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Magnavox Showcase

Brad Jolly • Sep 24, 2012 at 9:39 AM

The rich woods of the cabinets speak of a time when radios, record players and televisions were a family’s entertainment focal point and a key element of a home’s decor.

Some of Magnavox’s most impressive products are on display in Greeneville in the lobby of the General Morgan Inn in connection with the 65th anniversary of the company’s coming to Greeneville. The exhibit, titled Magnavox Showcase, will be open through Nov. 22.

Magnavox, which opened its first Greeneville plant in 1947, was once Tennessee’s fifth largest employer, said exhibit curator George Collins. There were two subsequent, much larger plants in Greeneville and large plants in Jefferson City, Morristown and Johnson City. The Johnson City facility was a cabinet plant. The area’s supply of quality woods was one benefit of the company’s locating here.

When the word of the planned exhibit got out, Collins said, he got “a flock of calls” from former Magnavox employees and others who offered to donate items for display.

“They had such an emotional attachment to Magnavox,” he said. It was a “major economic mainstay” for the area and the workers took “tremendous pride” in the product.

On display is the first single-dial radio, made by Magnavox in Oakland, Calif., in 1924. Magnavox also developed the first loudspeaker, initially called a “sound reproducer.”

From 1956 is the first all-transistor radio. It sold for $79.95.

A 1948 unit with a radio, record player and TV in a handsome wood cabinet amounted to “the first entertainment center,” Collins said. It sold for $1,650, which was a hefty amount then. The 1949 Windsor Imperial library/bookcase unit contained a TV, record player and shortwave radio. Its design was based on the Chippendale style of the 18th century.

In 1958 Magnavox made the first stereo hi-fi.

In the early ’70s Magnavox televisions were equipped with the company’s Videomatic color system, which automatically adjusted the picture to changes in room light. At this time the company also instituted a policy of testing its solid state color TVs by operating them for 24 hours before shipping them out.

Many of the cabinets are imposing pieces of furniture in themselves. Going to a Magnavox store and choosing a unit was a very different experience from going to Walmart or Kmart and “being confronted with a wall of flat black screens,” Collins said. “They have no personality.”

“However,” he said, “in the ’50s and ’60s we did want our individuality reflected, and Magnavox knew it, producing them in French, Mediterranean, early American, classic, contemporary and Asian styles.”

The period ads posted with the exhibit have a Norman Rockwell look with contented adults and children gathering to listen to records or the radio or watch television. They recall a time when not everyone had a TV and those who did might play host to the neighbors.

The products illustrate the evolution of technology, Collins said, and of the furniture maker’s art. “These spindle legs evoke the 1960s,” he said of a light wood unit. One could imagine turning it on and watching “Ozzie and Harriet.” A display lists other programs people watched in the periods the televisions served.

Magnavox stood for “quality of cabinetry and quality of sound,” he said. “A lot of the cabinetry came out of Johnson City.” He pointed proudly to a 500-pound unit called “The Connoisseur,” which sold for $1,695 in 1972.

After Magnavox outgrew its first Greeneville plant, it built two much-larger plants that employed thousands of local men and women making televisions. At its peak, the huge Plant No. 3 in Greeneville made 10,000 color televisions a day, Collins said. Magnavox’s 25 millionth TV was made there.

In 1974 Magnavox was bought by the North American subsidiary of N.V. Philips, based in The Netherlands.

In 1997 the Greeneville plants were sold to Five Rivers Electronic Innovations.

In 2005 Five Rivers succumbed to the competition of low-cost electronics from China and declared bankruptcy. It was the last American-owned television manufacturer in the country.

“It’s an international story. It’s an Appalachian story,” Collins said. The exhibit, “encourages us to see the styles and designs and remember our lives over the past 65 years through the advertising.”

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