It’s no secret—I’m a collector.
I like filling my house with things I find visually appealing: art, toys, vintage radios, books, record albums, religious artifacts, and more. Before you envision a floor-to-rafters disaster of claustrophobic madness, allow me to interject that all my collections are tastefully displayed throughout my home as part of the natural living environment. So, you don’t walk into The Penguin Room or find walls of glass display cases filled with porcelain frogs.
Okay, I do have a whole room of CDs, but that’s more a storage issue than it is an obsessive desire to turn my home into a museum. And, yeah, I do have all my robots crowded together atop a vintage bar, but doesn’t it make sense to display them there when a giclee of Mark Ryden’s Princess Sputnik hangs right above?
My preference for displaying collectables is to instead spread things around so that visitors are greeted with pleasant surprises as they move from room to room. So, in my kitchen you might find a bright red Philco radio from the 1950s, while the bedroom features a vintage Bendix from the decade prior. Each fits the decor of that room and allows individual pieces to standout and shine.
Amongst my mélange is a collection of vintage record players that dot each room like bass notes on a rock’n’roll score. Reminders, no matter where I choose to spend my time, that music is always close and a very big part of my life. Note, by the way, my rather deliberate use of “record player” as opposed to “turntable,” which otherwise carries far more sophistication and glamor than the nostalgic pieces I choose to collect. The pieces in my collection were never intended to reproduce sophisticated music in lush auditory waves of perfectly balanced tones. No! These were audio workhorses meant to blast horrific sound through gravel-pitched grills that would shake the table, rock the floors and crumble your neighbor’s walls! Equipment that could be grabbed by the handle, hauled into the trunk of a car, and plugged into any waiting outlet for an instant party!
These are RECORD PLAYERS, dammit!
My collection leans heavily towards record players that would have been used by kids and teens—or maybe a renegade DJ on the go. Let’s take a look, shall we?
To the left is a very early piece made by PAL, probably in the 1940’s, and—from the case illustrations—is obviously intended for very small children. I found this record player ages ago on eBay and it took YEARS to air out the rancid smell of cigarette smoke. If this wonderful piece could talk, I’m sure it would tell caustic tales of emphysema and the dangers of second hand smoke. I imagine a sour faced mom wearing slippers and a dingy bathrobe, angrily beating at a bowl of eggs on a formica counter, as an unfiltered Camel hangs from her lip dangling ash above her child’s breakfast. “Get in here and eat before I smack you!” she hacks. “And quit with that noise! You’ll go deaf!”
This wonderful piece only plays 78 RPM discs and “features” a speaker built right into the tonearm, and a needle that more closely resembles a small finishing nail than it does anything meant to gently coax beautiful music from the delicate grooves of a record. Ah! Music as soft and dulcet as the graceful treble clef embossed on the side. Pretty cool, but let’s take a closer look at that needle…
Yikes! Something tells me that records didn’t last much longer than a single play before that single groove of glorious music was worn down to a wide gully of scratchy sound. And, remember, that steel-tipped bad boy is part of a “toy” targeted to 4 and 5 year olds. Kids were so much more resilient back in the day! So what if their record player was capable of puncturing flesh? And bone? (Whiny modern day parents…)
In most rooms of my house you’ll find a record player on display, somewhere. Some are tucked into corners, some act as doorstops, and others function as pieces of mid-century industrial art. Take, for example, the record player on the right. It’s displayed atop a plant stand beneath a painting by Los Angeles artist Gary Baseman (and beside a shelf of vintage books and curios). I found this record player while on a business trip to San Antonio and knew it had to be mine, because:
- It’s small
- It’s portable
- It’s yellow!
Best of all, there is a serial number and other bits of bureaucratic etching on the top surface identifying the record player as belonging to the San Antonio Independent School District. How cool! Real, authentic elementary school AV equipment! And where better place to display AV equipment than in my library, right?
This is a four-speed player (16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm) with a generously sized speaker built-in beneath the platter and tonearm. Underneath are little springy feet that absorb vibrations and prevent skipping. I believe this dates back to the mid 1970’s and it’s made like a tank, no doubt anticipating the clumsy roughhousing of pimply-face electronics geeks racing AV carts down the corridors of the local elementary school. It has a snap-on cover and I got it back to San Diego as my carry-on luggage on the flight back home.
So, if I have a AV-issue record player in the library, what do I have in the dining room? A jukebox, of course! And not just any jukebox like those fancy Wurlitzers that trend followers drool over because of the name, the bubble lights, and the Cadillac-reputation of the Wurlitzer as an icon of 1950 “cool.” But let’s face it, the Wurlitzer was a “country club” jukebox, made to fill time at the club when the band was on a 15 minute break. It played nice, safe, acceptable music for nice, safe, acceptable people in the community.
My jukebox is a 1951 Rock-Ola Super Rocket, the best jukebox ever because it inspired the design of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. You weren’t going to find a Rock-Ola at the country club. Nor were you going to find one in a fine restaurant or the lounge of a respectable hotel. The Rock-Ola lived in pool halls, bars, bowling alleys, and juke joints. Anywhere dangerous music might be heard, there you’d find a Rock-Ola. The jukebox in the basement of the Delta house in Animal House was a Rock-Ola, fer christsake!
I picked up my Rock-Ola in Portland and it plays 78’s using two styluses mounted to the tonearm: one right-side-up to play the A-side, and one upside-down (with the record spinning in the opposite direction) to play the B-side. The machine is in fairly excellent condition, with the exception of two small star-like cracks on the see-through dome, which I suspect (or perhaps hope) are scars from a bar room brawl; punches and pool cues flying through the air as Bobby Fuller Four sings a lament of fighting the law (and, alas, the law won).
Also occupying space in the dining room is the record player you see to the left—a beautiful little portable phonograph manufactured by the Voice of Music Corporation in 1953. I featured this record player in one of my fine art photographs, Red discovers there is more to life than living in a house made of straw, and have twice included it in large installations that demonstrate the three dimensional aspect of my work.
There are a few others scattered around the house. Some that work, and others that could use a bit of an audio tuneup. Click through the slideshow below to see more of these relics that double as accents of vintage home decor!