by Kristin D’Agostino
When the Rock-ola 1422 jukebox hit dance floors in 1946, bikinis were the new rage in Paris, “Fibber McGee and Molly” ruled the radio waves and college kids jitterbugged to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and the Andrews Sisters. With its streamlined curves, walnut veneer and chrome embellishments, the Rock-ola fit right in with the flashy Buicks and Cadillacs of its time.
These days, though, students and visitors at A-B Tech might be surprised to come across the Rock-ola parked beside a third-floor elevator in the Elm building. What is a vintage jukebox doing on campus?
Stuart Smolkin, curator of the Asheville Radio Museum, located inside the building, recently described the machine’s presence as an anomaly. The museum, which is hosted by A-B Tech’s engineering department, has over 100 vintage radios dating back to the technology’s inception. But the Rock-ola, acquired in 2021, is its first and only jukebox.
A decade of silence
Eyes sparkling boyishly, Smolkin recalls how a chance exchange with a museum visitor led to his eventual introduction to Joan Giampaolo, the owner of the jukebox, who was looking to donate it. Before even meeting Giampaolo, Smolkin jumped at the opportunity. Decades earlier, while living in New Orleans, he’d spent months restoring a 1940s Wurlitzer jukebox, which was later destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
“We had 5 feet of water in our house,” he recalls. “All the antiques that were portable we’d moved upstairs, but the Wurlitzer weighed several hundred pounds. It was completely ruined.”
Having learned the Wurlitzer’s inner workings, Smolkin was eager to restore a similar machine. Jukeboxes from the ’40s, he explains, are particularly beautiful because manufacturers were competing to have the most eye-catching model. “It was like having a lure for a fish,” he says.
The Rock-ola 1422 boasted red, yellow and green panels that glowed in the dark, spinning cylinders that threw colored light patterns and a turntable that rose when a coin was dropped into the slot. When the Rock-ola 1422 came out, Smolkin says, about 15,000 were made, and it cost around $450 to purchase, which would be about $7,500 in today’s currency.
Excited at the prospect of restoring another machine, Smolkin rented a U-Haul and drove out to Fletcher to retrieve the jukebox. Upon inspection, he discovered the Rock-ola could no longer play music. Its amplifier was broken, its body was damaged and the beautiful walnut veneer was peeling up along the corners.
For the next year, Smolkin and two museum volunteers worked to restore the jukebox. They replaced brittle electrical wiring and glued down the veneer, devising a system of ratchet straps to hold thin pieces of wood in place while avoiding damage to the chrome grill.
After waiting several months to get the last part from a supplier — a strip of colored plastic that was particularly difficult to find — the Rock-ola played its first song in July after nearly decade of silence: Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
“You would’ve thought the three of us were little kids,” Smolkin says. “We had blurry eyes; our jaws were hanging down admiring this thing. It was the first time we saw it lit up. It was so much nicer than we could’ve imagined.”
Soon after its July debut, Giampaolo swung by to visit her old jukebox. Before it perched beside the elevator, Giampaolo says the Rock-ola spent its Motown years with her in Chicago, its disco years in Florida and came to Asheville in the mid-2000s around the time Adele and Katie Perry were battling for Billboard’s No.1 spot.
Giampaolo still recalls the excitement she felt at age 12, when she first saw the jukebox in a community clubhouse in her hometown of Goodman, Wis. In those days, you could get five songs for a quarter, and the jukebox played a mix of Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and polka music for the town’s many Polish immigrants.
“We didn’t have any place to go, so the Goodman Clubhouse is where we’d hang out,” she says. “There were only 800 people who lived there. There was a movie theater, a bowling alley and a soda fountain. We’d get a soda … play music and the girls would dance around.”
At 20, after graduating college, Giampaolo left Wisconsin for Illinois, where she met her husband and got a job as a medical clerk. Still, she continued to visit the clubhouse for high school reunions. In the late ’50s, the clubhouse was bought by Giampaolo’s foster sister, and the jukebox was put in storage. At the time, Giampaolo and her husband were building a house north of Chicago and starting a family. The jukebox seemed the perfect complement to their new home.
“I asked for it, and Louise [my foster sister] gave it to me for free, but I felt so guilty I asked if she’d take $25,” Giampaolo recalls. “It was big and heavy, but we got a trailer and took it back to Chicago.”
Over the next three decades, the Rock-ola moved across the country with the Giampaolos, spinning records for six children and, later, eight grandchildren.
“It was always in our family room,” Giampaolo says. “I would play it if I was mopping or dusting and change the records based on the time. My oldest daughter loved Bing Crosby, so I’d play her ‘White Christmas.’ It’s been a part of my kids’ lives since they were little.”
It wasn’t until after 2011, when Giampaolo moved from Florida to live in a small apartment in her daughter’s South Asheville home, that the jukebox began to show signs of age.
“I used to go away in the summer,” she recalls. “And my grandkids were playing with it and bringing kids to show them. They let the kids monkey with it. That’s when things started breaking.”
Giampaolo was happy to learn of the radio museum and to discover Smolkin’s passion for restoring old jukeboxes. Though she’d considered giving the Rock-ola to one of her grandchildren, donating it to a museum where it could be appreciated by engineering students seemed a better fit.
Roped off beside the elevator, the Rock-ola’s buttons are protected with plastic. Twice a day, it lights up as students pass it between classes. Anyone interested in hearing it play music can call the museum for a personal demonstration.
“The men there are so kind, and they really care,” Giampaolo says. “I’m happy [the jukebox is] taken care of, and it’s working like I remember it. It’s part of my life. It’s part of my town.”
The Asheville Radio Museum is inside the Elm Building, 340 Victoria Road, Room 315. A volunteer-run organization, it is open to the public Saturdays, 1-3 p.m., or by appointment. For more information, visit avl.mx/d6m.