Lifting the lid on a rock'n'roll icon
BY JILLIAN MACKENZIE
One of the most significant changes to have taken place in Australian society following the end of the Second World War was the drift towards American rather than British culture. As the American way of life was projected into Australia via popular culture, it rapidly altered the way in which we spent money, entertained ourselves, dressed and socialised.
The American cultural influence predominated through the music we listened to, and the movies and television we watched. Commercial radio stations were dominated by mostly American and British music, which satisfied the teenage hunger for rock’n'roll. If there was one item that symbolises the postwar rock’n'roll era, the Wurlitzer Jukebox would be it.
The Wurlitzer family had been making and selling musical instruments in Germany as far back as the 17th Century, including lutes, violins and pianos. Rudolph Wurlitzer emigrated to the US in 1853 and began selling musical instruments, initially imported from Germany before he started producing them in America. In 1896 the Wurlitzer company manufactured the first coin-operated electric piano. They then moved on to cinema and theatre organs which had immense impact within the motion picture and entertainment industries. Always willing to adopt new technologies, the Wurlitzers bought a patented jukebox mechanism in 1933 and developed the first jukebox. By the late 1930s, Wurlitzer was producing over 45,000 jukeboxes a year.
After the typical wooden design of the 1930s, Wurlitzer employed a gifted designer named Paul Fuller. Fuller introduced coloured plastics and glass, rotating cylinders and bubble tubes making the jukeboxes more ornate and then in 1947 the 1015 model was born.
In Australia, jukeboxes like the American Wurlitzer 1015 were found in many public venues such as cafes and bars. Listeners could choose their favourite songs from a selection of 24 different options.
More than 50,000 of this model were sold in the first 18 months. This model, most with modifications to play compact discs or digital music files, is still being used to this day. The advertising campaign for the 1015 model was so successful that the name Wurlitzer became synonymous with jukeboxes in general.
While Wurlitzer is an American brand, the jukeboxes were popular worldwide and were produced under licence in different countries including Australia by Wurlitzer Automatic Phonograph Company in Brunswick, Melbourne.
Australia did however have its own brand of jukeboxes. During the Second World War, the Australian government banned the import of all non-essential items with jukeboxes being one of those items. The few that were here were aging, pre-war machines which were breaking down and impossible to repair due to the lack of parts.
In 1949 Alfred Wilding and John Porter decided to fill the void left by Wurlitzer and started a small factory, Wilding and Porter, in Brunswick, Victoria. From this they produced 12 slot Musicola jukeboxes that rivalled the Wurlitzer brand. By the early 1960s the import laws were relaxed and the market was flooded.
Sadly, the Australian Musicola models struggled with mechanical issues and developed a reputation for failure. Even though the company attempted to adapt, in the end all models were recalled and Wilding and Porter officially liquidated in 1963.
Learn more about the NFSA’s Documents and Artefacts Collection.
Please email collection [at] nfsa.gov.au if you have a working Musicola jukebox you would like to donate to the NFSA.