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Collector Preserves The ‘Good Old Days’

Tony Sanfilippo proudly stands beside a 1940 Wurlitzer jukebox, one of many in his collection. Photos by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

It appears that Tony Sanfilippo is living the dream. The Busti man is married, has four children, eight grandchildren, two dogs and is surrounded by one of his beloved hobbies. The key player in the dream is Chris, Sanfilippo’s very understanding wife, who has willingly allowed him to fill their home with his collections.

When Sanfilippo was about 14 years old, he and friends heard piano music coming from a house they passed on their way to play baseball. Out of curiosity, the young boys walked up to a man who was sitting on the porch and asked him who was playing the music inside. The man invited them into his house to witness a player piano that was producing the music they could hear from the sidewalk. He also demonstrated an Edison big horn phonograph and a jukebox. Young Sanfilippo never forgot that day or the instruments that had been foreign to him prior to it.

“It hit me hard,” he says. “I had to find out about this stuff.”

He wasn’t exposed to any of these gadgets again until the early 1970s while serving with the US Air Force, when he discovered a coin-operated player piano in a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor.

“I spent more on the piano than I did on pizza,” he says.

The Sanfilippo grandchildren count on their grandfather to keep a few bottles of Coca Cola in this machine.

He acquired his first jukebox in 1984, a Wurlitzer, from a woman who lived just a mile from his home.

“I bought a player piano around the same time because I wanted to see what made it tick.”

Most collectors may fill a few shelves or even a room, but this collector collects massive juke boxes, with some weighing as much as 350 pounds, among other things, and displays them throughout their home. He knows every make, model number and facts about the pieces he collects and can tell a story about how he acquired it.

A 1940 Wurlitzer Model 800 dominates the Sanfilippo’s dining room. It was the first jukebox to have bubble tubes and the tubes on this model mesmerize as they are in the center, running from the bottom up to the selector buttons. Bought at auction, it returned from California to less than 100 miles from where it was manufactured in North Tonawanda.

On the day of my visit, Freddie Cannon’s Palisades Park blasted from a Wurlitzer Model 1015 in the living room. The 1962 release had not been recorded yet when the jukebox framed by an arch of orange, red, yellow, purple and blue lights, was built in 1946. The bubbles in the tubes in this unit flowed from the bottom on each side and met in the center at the top of the brightly lighted arch.

The basement rec room is the favorite hangout for Sanfilippo's grandchildren. Three Seeburg teardrop speakers hang above 1946 and 1951 Seeburg jukeboxes. Beside them is one of many pop machines that Sanfilippo has at his home and at his store in the VSK Emporium.

A third jukebox, a 1947 Wurlitzer 1080, is found in the couple’s office. The inside mechanism is the same as the 1015. This model was made for subdued locations and fancier restaurants. After twenty years of ownership, he recently located and purchased an ornamental star that had been missing from the front of the unit. The automatic phonograph was beautifully lit, especially in a dark room, which the owner the demonstrated.

The mammoth music machines were made to play 78 RPM records, the popular size of the day. After 1950-51 they were converted to play 45 RPM vinyl.

There were few collectors when Sanfilippo started. He rented a store in Lakewood for a few years where he sold jukeboxes, pinball machines, arcade machines, pop machines, bowling machines, gas pumps, slot machines and records. Later, in 2015, he opened the Golden Era Music Gallery, a large booth in the VSK Emporium in Frewsburg. A nickelodeon, which is a coin-operated piano that plays seven other instruments, shares the space with a player piano, old phonographs, floor model radios, 78s, 45s, 33 1/3s, 8-track tapes, cassettes and of course, jukeboxes. There is an Elvis section, too.

“I love having the Music Gallery down there. My main objective is to have a museum, more than a store,” he claims. “We’re caretakers, basically.”

Two more jukeboxes, some being the wall box variety that were found above tables in the booths in diners in the 50s and 60s, are at home in a room in the basement. A boxy 1951 Seeburg Model B plays 100 selections from 50 records. The Wurlitzer jukes became obsolete when Seeburg came out because they play just 24 selections.

A fun to play pinball machine stands in the Sanfilippo basement near the dreaded scales. Both were commonly found in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Three hundred and fifty pounds and it plays 24 songs,” says the owner with a grin.

One of his jukeboxes and wall box plays 200 selections, which Seeburg only made for a couple of years.

“They were stereo and really collectible.”

A 1946 Seeburg with a bright red dome and rounded tubes along each side, has the sleek curves of the pre-fifties machines. Three Seeburg teardrop speakers, each in a different design, hang above the two jukeboxes. The jam-packed room has a pool table in the center surrounded by a pinball machine, pay phones, drive-in movie speakers, pop machines, pop bottles and pop cases. A gumball machine, old diner stools, an air pump for inflating tires, a fortune telling coin-operated scale, a 1940s Mills slot machine and an insulated Lake County Dairy milk box full of glass milk bottles also fills the space. Tin signs advertising pop, cloth patches from gasoline station attendants’ uniforms and other memorabilia are interspersed throughout the room. A box filled with rolls for a player piano sits on the floor.

“All of the grandchildren love the rec room” and his 1957 Vendo 81 Coca Cola machine, which always has a few bottles of ice cold Coke for them.

Part of the reason I have my store in Frewsburg is to expose the younger generation to see it existed,” says the grandfather. “That’s my main motivation.”

When his children were young, he took them to jukebox shows and to music museums in Rome, New York and Franklin, Pennsylvania.

“They didn’t get away from my hobby,” he says with a smile.

He is happy that his youngest grandson, Gage Delahoy, has taken an interest in the “old stuff” and likes to go to the store and tell visitors about the contents. The young man follows in his grandfather’s footsteps with a military uniform collection.

In the past he attended three auctions per week, but has pared that number down to one, which he attends every Tuesday. Over the years, he has found many Coke machines that were rebranded with other pop company logos and some machines that had been painted another color. He is currently refinishing a pop machine he pursued for thirty years, finally buying it at auction when the business closed. He has been patiently awaiting the arrival of a Wurlitzer 750 jukebox, one he has never owned, but has “always wanted to find.”

Sanfilippo retired from Titan X in 2013. Classic cars are another passion. He owns a 1940 Ford Coupe and a 1970 Chevy Chevelle. He is a member of the Classic Chevy Club.

Anyone wishing to sell a juke box, other old music machines, pinball machines or pop machines, should call Sanfilippo at (716) 665-9813 or 483-1769. The VSK Emporium is located at 54 West Main Street in Frewsburg. The hours are Wednesday through Saturday 10 AM-5 PM and Sunday noon-5 PM.

Roman Tossed Salad

4 c romaine lettuce

4 c iceberg lettuce

1 c artichoke hearts, quartered

2 oz sliced pimento

1 small sliced red onion

1/3 c olive oil

3 tsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp salt

Pinch of pepper

1/3 c grated parmesan cheese

Mix lettuce, artichokes, onion and pimento in a large bowl. Combine salt, pepper, oil and vinegar in a separate container. Mix well. Makes 4 good size individual salads. Add dressing to taste.

Aunt Gene’s Biscuits

2 c flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1/4 c shortening

3/4 c buttermilk

Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl. Add shortening and work until it resembles crumbs. Add buttermilk. Stir until the dough sticks together. Place on lightly floured surface. Knead about 12 to 15 strokes. Roll out to about 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into 2-inch rounds with biscuit cutter. Place on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for about 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes approximately 12 biscuits.

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