My mom was just a young lady during the jukebox heyday of the 1950s. Back then they’d go the to the soda shop, diner or later, the tavern: put a nickel in the slot, press their selection and voila! music! Diners often had smaller, individual tableside versions where one could play what they wanted without disturbing other patrons. A nice invention.
By 1978, 1979 when I was in my mid teens, my friends and I would go to a place in the neighborhood called Charlie’s Grill. It was a small place so there were no tableside … well, anything. We’d order our french fries and pop (that’s what Chicagoans call soda), put a quarter in the machine and watch the 45s drop. Rick James’ “Mary Jane” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” were a few of the songs played. Music in the background, we’d put a quarter in a different slot. The pinball machine! Hours upon hours of pinball. Man, I’d eat, sleep and dream pinball! still able to feel the sensation of the metal edge of the machine on my palms long after the night was over. What a great way to spend the weekend especially in a cold Chicago winter. (On a side note: there are a couple of places in the city, The Emporium, where pinball and old arcade games (my favorite, Pac Man) are available. I still enjoy going once in a while especially in the cold Chicago winters.) Okay, I digress.
I guess it wasn’t too long after that jukeboxes started to become somewhat obsolete. At least the way we knew them. You can still find them in certain places, re-invented for the digital age. No more watching the records drop.
At this point you may be wondering: so what does all of this have to do with Chicago anyway? Well…. two names:
Seeburg and Rock-Ola. The biggest in the jukebox making business were based right here in Chicago.
Seeburg , who came to Chicago from Sweden, was originally in the piano business. But soon his innovations would change the face of the jukebox industry. The company created the first to hold 50 records, 100 songs (playing both sides) and the first to play the 45s. They also made a tabletop version, the Wall-O-Matic. It’s unclear to me if that was the first of it’s kind because Rock-Ola also made one.
Named after the man from Canada, David Rockola came to Chicago and worked at other companies; eventually becoming the slot machine manufacturer for the mob. The story is he even went to jail for a bit because he refused to rat ’em out. Recognizing the rising popularity, he became one of the most successful manufacturers of the jukebox. And may have even been the inspiration for the term “rock and roll”. I wonder just how much being linked to the mob contributed to the success of his business? Which reminds me of another jukebox story.
Rummaging through some old photos, I came across a black and white that I should have probably never seen. It was a man lying in a pool of blood. I asked my father who it was; he said it was someone he knew. A guy who owned a tavern (Dad knew many of them) and refused to pay the mob their cut of the jukebox profits. So, they got rid of him. At first I thought this was just urban tale. But……
They say back then one couldn’t own a restaurant or tavern without having to pay protection money. About the picture, I always thought: how sad that someone should lose their life over something as wonderful as a jukebox. A machine that brings so much joy to those who listen to the music inside.