Jukebox junkie

By Janice Podsada

Herald Writer

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Given the long hours Don Ross spends restoring old jukeboxes, he figures he makes about 10 cents an hour.

Still, it’s enough in change to start Bing Crosby a-crooning.

"A nickel a song, two for a dime," — that’s what it costs to crank up the old 1937 Seeburg Symphonola, which holds a dozen 78 rpm records

Ross wasn’t a jukebox junkie back in 1949, the year he graduated from Everett High School. It wasn’t until he turned 60 and the kids were out of the house that he decided to give jukeboxes a spin.

"I retired from Sears after 27 years as a repairman," Ross said. "I wanted to keep my mind and hands occupied."

When he found his first jukebox, a 1940 Rock-Ola, it looked more like a stripped down pop machine than a music-maker. But it was the fix-it challenge Ross had been looking for.

"I got the house rocking pretty good after I retired," he said.

In 1927, the AMI Music Co. electrically amplified its coin-operated phonograph, and by jingle, the modern jukebox was born.

During their heyday from 1930 to 1980, thousands of jukeboxes were produced. But despite the numbers, they’re hard to come by.

Wurlitzer, Rock-Ola, Seeburg and AMI Music came out with new models every year. But to make a profit and squelch the growth of a second-hand market, company reps destroyed the old models.

"They smashed them up," Ross said. "Not too many survived."

Fully restored, a jukebox can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $200,000, depending on the make and model.

Ross and his wife, Dianne, 67, scour want ads and garage sales in King and Snohomish counties for jukeboxes and the records they play, 78s and 45s.

Three years ago, Ross picked up the 1937 Symphonola for a song — $500. He rebuilt the cherry wood cabinet and refitted the Art-Deco plastic inserts.

Two years ago he plucked a 350-pound 1957 Stereophonic Wurlitzer from the back of a barn. Despite its dilapidated condition, he plunked down $800. It had a real live feel to it, Ross said.

"I opened it up, and there was a rat’s nest built up in the turntable."

Ross repairs the turntables, record changers and rebuilds the cabinets himself. The speakers are sent to Speaker Lab in Seattle to be reconditioned. A friend re-chromes the trim. New vacuum tubes can be ordered from an Arizona company, which imports them from Russia, where the tubes are still made.

It’s a hobby that takes time. Ross spent two years restoring the Wurlitzer, which holds 100 45 rpm records, and plays 200 songs — sides A and B.

For fun, the couple sometimes haul a jukebox and a stack of records to local reunions and block parties, where the old-style sound system not only provides entertainment, but serves as an educational tool, Dianne said.

"One little kid came by, picked up a record and his mom said, ‘I bet you don’t know what that is?’ "

" ‘Yes, I do,’" the 6-year-old answered. " ‘It’s a Frisbee.’ "

Ross loses track of time when he’s fiddling with a jukebox, Dianne said.

"Sometimes he’s down there working until 2 in the morning."

And no matter what the hour, a sound check requires that Ross spin a platter or two, said Dianne, who’s grown accustomed to the bass booming through the floor.

"I don’t have any peace and quiet," she laughed.

A-9? That’s Bobby Darin singing Mack the Knife.

B-6? That’s Little Richard singing Be Bop-A-Lula.

"People must think we party all the time."

You can call Herald Writer Janice Podsada at 425-339-3029 or send e-mail to podsada@heraldnet.com.

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