#501: Chicken Sam and the Birth of the Ray Gun

July 10th, 2015

A racist patent. A Swedish piano repairman. A corner that now houses a four-story car dealership and a faux-Irish sports bar.

This is how Chicago helped make the ray gun.

The Ray-O-Lite, released in 1936, was a smooth lacquered box with a duck sliding back and forth against a woodland backdrop. It was a novelty shooting gallery, as had been popular since the Victorian Era.

The twist of the Ray-O-Lite was that an actual ray of light emitted by the gun told you if you hit the target. In light-gun tech and ducky theme, think of it as a proto-Nintendo Duck Hunt gun, just operating differently and without that damn snickering dog.

And it was built right here in Chicago.

American Justus

In 1887, a 16-year-old boy named Justus P. Sjöberg came to America to make his fortune. He ended up in Chicago with an internship at a piano factory.

Chicago used to be a major manufacturer of pianos and organs, providing half the nation’s ivories by 1910. Sjöberg, who became Seeburg somewhere along the way, spent the next 15 to 20 years working in the industry, setting up his own player piano company in either 1902 or 1907.

Seeburg’s company soon became known for orchestrions, player pianos that simulate an entire orchestra. This lasted until the 1920s, when the company moved into the new coin-operated phonographs. Jukeboxes.

After a big flop in 1926 when all of their Melatone jukeboxes had to be recalled for breaking the records, the company bounced back in 1928 with the Audiophone. The company went into receivership during the Depression, but managed to muddle through by going into coin-operated washing machines, vending machines and other things more practical to the “spare a dime” crowd than record players.

By 1934, they had paid off most of their debt and were on the rebound as a company. Justus handed things off to his son, who would turn it into one of the “big four” jukebox manufacturers of the 20th century, second in sales only to Wurlitzer.

This is where the Ray-O-Lite comes in.

Chicken Sam

In Tulsa, Okla., in 1934, a man named Charles W. Griffith filed a patent for “Marksmanship practicing means” for his new Rayolite Rifle Range Company.  It was a light gun.

When the trigger is pressed, a light in the barrel switches on for “a substantially instantaneous flash period.” If the gun is pointed at a photoelectric cell in the target at the exact moment the trigger is pulled, the duck is hit and the counter goes up. A nickel would get 10-20 shots, perfect price for Depression distraction.

It was originally pushed through the otherwise unheard of “Phoebus Amusement Company” before Seeburg started manufacturing it in its Chicago factory in 1935. It debuted in 1936 and was such a hit Seeburg and Rayolite teamed up again for Chicken Sam and the war-themed Shoot the Chutes.

Chicken Sam was notable for two things: the target would reverse its path with each hit and the patent was super racist.

“As soon as the target is initially moved, with the negro moving toward the hen house, a successful hit will cause him to reverse his direction of movement and leave the hen house,” the patent reads in part. “This of course is merely one example of a practical use of our invention.”

But shooting a black person stealing chickens proved even too much for 1930s racism. When Chicken Sam debuted in 1939, it was a white hobo getting repeatedly shot for taking a chicken.

In 1940, a new version of Chicken Sam was released. It was identical, except now an escaping prisoner was the target.

Shoot the Mother-In-Law

During WWII, Seeburg, like other jukebox manufacturers, were converted to make electrical equipment for the war effort.

Since they couldn’t make new Ray-O-Lite games, Seeburg started selling conversion kits, revamping the targets and background into more WWII-appropriate settings than hobo chicken thievery.

Kill the Jap, Trap the Jap, Hitler and the Jap, Hit the Siamese Rats and Buy Defense Bonds and Stamps were some of the political (and still super racist) conversions.

Shoot the Mother-In-Law, Shoot the Bartender, Shoot the Rat and Bag-A-Bunny were some of the others.

For $49.50, you could turn your Chicken Sam into The Black Boiler or your Shoot the Chutes into a Trustin’ Toreador. Chicago-based Coinex charged $59.50 to “Rebuild –Recondition – Refinish your old run down ‘Chicken Sams’ and ‘Jail-Birds’ and convert them into ‘Shoot the Jap’ ray guns.”

After the war, Seeburg returned to its hunting roots with the new games Shoot the Bear and Coon Hunt. Those were the last of the Ray-O-Lite games. Several of the engineers were reassigned to work on jukeboxes.

Game Over

In 1949, Seeburg released the M100 series, the first jukebox to have 100 selections. It became so synonymous with the 1950s that the jukebox in the opening credits of “Happy Days” is a Seeburg M100C.

The factory at North Dayton Street hummed for decades, earning a few additions over the years.

But it couldn’t keep up with a changing industry. Seeburg went out of business in 1980. In 1984, a few former employees tried to revive the company name. The heir to the maker of player pianos produced the first CD jukebox, but it too faltered.

According to one former employee, the company, now located in a former South Side sheet metal factory, shut its doors in 1995 with a promise to reopen in a few weeks.

“Then, someone told me that the entire building was emptied, and Seeburg was no more. I contacted my old boss, and he knew nothing about it. He went down there (he lives in one of Chicago’s far north suburbs) to try to get in, and confirmed that the doors were locked and everything was missing. This includes all of the priceless documentation that had been amassed ever since Seeburg had started business way back when. Those drawings are probably sitting in a landfill somewhere on Chicago’s south side to this day.”

The Dayton Street factory is on the site of a four-story car dealership. A faux-Irish sports bar is across the way.

It’s a common story.

Yes, the details of ray guns and orchestrions are unique, but the story’s the same as any other business pushed out by time and market. We live in the graveyard of the past, sleeping in condos where cyclists once brawled, eating at McDonald’s where vaudevillians hustled. There are dentists offices in gag factories and banks in artists colonies.

It’s beautiful. It’s sad. We lose but move on, taking a little comfort in the thought that if we remember these little oddities, the player pianos and ray gun games, maybe there will be someone out there in the future who will remember us.

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