Jukebox collectors nostalgic for the 'clunk' of simpler era THE Way Back MACHINES

February 12, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Bob Persh, 47, lingers over the jukebox like a brooding sophomore, holding a soda in one hand while the other waffles over a row of bright red buttons.

What record should he play to impress the girl across the room?

Whirrr. Click. Clunk. The jukebox stirs, gurgles and offers up A-4, a.k.a. Neil Sedaka.

"I'm livin' right next door to an angel, and I'm gonna make that angel mine." . . ."

The girl smiles as the machine shakes the room as only a jukebox can.

With its shiny chrome grill and fluorescent lights, the jukebox, a 1954 Seeburg, evokes memories of malt shops and drive-ins. Except it's dispensing doo-wop in the living room of Mr. Persh's home in Woodbine.

And the girl he's with is a 42-year-old woman -- his wife, Kris.

Jukeboxes. Seeburgs, Wurlitzers and Rockolas. The older the better, the greater the nostalgia.

Nostalgia, jukeboxes: What a combination. Bubbly reminders of youth, over which hearts were joined and broken and mended again. Beacons of light brimming with music and magic. How did those records play vertically?

The old hangouts are gone, but the jukes live on, in homes now instead of hamburger joints. Nothing else has changed, really. Jukeboxes still cure the blues and play them, too.

"Each generation seems to pick its own mood-altering substance, and for ours, the jukebox is it," says Dr. Jan D. Sinnott, 51, a psychologist at Towson State University. "It's a time capsule, a light-and-sound show that changes the whole environment around it."

As well as one's mindset.

"There's nothing like a jukebox to bring back the silliness of youth," says Rick Botts, a 48-year-old Iowan who publishes a monthly magazine for jukebox owners.

His own Wurlitzer also helps him cope with life today, says Mr. Botts.

"When I come home at night, the jukebox is my pacifier. It emits good vibes, because I picked the songs."

Jukes are hot, says Mr. Botts. At least half of the 400,000 operable machines in this country are now privately owned.

You'll still find vintage jukeboxes in commercial establishments -- the Silver Diner in Towson, a Fifties theme restaurant, has a brassy 1958 Seeburg -- but many businesses now opt for new machines that play compact discs, store 1,500 songs and accept $5 bills. What's next, credit card jukes?

To the true juke freak, only the old clunkers will do, 500-pound behemoths from the '40s and '50s with marvelous monikers like "The Singing Towers," "The Mother of Plastic" and "The Peacock."

"These machines have charm. They look happy," says Joseph Bloodgood of the 15 aging jukeboxes in his Cockeysville repair shop. Mr. Bloodgood has been restoring and selling old jukes for 27 years.

Buying the past

Who buys these musical fountains of youth?

"People living in mobile homes and in million-dollar homes," he says.

"Jukeboxes are anchors back to those magic moments, or what we perceive as such. They remind you of a time when sex was 'dirty' and the air was clean."

Nickels. Dimes. Quarters. Jukeboxes swallowed them all, granting deejay standing to any kid with raging hormones and a fistful of coins.

Perry Como sang it best:

"All your lunchtime money goes down the slot, you could live on air if the music's hot."

Who wouldn't want to revive those feelings?

"Jukebox sales are sweeping the nation, particularly among 50-year-olds," says Donald Fairchild, proprietor of the Juke Box Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Okla. Some people even have multiple jukes, he says. "Anyone who has three or more #i [machines] is considered to have the bug."

Mr. Fairchild has 25 jukeboxes in his own game room. Private sales are rising, he says, because for aging rockers weaned on Elvis and Buddy and Ricky and Fats, "this is their last go-round on being young enough to enjoy the music and their old 45s."

Vintage jukes aren't cheap. Authentic boxes may cost $500 or $5,000, depending on the age and availability of the machine and the visibility of the innards.

"We wanted to be able to see that little arm go in there and grab the record," says Mr. Persh, the Woodbine juke-jockey.

The Pershes paid $2,000 for their machine last year. "It's like having a Christmas tree in your house year-round," says Mrs. Persh, who fires up the jukebox before fixing dinner so she can listen to the Platters while preparing same.

John Selle keeps eight restored jukeboxes fully stocked in his home in Finksburg where, on a dare, he'll play them all simultaneously.

"I turn out the lights and turn the jukeboxes on," says Mr. Selle, 46. "It's like being hypnotized."

A basement full of jukes. Imagine that.

?3 "If I had the room, I'd have 18 more," he says.

It 'really dates you'

But not all boomers want to own one.

"Jukeboxes are beautiful, valuable and nearly extinct," agrees John Waters, the Baltimore-born moviemaker, who has used them as props in several period films. "They look great -- like musical lava lamps -- but I wouldn't have one myself.

"Having a jukebox really dates you; it makes you look middle-aged."

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