Story of a jukebox

This is the story of the ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys jukebox. For those of you who have seen the production, you know that the jukebox is a crucial prop — referenced throughout the script and integral to the moving ending of the play. It was important to get it right, and we had quite an adventure on our way to realizing what ultimately appears on stage.

For those of you who may not be familiar, as props designer I’m responsible for anything an actor deals with during the performance that he/she doesn’t wear (that’s costumes), in addition to working with the scenic designer on furniture and set dressing.

At first with the ‘Master Harold’ jukebox, I wasn’t too scared. I mean, after I scored a baby grand piano and dipped lobster shells in Shellac for When She Danced, I thought I could do anything!

For ‘Master Harold’, the goal was (ideally) a working, 1950s-era jukebox. I knew that

The jukebox on the set of "'Master Harold' ... and the Boys"
The jukebox on the set of “‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys”

finding it was going to be first and foremost a potential budget issue. I figured I could only spend about $200, maybe $300 tops, about a third of the total props budget, on this one piece.

My first step was to research online. I tore through Google, eBay and Craigslist to see what was out there to buy or possibly rent. Very quickly it became clear that a working 1950s jukebox was never going to cost what I wanted it to cost, no matter what I did. I wised up and let the production team know that we were going to have to invest to get what we wanted. Most importantly, I was given permission to spend the money. After working with TimeLine for a couple years, I understand how important it is to them to make sure every item I acquire is right. Since the jukebox needed to work, we knew that the cost would be worth it, adding enormous character to the visual design. I had research from scenic designer Tim Mann on what models he preferred, looks that fit best with the design of the set. Incredibly, a few days before technical rehearsals started, I found the exact jukebox — the one that Tim had even created a miniature of for his set model — on Craigslist.

A part of any props design process is haggling price for some items. The goal is always to get the most authentic pieces for the least possible expenditure. On Craigslist, I negotiated the seller down almost 45% on his price … $1,000 for one perfect, working, 1950s-era jukebox. Sold!

The jukebox (from left) stars alongside Alfred Wilson, Daniel Bryant and Nate Burger in “‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys”

By now time was running pretty short. We were only 8 days away from first preview when I rented a 15-foot box truck with a lift grate and took off to claim our prize in Crown Point, Indiana.

Finally arriving at the destination, I pulled up and right there, on the porch of this house in the middle of nowhere, was the jukebox; plugged in and all lit up. I just walked up and started laughing. I couldn’t believe I was picking up this perfectly gorgeous jukebox for our play!

The seller had owned the jukebox for something like 25 years and it was obviously a prized possession. He was having his last moments with it, playing all the songs, opening it up and tinkering with it one last time. He showed me how it worked and all the things he did to fix it if something went wrong. But finally, the moment came, I handed over the payment and we delicately loaded the jukebox off the porch and into the truck on what was, of course, one of the snowiest days of the year! After cautiously securing that sucker into the truck, I headed back to Chicago.

Seven hours and some Steak N’ Shake later I eagerly arrived at TimeLine with the jukebox. I ran in announcing “look what I got!” Of course, then it took six guys to get all 250 lbs. or so up all those TimeLine stairs. Everyone LOVED it! Mission accomplished.

And then when I turned it on, it didn’t work …

This was not a good moment. I mean, it had worked 2 hours before! PJ [Powers, TimeLine’s artistic director] was staring at me with a look that said, “We did not just spend $1,000 on a broken jukebox.”

Thankfully, over the course of tech week we figured out the mess of 50-year-old wires, motors and switches, and rigged a system that makes the magic happen on stage. I’ll just say that more than one moment involves the assistant stage manager sitting in the back hallway plugging and unplugging lights at key moments.

The song “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day” plays at a crucial moment during the play.

Once the technical issues were dealt with, I turned my attention to set dressing — making sure that the jukebox looked as much like one that could have played in a South African tea room in 1950 as possible. Sound designer Christopher Kriz came up with a list of 100 songs from the time period — both A sides and B sides — which were then Photoshopped into 50 little labels, looking identical to the original song selection labels.  With detail in mind, I specifically placed the song label that is chosen at the end of the play to be in the correct selection spot that is picked by the actor.

Another detail adjustment was the coin slot saying “3 plays for a quarter.” So, I had to create a new label that, through the magic of Photoshop and digital printing, you can now only purchase a song with “6 pence.”

It takes sixpence NOT quarters to play this jukebox!

And finally, a little bit of another show found its way into this one (in fact, look closely at any set and you might recognize items you’ve seen in other productions!). Remember the tin box that was so prominent on stage during The History Boys, where Hector stored his winnings from games with the boys and that Rudge wins in one of the final scenes of the play? It’s installed inside the jukebox so that when the actor drops in his British coins, the perfect “clink” is heard.

The result of this crazy journey is a working jukebox that sounds great, looks amazing and is as close to period as I could have hoped to achieve.

I don’t know what TimeLine will throw my way next, but it will have to be pretty incredible to top the experience of the ‘Master Harold’ jukebox.



Julia Eberhardt was properties designer for “’Master Harold’ … and the Boys” as well as many other TimeLine productions. She estimates that in the final two weeks of putting together ‘Master Harold’, she worked about 180 hours on the production.

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Comments (3)

  1. Bernie Holicky

    A 1950 memory trip: It wasn’t “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day” on the jukebox that caught my memory, but “Strange Fruit” a song performed by Billy Holiday, condemning lynching. What I resurrected from my memory bank was Lillian Smith’s “Strange Fruit,” a 1940’s novel I read when I was 17 or so, Hally’s age, about interracial love transcending the color line.

    I wonder if the Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” might have escaped the South African censors…in the 1950’s in the US, “fruit” was a pejorative for someone gay. Or it showed if you were black in the US, you might be lynched.

    Lillian Smith’s bad adoption of “Strange Fruit” flopped as a play on Broadway. And “Strange Fruit” is still a signature song of Billy Holiday.

  2. Chuck & Fran Licht

    We saw the show on Feb 22, matinee. The acting was superb – maybe even better than that!!! The set was wonderful. I am old enough to remember 1950 juke boxes!!

    The story is sad but in those days (to quote my grand daughters bib) “spit happens”. Isn’t this a little like the blacks who ran and supported households, particularly in the South. As a kid raised in The Bronx, even in the Depression my mother had live in help. Price was three squares a day, a place to sleep (not a room) and $5 for spending money which the ladies squandered on a movie and maybe dancing somewhere.

    The other show we saw recently “Island” was an equally well developed play and well acted too.


  3. Jordan Miner

    My wife loves jukeboxes, and I think that being able to get her one would be neat. I’m glad you talked about set dressing, which was something that I had no idea about. I’m going to have to look into a few different options for jukeboxes, and see what would be best for us! Thanks!