Antique 'canned laughter' machines will raise a smile at Don Presley Auctions

The calibre of antiques in Don Presley's June 25-26 sale of antiques and fine art is expected to ignite serious bidding, but watch the mood lighten when two circa-1953 American pop-culture icons are presented at the podium: Charles Rolland Douglass's "LaffBox" and the "Jayo Laugher" invented by I Love Lucy's legendary creator/producer Jess Oppenheimer.

Laughs (genuine or not) on I Love Lucy

Each of the trailblazing recording devices is a prototype, developed around the same time and with a similar purpose in mind: to house a library of sounds - specifically "canned" laughter and audience applause - which could be summoned with the tap of a key for use during the taping of TV shows.

The thigh-slapping history of the two laugh machines crossed paths earlier this year when Don Presley publicly announced he would be auctioning the "Laffbox" in his May sale.

Discovered in a storage locker, the LaffBox was accompanied by a thick, neatly organized binder that documented its origin and use over the years. Based on the contents of the binder, Presley believed the LaffBox to be unique and publicised it as such.

LaffBox and Jayo Laugher canned laughter machines
LaffBox (back) and Jayo Laugher canned laughter machines

Shortly after news of the LaffBox discovery was made public, Presley was contacted by the late Jess Oppenheimer's son, Gregg Oppenheimer, who informed the auctioneer that his father had invented a laugh machine that possibly pre-dated the LaffBox. It was called the Jayo Laugher.

It seems that while Jess Oppenheimer (1913-1988) was developing his Jayo Laugher in 1953, a CBS sound engineer named Charles Douglass (1910-2003) was quietly developing a similar device of his own, which he dubbed the LaffBox.

Had Oppenheimer known a competing machine was in the works, he might have placed a greater priority on the completion of his Jayo Laugher, but he did not learn of the LaffBox's existence until reading about it in a newspaper article. At that point, the race was on.

As reported in the Dec. 16, 1954 issue of the show business publication Daily Variety, Oppenheimer and Douglass waged a neck-and-neck battle over which of their devices would receive a critically important U.S. patent.

Laff Box canned laughter machine
Laff Box canned laughter machine
Includes original tapes, journals and blueprints

In the end, the patent went to the Douglass, whose LaffBox was stocked with titters, chuckles and recorded during the taping of I Love Lucy - ironically, the TV show Oppenheimer had created.

After Roland was awarded the patent for his LaffBox, Oppenheimer scuttled the Jayo Laugher project. But his ingenious prototype - described as being capable of emitting "yocks ranging from snickers to giggles" to laughs of all lengths and intensity, "plus sundry variations of each" - was retired to the Oppenheimer family archive.

Douglass's LaffBox went on to provide taped laughter and applause for more than 20,000 TV shows over several decades to follow, including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, The Brady Bunch and The Andy Griffith Show.

"Anyone who has ever watched a comedy show on television has probably heard sounds that came from the LaffBox," said Presley. "Charlie Douglass knew he had something special. He was very secretive about its inner workings and guarded it with his life. He kept it padlocked when it wasn't in use." Douglass traveled throughout the world with his LaffBox, Presley said, running the controls for all types of productions, from sitcoms to telethons, major sports events to beauty pageants.

Now the two technological marvels of television history - the original Jayo Laugher and LaffBox - are coming together under one roof, to be auctioned as individual lots on day two of Don Presley's June 25-26 sale.

In the case of the Jayo Laugher, it will be giving back to the industry whose pioneers captured lightning in a jar with the beloved I Love Lucy series.

Gregg Oppenheimer and his sister, Jo Oppenheimer Davis, are generously donating the entire proceeds from the sale of Jayo Laugher to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

Jayo Laugher antique canned laughter machine
Jayo Laugher antique canned laughter machine
Comes with signed first edition book and original reel-to-reel

This organization was created by early film luminaries including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, to provide assistance to members of the entertainment industry who are down on their luck. To ensure every penny goes to the MPTF, Don Presley Auctions is waiving both the auction house commission and the buyer's premium on the sale of the Jayo Laugher.

As for the LaffBox, it has already had a successful test run before an auction audience. At his May sale, Presley had bidders laughing - real laughs - as he experimented with the machine. "When someone won a piece, I'd hit the button for applause," Presley said. "If I told a dumb joke and no one laughed, I could hit another button and avoid embarrassment. It's actually an auctioneer's best friend."

But all jokes aside, Presley said the two laugh machines are unquestionably important relics of broadcasting history.

"Canned laughter may be electronic now, but these two mechanical prototypes were pioneers in their time. Both should be in the Smithsonian or some other museum that has an American pop culture or 20th-century technology collection."

The machines are appearing in the sale with the broad, notional range of $5 - $100,000, as there have been no easily comparable forerunners at previous auctions. But their sellers can be confident that the antiques will attract bidders' attentions on the day of the sale.


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