STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE FALL 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Watching contemporary American football on a giant flat-screen TV, it’s easy to overlook how far the game has come since its humble origins more than 150 years ago. From the late 1860s through the early 1900s, athletic clubs and colleges across the country formed teams that competed in a pigskin ball pitching and punting game that evolved from a modified form of English rugby.
Players wearing unpadded clothing and soft leather skull caps battled each other in stadiums filled with excited fans. Male cheerleaders shouting chants such as “rah, rah, sis boom bah” through their cardboard megaphones often whipped the crowds into a frenzy (women didn’t participate in cheerleading until the 1920s). Well-heeled fans sported trendy raccoon coats and strummed their favorite team’s songs on a uke, such as Duke’s “Fight! Blue Devils Fight!,” Clemson’s “Tiger Rag,” and Ohio State’s “Buckeye Battle Cry.” Popular tunes of the era included “After the Game is Over,” “You Gotta Be a Football Hero (to Get Along with the Beautiful Girls),” and “Doin’ the Raccoon” (which reportedly started the whole raccoon-coat-wearing craze).
The three vintage ukes shown here celebrate what’s been called the Golden Age of American Spectator Sports. In the 1920s up until the time of the Great Depression, the U.S. economy was strong, and many workers had more leisure time. Newspapers had increased coverage of sports, and radio broadcasts of games made it easier for fans to follow their favorite teams. While college football was prominently played across the country, professional football’s popularity was boosted by the founding of the American Professional Football conference, which became the National Football League in 1922.
The football-themed “Touchdown” ukulele features a decal just above the bridge depicting a pair of rival college players wearing hardened leather helmets and padded uniforms, which became more common in the 1920s. The uke’s pearloid fretboard decals include a helmet, a football, and a megaphone marking the 5th, 7th, and 10th frets respectively. There’s white celluloid binding around the front of the body and ringing the soundhole.
The “Cheer Leader” uke’s body decal depicts a megaphone-toting cheerleader wearing a brightly striped jacket and white bell-bottomed pants in a college football stadium with a cheering crowd in the background. The instrument’s pearloid-capped fretboard sports decals of crossed pennants marking frets 3, 5, 7, and 10. Like the Touchdown, it has white celluloid top binding and a soundhole ring. A tasseled cord tied to one of the uke’s Bakelite tuning knobs adds a bit of flair. The instrument originally came in a box along with a “how to play” instruction booklet and a sheet of small stick-on pennants featuring the names of many college football teams of the era: Stanford, Washington, Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. The idea, of course, was that purchasers could adorn their ukes with whatever pennants they chose.
The colorful graphics on the “Pep Leader” uke’s lower body bout also feature a male cheerleader, this one shouting through a megaphone. The angular lines of the figure are rendered in the Art Deco style that was popular in the 1920s. The uke’s headstock decal is also done in this style. The snazzy purfling around the top and soundhole are made of alternating blocks of black and cream-colored ivoroid (an early plastic that imitated the look of ivory).
The tops, backs, and necks of the Pep Leader and Touchdown ukes are made from inexpensive birch, with sides bent from mahogany plywood. Both ukes have a wood-tone sunburst finish on the top and back which is lighter in the middle and darker at the edges. The Cheer Leader is entirely made of birch that’s been painted black and green. Judging from the rounded shape of their headstocks, the Cheer Leader and Pep Leader ukes were made by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, while the Touchdown uke was likely made by Harmony.
One last thought: Despite baseball supposedly being “America’s Pastime,” I’ve never seen or heard of a ukulele that features a baseball theme or graphics.