Electrical Technologies in the Movies : Jukeboxes

Submitted by Bob Morrison, Editor
Reprinted from IEEE History Center Newsletter, Issue #73, March 2007

In the late 19th century there were coin-operated weighing machines and gum-dispensing machines. In 1889 a man by the name of Louis Glass equipped an Edison phonograph with a nickel-in-the-slot operating device and placed this forerunner of the jukebox in a San Francisco saloon. The machine was so well received that by mid-1891 more than a thousand coin-operated phonographs were in use. Such machines were battery-operated because at that time electric current was not available in most places. Many of the machines were in so-called “phonograph parlors,” which, with the addition of other coin-operated entertainment devices, evolved into penny arcades. Machines that could change the record cylinders or disks automatically, according to customer choice, began appearing in 1905. The coin-operated phonograph business peaked shortly after the turn of the century, in part because of the growth of the home-phonograph market and in part because the lack of effective amplification limited the appeal of the coin-operated machines.

Shortly after the advent of the electronic phonograph in the mid 1920s came a much improved phonograph-playing machine, the “jukebox,” a name acquired in 1930s. Customers were attracted by the big sound made possible by electronic amplification fidelity and volume greater than what radios or phonographs in the home offered—by the impressive record-changing mechanisms, and by the opportunity to choose the music and often to adjust the volume. An early jukebox, one from about 1930, can be seen in the movie “The Whole Wide World” (1996). A chest-type jukebox in the waiting area of a bus terminal features in the 1947 Humphrey Bogart – Lauren Bacall movie “Dark Passage”. In the movies “Gung Ho!” (1943) and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) we see jukeboxes in eating places. The record-changing mechanism is shown prominently in several movies, such as in “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948), in “The Glenn Miller Story” (1954), and in “I.Q.” (1994), which takes place in the 1950s.

In 1939 the Seeburg company offered a “wireless” jukebox system, in which selections made at any of many small units, which were plugged in at ordinary sockets, were signaled—over the building’s wiring—to the central record-playing unit. The Depression, together with the soaring popularity of radio, had hit the record industry hard—record sales in the U.S. fell from 100 million in 1927 to six million in 1932—but jukeboxes helped revive the industry. Indeed, in the late 1930s half of all records produced in the U.S. went to the some 500,000 jukeboxes in use. In the 1942 movie “Orchestra Wives,” which stars Glenn Miller and his orchestra, the bandleader says that it is the kids putting nickels in jukeboxes who keep the band in business, and, of course, jukeboxes are shown. Something about the jukebox business is revealed in the 1957 Elvis Presley movie “Jailhouse Rock,” where we meet a woman whose job it is to open jukeboxes to check how many times particular records have been played.

The early jukeboxes had wooden cabinets and resembled traditional furniture. In the 1940s jukeboxes took on a different look, with cabinets of translucent plastic that were brightly backlighted. In the 1950s jukeboxes often had automobile styling, in that era of flashy cars with tail fins and chromed protuberances on bumpers, fenders, and hoods. Jukeboxes of the 1950s can be seen in “Last Picture Show” (1971), “The Wild One” (1954), and “Touch of Evil” (1958).

The malfunctioning of jukeboxes is sometimes shown. In the James Dean – Elizabeth Taylor movie “Giant” (1956), a jukebox starts playing when bumped into. More famous is the jukebox in the TV series “Happy Days”: coming into the diner, the Fonzie would hit the jukebox to get it to play.

Though the jukebox business declined in the last decades of the 20th century, the machine continued to be used in bars and eating places. It was no longer a nickel per play, but more often, as shown in “Top Gun” (1986), a quarter per play. The records on a particular jukebox could be selected to appeal to the clientele of the establishment, as in the 1974 movie “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” where, in a bar in Munich which caters mainly to guest workers, the jukebox seems to play only Arab music. In the 1980s CDs replaced vinyl records, and jukeboxes showed that transition. In the 1994 movie “Chungking Express” we see a CD jukebox, with rotating CDs, in a Hong Kong eating place.