Tabletop Jukeboxes — 1940
by Paula Bosse
Sammy’s, Greenville Ave., 1940
by Paula Bosse
Who isn’t thrilled to find yourself sitting in a booth at a restaurant with your own personal tabletop jukebox? You don’t see them much these days — the only place I can think of that still has them is Campisi’s. They were an absolute thrill to me as a child. I wonder how many of those little machines were broken by overly curious children who went crazy pushing all the buttons and twisting the knobs to flip the pages to see song selections by people they’d never heard of like Patti Page and Artie Shaw?
I just happened upon a collection of these coin-operated machines — called “wallboxes” — here. I had to look to see if Dallas was represented, and, yes, Dallas is represented. Thrice.
At the top, SAMMY’S — 1516 GREENVILLE AVENUE (below Lowest Greenville, one block south of Ross)
There were several locations of Sammy’s restaurants around town, but this was, I think, the first. (I’m pretty sure the building is still there — it just keeps getting renovated and turned into different restaurants/bars.) (UPDATE: Thanks to a comment on my Facebook page, I now realize that, according to Google Street View, the building that once housed Sammy’s bit the dust sometime between 2012 and 2013, when it became a parking lot. See it in 2007 on Google here.) This is the first time I’ve seen a photo of its interior. Below: what it looked like in its heyday.
ROSE OF THE RANCHO (later just The Rancho) — 4401 BRYAN STREET (in Old East Dallas, at Burlew Street)
Named after a popular movie, this cafe (which was busted a few times for selling liquor without a license) was in business near the Mrs. Baird’s plant at Bryan and Carroll, from at least 1936 to 1978, which is a long time for a restaurant. A 1938 newspaper article about a sorority’s Rush Week noted that the Delta Theta Kappas were attending a “stagette” supper there in September 1936.
The photo below, from 1940, shows an interesting interior. Sort of Art Deco-in-a-goldfish-bowl. There’s a lot to like here — I’m feeling hints of “nautical” — except for those booths, which look like the most uncomfortable restaurant seating I’ve ever seen. Browsing the songs on one of those little jukeboxes would at least have offered a bit of respite and distraction from obsessing over how inhospitably uncomfortable that bench you were sitting on was.
I came across the photo below when I was cataloging a collection of photos from the mid 1940s at the Dallas Historical Society — I remembered “Rose of the Rancho,” mainly because of its unusual name. Sadly, the photo shows only the sign (but, as a bonus, it does show the Mrs. Baird’s building, which I keep hearing is about to be renovated any day now). (It’s interesting to note, tangentially, that the guy who took this photo — and all in the collection I was working on — was obsessed with jukeboxes and other coin-operated machines. I feel confident that he stopped in at the Rancho for at least a cup of coffee, armed with a fistful of nickels in order to run through a few hits of the Mills Brothers or Andrews Sisters.)
Rose of the Rancho, 1944 (Dallas Historical Society)
OAK GROVE CAFE — 2630 N. HASKELL (near Weldon Street)
I couldn’t find much about this place, but it had a lot more of the jukebox units installed in it than the other two places: 32 boxes! Imagine if each table had its own concert going on. …And then multiply that by 32. I think those speakers directionalized (is that a word?) the sound so that it kept pretty much to the immediate area. Otherwise, “spillover” music at varying volumes could have been one of many things that tried the patience of waitresses just trying to get through their shifts. …Or it could have been great: different musical offerings at different tables, all day long. Bing Crosby with eggs and toast at table 4, “Stardust” with corned beef at table 6, and Harry James, hold the onions, at the counter. (UPDATE: I’m obviously not well acquainted with this technology. Thanks to the comment below by Bill Parrish, I realize that all of these tabletop machines played the same thing, and each table could adjust the volume. I think I like my idea of 30 different machines chaotically playing 30 different songs simultaneously, but that would have been pretty obnoxious!)
Sources & Notes
The three photos stamped with “Buckley Music System” are all from the Hagley Digital Archives, here (scroll to find the specific photos).
The 1944 photo (which I have cropped) showing the Rose of the Rancho sign and the Mrs. Baird’s building is from the James H. Bell Collection, Dallas Historical Society — more information is here.
More on the Buckley Music System can be found here.
See one of these machines in action (with French narration!) in a YouTube video here.
If you’d like to support the work I do, please check out my Patreon subscription page here, where every day I try to post something new which hasn’t been posted here on the blog.
Copyright © 2023 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.
We used to eat sometimes at – I think it was called “Tony’s” back in the 50s – located on Northwest Highway somewhere near Lambert’s and Love Field…. south side of the street. They had curb service and a small indoor area. They had the jukebox stations at the curb service locations and inside in the booths. I always wanted my parents to play “Mr. Sandman”…
I don’t think these units would play different songs at the different stations… if you selected a song, it would just set a metal “tab” (kind of like a tabulator in an old manual typewriter) and when a song ended, the jukebox would scan the various tabs and stop at the next one that was “set”… which meant that the songs might not play in the order they were selected… and there doesn’t appear to be any way to queue up more than one playing of the same record.
I actually found a video that explains how it works (but it’s kind of complicated and verbose) but also very detailed. Apparently the “tabulator” was called a “selection accumulator”. The accumulator shown in the video is circular, but I remember seeing linear ones (with the records arranged in a line rather than in a doughnut like in this video)… and I think the one at “Tony’s” was linear… but I could be wrong.
The video also explains how the coins are detected and credited for a particular number of songs… So if anyone’s interested in that level of detail… watch the video. It kind of reminds me of a 50s telephone switching system (Strowger switch if there are any telephone geeks).
More recently in CA I’ve seen these at the “Mel’s” chain (like in “American Graffiti”. and the remote stations had little speakers on them. I think the earlier systems in the 50s just allowed you to select the song at your table and they would play through a PA. (But it’s been 10 years since I’ve been into a “Mel’s”… so that may have changed!).
There may be more “Modern” computerized “jukebox” versions that play MP3s or whatever… in whatever order and maybe different songs at different stations too… filled with semiconductor memories and micro computers – not sure… but that wouldn’t be as fun as this rather arcane and complicated mechanism. (Kind of like old mechanical slot machines versus the soulless video slots).
From looking at that jukeboxes video, I’m thinking Tony’s had a Seeburg unit. The tabletop (and curb service) stations looked something like this: https://www.jukeboxhistory.info/seeburg/wallboxes.html#3w1w
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Wow, Bill, thanks for such a detailed and informative comment!
Thanks again, Bill. Here’s a shorter video which shows some guys restoring a jukebox and connecting it with the “wallbox”: https://youtu.be/098jWyZMMTU
I grew up in 1950s Fort Worth, you know it as where the west begins. There were a few diners, or restaurants I remember having the jukeboxes at the table. One was on East Berry Street and the other on Belknap Highway. I would imagine kids wreaked havoc on the small machines, I remember punching the buttons trying to get a song. I would love to have one now. My son has a vintage Wurlitzer loaded with 45s.
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