Grumbleweed Robin Colvill spends his lockdown time restoring old jukeboxes

Nearly 60 years have passed since Robin Colvill was interrupted as he tried to fix the Rock-Ola jukebox at the Delmonico Cafe in Leeds.

Grumbleweed Robin Colvill has renovated a selection of jukeboxes, pinball tables and other classic machines at his home. Picture by Simon Hulme
Grumbleweed Robin Colvill has renovated a selection of jukeboxes, pinball tables and other classic machines at his home. Picture by Simon Hulme

A lifetime in showbusiness later, he has finally picked up where he left off.

With little else to do in lockdown, he has devoted his days to restoring as many surviving examples of coffee-bar ephemera as he can get his hands on. Jukeboxes, one-arm bandits and pinball tables he acquired for a few hundred pounds are now changing hands for £15,000.

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“I used to like fixing up old cars. But at my age, jukeboxes are easier. I don’t get backache from crawling underneath them,” said Colvill, who is now 76.

Grumbleweed Robin Colvill has renovated a selection of jukeboxes, pinball tables and other classic machines at his home. Picture by Simon Hulme

He was a self-confessed “Jack the lad” when, at 17, he parked his blue Ford Anglia outside the Delmonico, off the Meanwood Road.

Inside he met Maurice Lee and Graham Walker, and together they formed a comedy and music band called The Grumbleweeds.

Co-opting brothers Carl and Albert Sutcliffe a few days later – “because one of them had an amp and the other had a guitar”, said Colvill – they went on to host their long-running Saturday evening series on ITV and became staples of the seaside and cabaret circuits for several decades.

Walker died eight years ago and Lee has retired to the Dales to paint, but Colvill still plays the clubs with his new partner, comedian James Brandon.

Grumbleweed Robin Colvill has renovated a selection of jukeboxes, pinball tables and other classic machines at his home. Picture by Simon Hulme

For the last year, though, he has been literally making his own entertainment, with a bag of tools and a cache of second-hand spare parts sent over from the US, where Rock-Ola has been providing the soundtrack to coffee bar life since 1927.

He had been quietly collecting jukeboxes for years, and turned his attention to their upkeep after restoring a Ford Anglia like his old one.

“But you never get your money back on that sort of job,” he said. “It took 980 hours, I spent £12,000 on parts and when I’d finished it I sold it for 11 grand. That’s not good business. So I started doing jukeboxes instead.”

Around 60 have passed through his hands in recent years and he currently has “15 or 16” – three in the house and six in the shed.

“I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t buy clothes so I buy these instead,” he said.

When the first lockdown began, he discovered he was not the only person to have been hoarding them away.

“I heard from people who had put off their holidays or car purchases and wanted to spend their money on fixing up the old jukeboxes they’d had in the shed for 20 years,” said Colvill, who considers the old boxes to be the next best thing to being on stage. “It’s the old parts I like – valve amplifiers and electromechanical switches. The 1945 box in my living room is like a Meccano set – it’s beautiful to watch. It’s a bit of theatre.”

• Vinyl jukeboxes from the 1960s and earlier are eagerly traded by collectors, with restored Wurlitzer 2000 models – the type most familiar from movies set in American diners – often fetching £24,000 online.

Even reproduction models, with new-fangled Bluetooth connectivity, typically sell for around £10,000.

“Original models are going up in value all the time,” said Robin Colvill. “As soon as I fix one up, someone wants to buy it.”

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