Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Joy of Plastic

Wow. Wait a minute! Is that...? Yes, it really is!

A Flamingo!

OK, perhaps I wouldn't be as excited about this little plastic Flamingo ukulele if it weren't for the fact that Ms. Page is holding it en déshabillé, but there are plenty of people out there right now, after seeing this, who are excited by...plastic ukuleles, God help them.

This particular instrument is a molded styrene-plastic concoction, and these and millions like them were inspired by or built by guitar designer and maker Mario Maccaferri. They were produced in the fifties, and surprisingly, they aren't junk - not by a longshot. I've got many friends who collect plastics, play them and will go to lengths to keep them playable (plastic has a tendency to degrade over time, and the top is sometimes in need of shoring up after decades of being under tension from the strings). They aren't rare, and there are many kinds, but the best are those built by Maccaferri: the Islander and the TV Pal. They're real instruments, fun to play, and certainly unique in sound.

For years, I'd been told that the other popular plastic uke of the 50's, the Mastro TV Pal, was the main competitor to Maccaferri's Islander range. Nope. They are both Maccaferris, as evidenced by the identical bridge and saddle construction, headstock, neck, fretboard and just about everything else about them. Turns out that Mastro is the name of the company that did the injection molding of the Maccaferri TV Pal instrument (a company in which Maccaferri had a controlling interest). Earlier models don't say Mastro on them, but they were also molded by Mastro.
Whether they said Mastro on them or not, Maccaferri still got the lion's share of the between $2.70 and, later, $5.95 that they cost the American suburbanite. A pretty good value, regardless of the material of construction. Here's me playing a TV Pal at Rivington Guitars last year. It sounds...well, pretty good, even if I don't!

And it turns out that the name 'TV Pal' is a tribute to Mr. Maccaferri's TV pal - the fellow who endorsed his instruments on his coast-to-coast broadcast in the early 50's - Arthur Godfrey. Most of you will know that Godfrey was the popularizer of the baritone uke, a new instrument at that time. He also played tenor banjo in Chicago tuning, and rumor has it, he wasn't a very nice man. My grandmother - not very nice herself - loved him, for what that's worth.

Here's another uke Godfrey endorsed - The Flamingo, though slightly different from Betty's above. This one is fitted with a Maccaferri device - with Godfrey's name right on it - the patented 'uke player,' which allows you to play six chords with just the press of a button. Like the Maccaferri, the Flamingo was manufactured in durable 'Styron.' The Flamingo was the chief competitor to Maccaferri's plastics. I've never played one, so can't vouch for its qualities.

Apparently, sopranos aren't the only ukes that Macaferri made. Here's my friend Chris Tarman, who is a great player and has some amazing ukuleles, with an excellent view of his ultra-rare Macaferri Islander baritone ukulele. Note the amazingly helpful cut out that allows the player to fret the uke right up to the sound hole! Macaferri also offered a TV Pal baritone uke, in addition to the soprano.

So, it turns out that while the prop person over at Irving Klaw's photographic establishment on West 14th probably just went out and got the cheapest ukulele they could find for Betty, they picked one of a type that has become oddly collectible, very playable and certainly the object of much affection.

Still, as nice as it is, I find it very easy to look past the neat little plastic ukulele in these photos. I wonder why?

Hmmmm... I'll think about that one upon closer study...


  1. just snagged a Macc... baritone. they are very cool

  2. Where/how did you find it? In my experience, they aren't easy to come by!

  3. Nice! Those are hard to find. I really love mine!

  4. I love mine, too, though she doesn't look exactly the same as Betty. Wait, are you talking about the baritone?

  5. Can you review my plastic ukulele BugsGear "Aqulele" I designed?