened a musical museum in his shed to display all the old jukeboxes and other musical instruments he collects - including the old 14-foot-tall RCA dog and Gramophone he purchased from a Baltimore distributor three years ago when the company changed its logo.
But that all has ended and Wells prefers to spend most of his time puttering around with the old jukeboxes, repairing the ones that don't work and occasionally playing the ones that do.
He has even moved an old Wurlitzer into his den where he does all his paperwork. Song after song, it helps him remember the good old days.
Wells pushes button No. 7: "Wildwood Flower" by the Carter Family.
And as he slumps back into his chair, visions of Big Oranges, Tennessee school girls and Roy Roach's on a Saturday night float through the room. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By John Pack.