He loves machines and music, so he restores jukeboxes

Dan Coulter and a Wurlitzer
Dan Coulter adjusts the tone-arm on a customer's 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox at his business, Interactive Amusements.
Jean Pieri | Pioneer Press via AP

Dan Coulter will never live in the era of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Cadillacs with big fins.

So Coulter does the next best thing. He runs a jukebox repair shop, surrounded by the same music — played on the same vinyl records by the same machines — that thrilled teenagers in the 1950s.

He restores broken-down jukeboxes to their jumping, jiving, be-bopping glory days.

"What a wonderful time that was," Coulter, 53, mused between songs played on 45-rpm records. "It's a bygone era. It will never come back again."

He opened Interactive Amusements last year in Newport. It's one of a handful of Minnesota businesses that restore antique jukeboxes.

"There are a few of us out there," Coulter said, "but we are a dying breed."

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When old jukeboxes need repairs, he makes house calls. When the machines need complete piece-by-piece restoration, he hauls them into his shop for work that can cost up to $6,000.

"I am not going to get rich doing this," Coulter said, popping out a phonograph arm from a 1951 Seeburg Model B. "It's a labor of love."

The love began when Coulter was 12. He paid $25 for a busted 1946 Aireon jukebox in a neighbor's garage. He fixed it and sold it to an antique shop, which resold it for use in a Dayton's department store.

"I love machines, and I love music," Coulter said. "This is a perfect blending of the two."

Dan Coulter holds a record from a 1950s United jukebox.
Jean Pieri | Pioneer Press via AP

He repaired the machines as a hobby for most of his life. Then he opened his business, and the love of his life became a full-time job.

Coulter said jukeboxes became popular in the 1930s, when they were considered a stunning technological breakthrough. "You have to understand that people were still using wringer washers," he said.

Early models were built as furniture and resembled squat wooden cabinets.

But that changed at the end of World War II. Flush with victory, America bubbled with exuberance and optimism. Cars evolved into flashy, chrome-laden status symbols — and so did jukeboxes.

"The cars and the jukeboxes mimicked each other," Coulter said.

Jukeboxes blossomed into art objects with flashing lights, push-button controls and record-playing mechanisms that were fascinating to watch. They ascended with the birth of rock 'n' roll and spread into cafes and bars nationwide.

By the late '50s, tastes in jukeboxes evolved along with Detroit's new spaceship-inspired cars. Gone was the razzle-dazzle, honky-tonk look of jukeboxes, replaced by a sleek plastic-and-metal style.

It was the end of the jukebox's Golden Age, Coulter said. Jukeboxes began to conceal their record-playing mechanisms under plastic hoods.

"That's when they became mysterious boxes," Coulter said.

Today, the old jukeboxes trickle into his shop from attics and basements across the Midwest.

Coulter showed off one of them, a 1954 United UPB-100. It had sat in a barn for decades, building up a spatula-thick coat of dust. Coulter popped open the lid and showed how the 45s would roll along a curving track to the turntable.

He then demonstrated a 1946 Rock-Ola, which lifts the 78-rpm records on a rotating plunger to a stationary arm and a needle. The nearby Seeburg Model C plays records vertically, rotating clockwise — then switches directions to counterclockwise to play the other side.

Coulter's prize possession isn't particularly flashy. It's a low cabinet that houses a rare Seeburg Library Unit. The player did not have speakers but could play 100 singles in any order, on either side. It was popular on Navy destroyers, producing music that was broadcast throughout the ship.

Seeburg Symphonola jukebox
Dan Coulter shows a Seeburg Symphonola jukebox in his showroom.
Jean Pieri | Pioneer Press via AP

Sometimes, when Coulter restores the machines, he adds modern touches — such as connections for iPhones and devices, so they can be played through the jukebox's speakers.

He pushed a button on an Aireon machine, and the gears whirred as it found the record and placed it on a turntable.

As the irresistible 1959 hit "Charlie Brown" by the Coasters bounced out of the speakers, Coulter thought of all the happy bobby-soxers who had danced to that same song from the same machine.

He knows that era is gone — for most people, anyway. But it's still alive in his shop.

"You hear that?" he asked over the chattering clarinet riffs. It was the sound of history, happiness and better times.

"That," he said, "is that warm, rich jukebox sound."

An AP Exchange feature by Bob Shaw of the St. Paul Pioneer Press