Ristaucrat Jukebox | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Ristaucrat Jukebox

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Ristaucrat Jukebox | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeTable-top Ristaucrat Selective Jukebox

Ristaucrat jukebox, 1951

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1974.7.2

EnlargeAd for the Ristaucraft S-45 jukebox

Ad for the Ristaucraft S-45 jukebox, 1951

Ad for the Ristaucrat S-45 jukebox, September 1951. Source: Reproduced with permission from Jukeboxes 1900-1992: Obscure, Mysterious and Innovative American Jukeboxes by Frank Adams © Sonoran Publishing

EnlargeRistau brothers

Jukebox pioneers, c. 1935

From left: Homer Capeheart (Wurlitzer Jukeboxes); Gustav Ristau with his sons Arnold and Alfred, son-in-law Frank Meyer, and son Harold Ristau c. 1935. Ristaucrat Inc. sold their patented selector mechanism to Wurlitzer in the 1930s.Source: Reproduced with permission from Jukeboxes 1900-1992: Obscure, Mysterious and Innovative American Jukeboxes by Frank Adams © Sonoran Publishing

EnlargeAlfred Ristau with his jukebox

Alfred Ristau with his jukebox, c. 1979

Alfred Ristau c. 1979 with an early model jukebox. Source: Reproduced with permission from Jukeboxes 1900-1992: Obscure, Mysterious and Innovative American Jukeboxes by Frank Adams © Sonoran Publishing

Table-top Ristaucrat S-45 Selective
Jukebox, produced by Ristaucrat, Inc., Appleton, Wisconsin, 1951.

(Museum object #1974.7.2)

The precursor of the modern jukebox appeared in 1889, when businessman Louis Glass fitted an Edison phonograph with a coin slot and installed it at the Palais Royal restaurant in San Francisco. The jukebox didn't become a popular fixture in gathering places, however, until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Over the next several decades, the jukebox was a main attraction in restaurants, taverns, and ice cream parlors, and appeared in various shapes, colors, and sizes as a form of entertainment for the masses. Alfred and Arnold Ristau, partners in the Appleton-based Ristaucrat, Inc., introduced this table-top Ristaucrat S-45 Selective Jukebox in 1951, a time when the industry seemed poised to make record profits. Yet, like other smaller companies, Ristaucrat, Inc. had a difficult time competing with major jukebox manufacturers such as Wurlitzer and Rock-Ola, and produced a comparatively small number of jukeboxes.

Gustav W. Ristau, his eldest son Alfred, and two other associates established Ristaucrat, Inc. in Kaukauna, Wisconsin in 1930. The company introduced both console and table model jukeboxes in 1931. Like other jukeboxes of that time, these early models played 78 rpm records and allowed for 24 different record selections. Due to the Great Depression, however, the company ceased jukebox production and sold its patented selector mechanism to the Wurlitzer Music Company. Ristau, his sons Alfred, Harold and Arnold, and son-in-law Frank Meyer continued to work together as GW Ristau and Sons selling real estate and vending machines through the mid 1940s. After Gustav Ristau's death, Alfred and Harold remained involved with music machines, Alfred as a jukebox owner and operator and Harold as owner of HW Ristau Phonographs.

Around 1950, Alfred and his youngest brother Arnold collaborated to re-enter the jukebox market. After almost a decade of prosperity from the early 1930s to the early 1940s, other jukebox manufacturers had been forced to cease production during World War II to convert their facilities to support the war effort. After the war, manufacturers again resumed production of jukeboxes, and several technological developments in the late 1940s and early 1950s boded well for the industry. The introduction of 45 rpm records provided jukebox operators with a more compact, durable playback medium, and new boxes introduced in the early 1950s were capable of handling up to 100 selections.

In the late 1940s, however, jukeboxes began to face competition from television, and the traditional markets for jukebox locations - taverns, bars, and cocktail lounges - were becoming saturated with the devices. By the 1950s, jukebox manufacturers and operators were looking to expand into new jukebox locations - restaurants, 24-hour cafés, ice cream parlors, and snack bars.

The Ristaucrat brothers introduced two smaller jukeboxes into this market in 1950 and 1951. The 1950 model, the Ristaucrat 45, was a non-selective counter unit capable of playing twelve 45 rpm records; the company demonstrated this jukebox at the National Association of Music Merchants annual convention in Chicago in July 1950. Joseph J. Cohen, the company's sales manager, stated that Ristaucrat, Inc (by now based in Appleton) had already placed 1,200 units on location and was increasing production to 100 units a day.

Perhaps encouraged by the success of the Ristaucrat 45, the company introduced the S-45 model the following year. This unit also played twelve 45 rpm records, but improved upon the 45 model by allowing the customer to select which records to play. A promotional flyer for the S-45 describes it as "the winner for hundreds of locations that can't pay out on a large juke box. The smart eye-catching S-45 is LOCATION PROVEN . . . it's making profits right now for smart operators in spots like taverns, restaurants, drug stores, hot dog stands, and hundreds of similar locations." Ristaucrat, Inc. produced about 2,500 of each model, a relatively small portion of the 40,000 average annual units produced in 1950 and 1951 by all United State manufacturers.

During the 1950s, several events and circumstances combined to bring about the slow demise of the jukebox industry. In addition to market saturation, the advent of television, and the growth of suburban communities contributed to a decline in tavern business as more middle-class families relocated to the suburbs away from traditional neighborhood drinking spots and began spending more time at home watching television. In the mid-1950s, a Chicago Crime Commission report linking the jukebox business with organized crime also cast a shadow over the industry. As a result, average annual production by the four major U.S. jukebox manufacturers – AMI, Rock-Ola, Seeburg, and Wurlitzer – slowly declined in the 1960s and 1970s. Only 19,000 jukeboxes were produced in the U.S. in 1978, down from a high of 120,000 in 1935, the beginning of the "Golden Age of the Jukebox."

Alfred and Arnold Ristau attempted one final foray into the jukebox market in the mid-1960s as employees of the Melodie Vendor Corporation in Appleton. In 1964, the firm introduced the Melodie Vendor, a combination jukebox and vending machine that allowed customers to play records and purchase them from the same unit. The company remained in business until the mid-1970s. Arnold Ristau died in 1968 and Alfred retired in 1976.

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[Sources: Adams, Frank. "Jukeboxes 1900-1992: Obscure, Mysterious and Innovative American Jukeboxes" (Arlington, WA: AMR Publishing Company, 1992); Almind, Gert J. "Danish Jukebox Archives"; DeCillis, Tom. "Teeny Weeny Jukes"; Lynch, Vincent. "American Jukebox: The Classic Years" (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1990); Ryan, Thomas. "History of Outagamie County, Wisconsin" (Chicago: Godspeed Historical Association, 1911); Segrave, Kerry. "Jukeboxes: An American Social History" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2002); "Incorporation Papers of Defunct Domestic Corporations." Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Series 356 Box 0768 File R002459.]


Posted on November 22, 2007