As a family, we’re always on the lookout for used and portable record players. Over the past five years, they’ve become rarer and rarer to find at thrift shops, rummage sales, and auctions. Especially the ones we prefer: the ones that also play 16rpm and 78rpm disks, or lack auto-arm-return action. I’m also slowly amassing parts to build my own homebrew record turntable for 16″ transcription records — but that’s another story. I’ve got a bunch of stereo-component turntables, but we also don’t pass up some slick portables. You know ‘em, and for people older than 25 it was probably the first kind of record player they owned. These simple little machines unfolded from a briefcase form-factor, uncovering a turntable, small amplifier, and basic controls. Most even required AC — not enough battery power to keep that platter spinning. What follows are some of the turntables that have came into our possession in the past year.
Today we went to an auction. It had all the promise of some dirt-cheap junk: there was no advertisement in the paper, it was going at the same time as a high-end antiques auction across town, and it was a farm household auction of an elderly couple that moved into town (i.e. everything they thought was crap, too). We can’t pass up the prospect of packing our van with dollar-lot boxes, so we went — and got the added bonus of an auctioneer I’d never watched before, who had horrible jokes and was getting tired of all the low bids so he started picking on people in the audience that he knew. Well worth the $10 we spent. In that ten dollars, we spent two dollars on the next two portable record players:
This is a ‘harvest gold’ General Electric Wildcat. The Wildcat was released for several years in the late 60s and early 70s, I believe, and people still have soft spots for them today (if they’re not pimping them out instead). We did a good job with this one — it works beautifully. I plugged it in, dropped the needle, and Wifey and I two-stepped to a couple minutes of Tommy Dorsey before I moved on to the second player we bought:
A gray GE Wildcat. This one, however, did not get through life in as good of health as its younger harvest-gold relative. It seemed to have been stepped on — the auto-drop arm was bent down until it touched the platter. “I’ll just bend it back,” I figured, and using my mighty strength it went “pingt” (yes, exactly that noise), and now I held part of the record player in my left hand, no longer attached to where it would do any good. It doesn’t impede actually playing records, just the changer, but playing records isn’t any good, either. The knob controls are all very dirty and the right channel doesn’t work quite right. Oh, well — to the spare parts shelf it goes!
This next portable is a bit of a cheat — it actually returned to my possession this year, although it never left the house. Our kids have had the record-album bug for quite a while, and until my daughter upgraded to an all-in-one bookshelf turntable this summer, this was her main-use record player:
This is a vintage early-1980s Fisher-Price turntable, bought when I was a kid. The record player lived in my parents’ basement until they bought a new needle for it and gave it to my daughter a few years ago. It still works great, despite being beat upon by myself and my siblings (that red on the player is fingernail polish ‘racing stripes’ added by my sister), although the player has always had a notorious hiss. Made by Fisher-Price, it’s built like a tank, which makes it a good portable ‘tester’ for playing records in the kitchen or basement, without having to mess with the nice stereo in the living room.
This past summer, we stopped at a rummage sale — you know the one, where the actual owner is off running errands and the person left in charge has no idea what anything is priced. Sometimes, it’s a pain and nothing is negotiable for fear of making their friend angry by underselling their stuff, but sometimes good deals come because the person in charge was instructed to just sell everything. We got this lovely player and a stack of 45s for a song:
This cute bugger is an Imperial “Party-Time” portable record player. The suitcase it lives in is made of cardboard and paper — I don’t know how these ever survived more than a few weeks. This one not only survived, but still works. It proudly advertises its ‘solid-state’ technology, meaning there’s no need to wait for tubes to warm up. Looking at a machine like this, it reminds just how simple it is to play a record: a motor with properly-reduced pulleys, a couple transistors, a speaker, and a needle, and it can play a hundred years of recordings. The Party-Time has no automatic needle-drop, no auto-changer, and only two speeds, but has all the same features as the Fisher-Price player that’s twenty years younger.
At another sale this summer, an estate sale this time, we met the Cadillac of portable record players:
This is a late-model Wilcox-Gay Recordio Portable. If you remember, the Wifey got a console Recordio for her birthday this summer — and two months later, we were drooling over the machine above at a sale. We almost did a profoundly stupid thing..the player was marked $20, but the next day of the sale was going to be 1/2-price-day. We debated coming back the next morning, in hopes that the machine would still be there — but, luckily, we regained our senses and determined that a clean, working Recordio with blank paper records wasn’t going to fall into our laps at even $20 ever again, so we bought it right then and there. Sadly, we haven’t taken the time to play with it yet; someday, soon, we’ll be able to record ourselves on little enameled pieces of paper, and play them back in all their wow-y and rumbly splendor.