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The Penny Arcade

 The Coin Operated Machine Information Site 

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                                                                           David C. Rockola  1897-1993

 

David Rockola was born in  Virden Manitoba in Canada in 1897 but by 1911 he was in another part of Canada and already keen to travel and find something original to make his living at. During the next 15 years he opened his own  cigar store   and worked as an  oil field worker in Argentina. Working in the oil fields he found he had a natural talent for engineering which was to serve him well in the future. He first became interested in coin operated machines while running  the cigar store in Medicine Hat Alberta , in 1919 he was persuaded by two Australian salesmen to buy a trade stimulator for the counter of the cigar store,within a month it was earning more than the rest of the store put together and David started to think coin op as his future.

 

      

                                               A Rock-ola "hold and Draw" trade Stimulator from the late 1930's

He also decided to change his name sometime in the 1920's because as he put it "he was sick of people miss pronouncing it" (?). Its unknown why he chose Rock-ola because this was before he entered the coin operated industry and way before the Juke box as we know it  was even thought of. Of course it was an inspired choice and it is generally excepted that the term "rock & Roll" stems ,at least in part, from the popular rock-ola juke boxes that were so big a part in the rise of rock and roll.

 

Best known for his juke boxes, which were some  of the first produced and continued to be some of the last produced Rockola also made some of the most interesting slot machines ,trade stimulators and pinball machines of the day, and it is these we will consentrate in this section (see "the juke box age" for more on Rock-ola juke boxes)

Clearly a colourful character in his early days he often boasted of working with "the boys" during prohibition but became more close lipped about this period of his life in later years. It is however  thought that his sudden move from Chicago to California in 1924 was just one step ahead of both the law and the mob after he and another coin op man ,Keeney had turned states evidence against some serious mobsters in Chicago . Rockola had been working for Keeney preparing illegal slot machines for two well know mobsters in Chicago Edward "Spike" O'Donnell and James "high pockets" O'Brian, when the police began to close in both Keeney and Rockola turned states evidence with enough to send the bad guys to  prison for a long time,however at the trial following threats from the mob both Keeney and Rockola refused to testify and it was Rockola who got 6 months in prison for contempt of court. Later he again agreed to testify and again refused at the last moment earning another jail term for his trouble leaving Chicago soon after his release. He would return to Chicago a few years later.He was also not beyond bending the rules himself ,several copyright infringements dogged the company for years both in slot machine and juke box design,one famous case cost him half a million dollars in legal fees (an incredible amount at the time),although ,in that one, he did win the case.In fact right through the companies long life many Rockola  machines even juke boxes looked remarkably like their rivals.To be fair this was far from unique in the slot machine world.

 

Having come late on the coin op scene Rockola realised at once that it was no good simply making versions of what was already around and his machines always had just that little something that set them aside from the norm. But first he needed a staple product that could be the "bread and butter" he could base his future plans on. In 1925/6 he formed the Rockola manafacturing corp to make coin operated weighing machines and by 1930 had 5,000 weighing machines on sites as well as a thriving bussiness selling them outright to customers.

By this time he was also re-casing old slot machine mechanisms in new cases and making trade stimulators.

           

       A rather nice mills/rock-ola slot machine                                 the popular "official sweepstakes trade stimulator

During the 1930's he produced some of his best non juke boxe machines in the form of cleverly engineered mechanical or eletro mechanical pin ball machines. reaching their peak with  the "1934 World series" perhaps the best engineered machine of it kind and the "1933 Worlds Fair jigsaw" an amazing machine that completed a jigsaw of the worlds fair site as the balls fell into different holes.

          

                                    "World Series"                                                                             Worlds fair jigsaw

By the late 30's the juke box was becoming his biggest product and he built the wolds biggest factory devoted entirely to juke box manufacture. This truly massive structure took up 3.5 city blocks on 800 North Kedzie Avenue, Chicago,  it had 23 buildings, took up 1.5 million Sq feet and had its own railway siding.the company produced a new juke box model every year from 1935 till interrupted by the war in 1942

   

 

          

   

          

 

 

                                               

                     The iconic rock-ola 1428 juke box,one of these is displayed in the Library of congress 

 

With the coming of WW2 in late 1941 coin operated machines were considered "non essential" production (this was probably a mistake in the case of juke boxes)and the manufactures went over to war production. Unlike the other makers Rockola went into small arms production producing 228,500 Rock-ola M1 carbines (3.5% of the total made).

      

                                         Rock-ola M1 Carbine, over 228,000 were made between 1942 and 1944

 

After the war the company  produced ,what are considered the "Rolls Royce" of shuffle boards,these mammoth 18 foot tables with thick wood play table are considered very collectable today,if you have the room for one.

                   

                    a 1948 rock-ola deluxe shuffle board, note the thickness and quality of the play table

Although they continued to produce good popular amusement machines the juke box was king and Rock-ola were one of the biggest players,it the 1970's as the demand for juke boxes declined the company,still under Davids control, started to wind down the operation,this careful cutting back on production allowed the company to stay in business they even made several  early coin op video games.

 

                              

                                            Two early video games "Eyes" and the popular "Nibbler"

The company eventually sold by David's son  to the Antique Apparatus Co in 1990 with David Rockola still alive and kicking,although now in a nursing home, no other coin operated amusement machine company lasted so long under the leadership of the same man.

Three years later David died aged 96,in an interview shortly before he died he said he must have done something right for God to give him such a long and interesting  life. There is a rock-ola 1428 model juke box in the library of congress as an example of american engineering and the juke box used in the original TV programme "juke box jury" was a rock-ola, David was very proud of these these two ..

 

          

                                 Worlds Fair                                              Army & Navy                                        Play Ball

                                    

                                  The complete set, shuffle board,lights and scoreboard,all 18 feet of it

 

            

   my favourite rock-ola machines Baseball and Ten pin both conceived by other companies and developed by Rock-ola

 

   

                                                      

          This unusual pre flipper pin ball "juggle ball" used a rod to give the player a little interaction with the game

                               This flyer from Rock-ola's early days shows over 30 re-cased machines on offer

                                                       

                    David Rockola in his early days with a selection of the companies sweet vendors