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136 C hap t e r 8 Made of a New Gleaming Plastic Material We used to think a Hawaiian originally invented the ukulele. Now we’re convinced it’s Arthur Godfrey. —The Vidette-Messenger, Valparaiso, Indiana, March 18, 1953 In November 1948, as postwar consumer demand fueled an unprecedented economic expansion, the Honolulu Advertiser reluctantly printed an obituary for the ‘ukulele. Quoting Emerson Strong, vice president of the Brooklynbased Gretsch Manufacturing Co., the Advertiser reported that “the ukulele, outside of Hawaii, today is ‘deader than a doornail.’” Although he didn’t say so, Emerson likely based his dour opinion on the disappointing sales of Gretsch’s own frankly unappealing postwar model with a “warp-proof, crack-proof body of laminated hardwood in an attractive two-tone shaded lacquer finish,” instruction book, and carrying case that it had begun marketing two years earlier for the relatively high price of $9.1 “Its popularity today is practically nil,” Emerson said. “I can honestly say it is deader than a doornail. Which is surprising, considering that it is the least expensive of all stringed instruments and easiest played.”2 Yet one week later, the Long Beach Press Telegram reported a remarkable increase in ‘ukulele sales. “Guess what is coming back in popularity as a musical instrument that was in its heyday when mother was a girl?” the newspaper asked its southern California readers. “Long Beach merchants report remarkable sales in ukuleles, of all things. In a large range of prices, but still within the reach of a modest pocketbook, the instruments are reported to be selling well in the $6 model.”3 What Emerson and Gretsch had not foreseen was how the convergence of two new technologies—television and modern plastics—would combine to kick off a new ‘ukulele revival, one that would sell millions of instruments over the next decade. Arthur Godfrey, the era’s red-headed king of all media, played a critical role in driving the revival with his ubiquitous presence on both radio and television, Made of a New Gleaming Plastic Material 137 unique flair as a pitchman, and lifelong fondness for the ‘ukulele. Godfrey’s rise coincided with an era of innovation in the chemical industry, which had been subsidized by the federal government during World War II to develop new synthetic polymers in support of the war effort. An endless procession of new plastic products emerged from wartime research, including ‘ukuleles and other musical instruments . But unlike in the jazz era, when the ‘ukulele was an adolescent fad, the chief market for the instrument in the 1950s was children, who accounted for up to 90 percent of sales, according to one contemporary estimate. Plastic ‘ukuleles, which made up the vast majority of instruments made during this decade, helped define the instrument for baby boomers as a toy—a reputation it still struggles to overcome today. At the time, however, the boom was a welcome alternative to the grim years of the 1930s, when the entire music industry struggled to survive the Great Depression . One of the speakers at a Chicago music convention in April 1930 tallied the losses: “four out of five professional musicians out of work; many studios half filled; concert bureaus, lyceums, and chatauquas diminishing; legitimate theaters and vaudeville houses closing everywhere . . . the sale of pianos and of musical instruments declining precipitously; decline of congregational singing and home made music.”4 In an era of big band music dominated by horns and reeds, sales of stringed instruments plummeted. Chicago-based J. R. Stewart, maker of Le Domino ‘ukuleles and (since 1928) Washburn stringed instruments, was forced into receivership in the spring of 1930, the same year Lyon & Healy reported an operating loss of more than $350,000.5 In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Gibson shifted most of its factory production to making toys for more than two years.6 Martin and other manufacturers actually saw an increase in ‘ukulele sales at the beginning of the Depression, but the Pennsylvania-based firm cut its prices in 1930 in response to the rapidly shifting market. By 1933, annual production had dropped more than 80 percent to fewer than 750 instruments, which contributed to the grim necessity of laying off all but thirty workers.7 The evaporation of mainland markets on higher-priced Hawaiian exports was catastrophic: In 1931, instruments worth just $2,119 were shipped to the mainland—a drop of almost 95 percent from five years earlier.8 By the latter part of the decade, ‘ukuleles—“the collegiate...


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