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The real Fonzie

The jukebox is fading away, but Fred Boorack’s repair shop keeps on playing

By James Robinson
August 13, 2011

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Outside of the home Fred Boorack and his wife bought in 1969, in a quiet corner of Pembroke near Stetson Pond, sits a 2006 Lincoln Town Car with the license plate “JUKIN.’’ That plate speaks the truth.

Boorack, 65, who grew up in Dorchester, bought his first jukebox in 1977 for his basement. He and his wife wanted to set up a player room, somewhere they could hang out or bring guests to their home for a drink and a little end-of-the-evening fun.

For a few years, this was their only jukebox. But one day a few years later Boorack came across a broken-down 1953 Seeburg jukebox. It was the same model from the opening credits to “Happy Days,’’ and to fix it was going to cost $2,500. So to help pay for it, he began repairing jukeboxes as a hobby and selling them.

Today, it’s no longer a hobby for him, it’s a way of life dedicated to a technology that’s as dated as the Walkman, the typewriter, and the rotary phone. Boorack’s house now holds 50 jukeboxes. That Seeburg set him on the path of collecting, restoring, and selling vinyl and CD jukeboxes for the past 30 years.

“Fonzie couldn’t just hit the box and it would play like that. That was total Hollywood myth,’’ Boorack says, deadpan. He has a modest manner, his face set behind glasses, and his frame swamped by his clothes after losing 142 pounds following a gastric bypass last year.

“He is the main man. The jukebox king,’’ Bruce Wentworth, a fellow repairer from Plaistow, N.H., says of Boorack.

Boorack came of age in the second half of the jukebox craze in America.

The jukebox’s assault on American popular culture began in the 1920s, with the advent of amplification and the need for cheaper bar entertainment in prohibition. Production skyrocketed in the first half of the 1930s, and by the 1940s there were around 500,000 jukeboxes in America.

“I remember when there’d be lines at the jukebox. Everyone used to put a quarter in,’’ Boorack says. It wasn’t until a neighbor bought a jukebox that he considered making a purchase of his own.

The jukebox stumbled in America, as entertainment options proliferated after World War II. Production fell sharply in the 1970s. From a peak of 500,000, today there are 21,000 CD and vinyl jukeboxes licensed in America, a number that falls by 20 percent each year, according to the Jukebox Licensing Office in Nashville.

Boorack has lived in Pembroke for 42 years. He retired from his job, teaching children with learning disabilities, about two years ago. He sold over 50 jukeboxes last year but has shut down his stores in Pembroke and Rochester, N.H., due to slowing sales.

At the bottom of the steps leading into Boorack’s basement a sign announces your arrival in “Jukebox Alley.’’ Here he keeps his eight personal jukeboxes. Photos of classic jukeboxes are pasted on the walls, and a mirror ball hovers in a corner of the room. There’s a full bar, but the bottles are dusty. He can’t drink anymore due to his operation.

Boorack’s garage is packed with splayed-open jukeboxes and parts. A shed has been built in his yard for storing the music players, and he keeps the rest in a container off-site.

Reticent at first, Boorack becomes animated as he talks about his jukeboxes. He opens up the machines, showing off the cascading wheels of compact discs or 45 r.p.m. singles that spin inside each one. Boorack puts on Barry McGuire’s 1960s protest hit “Eve of Destruction’’ and paces the floor. He mouths along to the words, casually strumming an air guitar.

“I remember back when I was in college and a disc jockey in Boston locked himself in and played this song for three hours in a row,’’ he says.

Boorack dials in a song by Buddy Starcher, a spoken-word recounting of the differences between the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. He stands in silence, listening.

“I’d never have even discovered a song like this if it wasn’t for the jukebox,’’ he says.

A passion for music attracted Boorack to the jukebox. He has 10,000 45 r.p.m. singles neatly filed in drawers in the basement. He owns original singles from the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash.

“I’m a collector, but not a purist,’’ Boorack adds. He speaks fondly of weekends away with his wife, hunting for rare finds of one sort or another.

The jukebox aficionado is a dying breed. Boorack estimates the number of jukebox repairers to be two-thirds lower than it was 10 years ago. In the age of the iPod, there is no younger generation taking interest. When he does get a call, it’s usually from someone of his era who is thrilled to just find someone who can help them.

“A guy from Dallas rang me, and he wanted four jukeboxes,’’ Boorack says. “He was so desperate to find someone to sell them to him that he was prepared to drive up and get them.’’

No new CD or vinyl jukeboxes are in production. Of the four companies that dominated the decades-long burst in production of jukeboxes - Wurlitzer, Seeburg, Rockola, and Rowe -all but Rowe folded in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, Boorack says, the only known Rockola technician died.

The machines will break. “The vinyl jukeboxes, they get dirt in them, and they get dusty,’’ Boorack says. The CD jukeboxes run into problems with the wiring. The fuses die, and are getting harder to replace. He has a well of jukebox parts meticulously filed in his garage, but this supply is a finger in a leaking damn. Scarcity means that old jukeboxes are like old Hondas, often worth more for their parts.

The records in Boorack’s prized Seeburg sit in a glass case, atop a base with glowing red and green lights up each side. But the jukebox isn’t working well these days. He turns music on but it plays at a wobbly and uneven pace.

Boorack is realistic about the impending cultural annihilation for the machines that fill his house. He has no desire to try the newer digital models, he says. Technology will mean there is no second turn for the mechanical boxes.

Jukebox nostalgia is a baby-boomer trait, Boorack says. “There was just something about the hope, the optimism of the 1950s that I think resonates.’’ He pauses, stuck reaching for the best description. “My kids, they don’t care about the jukeboxes. It means nothing to them. Same with my father.’’

Boorack says he’ll likely fix jukeboxes until he is unable to. He’s back teaching part time, working nearby at New England Village helping disabled adults.

“I really missed the kids when I left teaching,’’ Boorack says.

Despite how they dominate his space, Boorack not to romanticize the jukeboxes. He says they’re not worth being sentimental over, the way his family is.

They’re just things, Boorack says. He will admit, though, to being a little shocked the jukebox hobby went this far for him. It gave him something to do. “I’m one of those people, I can’t just sit down and watch a movie in my old age.’’

James Robinson can be reached at robinson.jal@gmail.com.