With antique machines, collector finds his jackpot

May 12, 1994|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Sun Staff Writer

Steve Cohen was building a game room in his Cape St. Claire home when he saw the perfect display piece -- a dusty, broken-down 1950s slot machine, sitting unused and unappreciated in an acquaintance's house.

"I brought it home and tried to fix it up," said Mr. Cohen, 45. "I didn't know what I was doing, and it took me six months to fix it and get it running."

Now, 18 years later, Mr. Cohen owns about 40 antique slot machines, jukeboxes and music boxes dating from the 1880s to the 1960s, among them a glorious 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox.

"I really started to get interested in the history of the machines," he said. "And I began collecting them. You can take a part from one machine, put it in another broken machine so that [one] begins working, and the machine is suddenly worth $15,000."

He travels over the country, buying, selling, trading. His passion for the intricate workings of these machines has become a part-time business.

"People don't realize how complicated [these machines] are," he said yesterday, as he showed off his collection at Jason's Music Center in Pasadena. "In the 1920s they were not powered by electricity, and the machine had to recognize what type of coin was put in, where to put the money, who the winners were and how much money they got.

"All of this was done with strings and levers."

During the early 1980s, Mr. Cohen learned that slot machines, even antiques, were illegal and considered contraband. "I tried to get my machines covered in my homeowner's insurance policy, and they told me they could not insure contraband. I couldn't believe it," he said.

He went to the state legislature, found a sympathetic senator, and started working on a bill to legalize collecting antique slot machines.

"It was amazing how difficult it was to get such an innocuous piece of legislation passed," he said.

But after much negotiation and a quick vote on the floor when the opposition was out of the room, the bill passed during the 1983 legislative session. Now, collecting machines 25 years or older is legal.

Mr. Cohen's oldest piece, a slot machine called "Tibble's Success," dates to 1887. "At one time I thought it was the only one of its kind in existence, but I have since found out that there is one more around," he said.

The old machine could be found in 19th-century saloons, candy stores and drug stores. It didn't pay off in cash. Instead, winners received merchandise from the store.

Another cherished item is a "Violano Virtuoso" music box dating to 1913. It plays piano and violin music. It was in bad shape when Mr. Cohen bought it from off a Detroit collector for $8,000. He spent a year restoring the waist-high piece, polishing its brass and its oak cabinet. It's worth about $20,000 now, he said.

By day, Mr. Cohen owns and operates Jason's Music Center. He and his wife, Margie, are building a larger home in Millersville to accommodate his growing collection.

Mr. Cohen said his wife had not always understood his passion for the broken junk found in basements.

"I told her she needed vision," he said. "She actually helped me restore a jukebox, and now we go out and look for things together. She is getting that vision."


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