Music to my ears (and everyone else downtown)

After I posted last week’s Dope on Facebook, one of the comments was from my childhood pal, Bernie Branch.

The column was on the X-mas tree that held sway — figuratively and literally — in Berkeley Square, Way Back When. It was huge, festive and fearsome, and it tugged at our heartstrings and windshield wipers with equal facility.

“So,” said Bernie, “why not write a column on Santa’s Jukebox?”

Ah, yes, why not indeed?

Here’s the thing: Bernie is a lifelong musician/entertainer, and a fine one at that. So it’s only logical he thinks of column writing in a musician’s terms.

Say, Bernie’s in some bucket of blood, bangin’ away on his git-fiddle and crooning his heart out, and someone asks him to play “Gentle on my Mind,” and he’ll gladly oblige. I’d bet if some jamoke held up his lighter and screamed, “Skynyrd,” he’d either launch into “Free Bird” or die trying.

But it doesn’t work like that with a weekly columnist — especially this one. Not only do I not have already-written columns in the hopper, just waiting to hit the light of day, but I’ve no idea what I’ll write from one week to the next. So when someone suggests I write about this or that, while I appreciate their suggestion, it almost never results in an actual column.

However, what with every week in My Home Town being Old Home Week, this one’s for you, Bernardo.

The center of town — and of attention

So what was Santa’s Jukebox?

Well, it was a town institution, much like the Berkeley Square tree. And like the tree, Santa’s Jukebox was a beloved institution — at least beloved by most.

It also was in Berkeley Square and made its maiden voyage about the same time I did — 1947 for me, 1948 for it. It was the brainchild of Bill Wallace, long-time police chief, and was supported by various town organizations and private citizens. Its purpose was to raise money for Xmas presents for kids whose families were struggling. All in all, it was a resounding, and long-lived, success.

Theoretically, folks would drop enough ca-ching in the jukebox to raise enough for the presents. But since that wasn’t possible, most of the money came from donations. In the ’40s and ’50s WNBZ played a big role in fundraising by having an on-air talent show and listeners would call in and pledge money when they heard their favorites.

Later on, service organizations helped out, and of course private donors were pitched in. Since it was Chief Wallace’s “baby,” donations were dropped off directly in the cop shop (then, downstairs in the town hall).

Once the money came in, the Wallaces bought the presents, schlepped them home, where the whole family wrapped them up.

To use restaurant terms, that was the back of the house part of the operation. But what about the front of the house — the jukebox itself?

Originally, it was in front of Endicott-Johnson (which later became IB Hunt Agency, next to Roger Neill’s office). Later, it was across the street, in front of The Blue Line. Upstate Vending donated the jukebox, and till its demise, it was an old traditional mechanical one, with 45s and classic tunes.

As I’d said, almost everyone loved the jukebox, both in concept and reality. However, it did have its share of critics. And what were they critical of? The noise level, if you can believe such a thing.

So how loud was it?

Well, compared to a Waterhole band at Party on the Patio, it was barely audible. But compared to noise levels in The Good Ole Days, before car stereo systems that could play Yankee Stadium, it cranked out what we thought was some major decibels. Which, if you think about it, was the idea to begin with — that once you dropped in your two bits, you could give a bunch of your townspeeps a sweet serenade.

I loved the jukebox, without reservation. As a kid, a quarter was beyond my means for a jukebox. I mean, for 25 cents I could get a chocolate eclair at Deissler’s Bakery, and then walk next door to Boynton’s candy store and wash it down with a 16 oz. Royal Crown Cola. That said, as a philanthropist du manque, I did put in my share of dimes whenever I could.

As a wage-earning adult, I fed the jukebox quarters o’plenty every time I was near it, but I confess I had mixed motives. On the one hand, I did it to support the fund. On the other hand, I did it just for me: That jukebox, chockful of all those oldies, was less a phonograph than a time machine, which for a few bucks at a shot could carry me back to Days Long Gone that I might remember with little accuracy, but with great fondness.

Being a creature of habit, I pretty much played only the same songs each time.

Among my specifically-X-mas selections were “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Bing Crosby; “Have a Holly Golly Christmas” by Burl Ives; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Connie Francis, and “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt. I always played “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms; “Rockin’ Around the Christmas” tree by Little Miss Dynamite, and last but never least, “Blue Christmas” by The King.

There were other, non-X-mas songs on the box, and I always played my favorite country music ones, all of them appealing to my melancholic side. Among them were Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away”; “For the Good Times” by Ray Price; “There Goes My Everything” by Charley Pride; “Just Walk on By” by Leroy Van Dyke, and “It’s Four in the Morning” by Faron Young.

I played all those songs in no order, but I always saved my two rave-faves for last. They were classics by the two giants of C&W … and tearjerkers of the first order.

First, I played “Sweet Dreams” by Patsy Cline.

And last was always Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

Frankly, anyone my age who can listen to that song with dry eyes, there’s only one reason for it: They have a heart of stone.

Years ago, someone I thought was then was an old guy told me there are two kinds of funny. One is Funny, Ha! Ha! The other is Funny, hmm …

To anyone confused about the difference:

For Ha! Ha! Funny, watch Blazing Saddles.

For Hmm … Funny, listen to Willie.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today