The story of how Wanda Lucia Pietras Andersen became a model for Wurlitzer has become family lore, is a tale lovingly told over and over again.
Andersen was a 24-year-old mother with three young children when, while out to lunch with friends, the owner of Wurlitzer came over to the table.
“He said she was stunningly gorgeous and wanted her to be a model for Wurlitzer,” said her daughter Lisa Gentile.
The Wurlitzer Co. had recently transformed itself from a company known for the organs for merry-go-rounds and movie theaters into a maker of jukeboxes.
When Andersen went for the interview, she told her daughters, she was surrounded by professional models. To her surprise, she got the job. It paid a lot of money for that time – $1,000 for every photo shoot.
In a copy of the ad that Gentile keeps in a frame in her living room, her tanned mother wears a happy, faraway look and has one manicured hand resting on the metal rim of a frosted-green jukebox with white buttons.
“She was pretty much shocked herself that she was chosen,” Gentile said. “To be handpicked by the owner of the company, it was pretty neat.”
Mrs. Andersen died Feb. 6 in Florida at age 79, but her connection to Wurlitzer is a comfort to her grieving family. It is her mother’s link to an enduring local legacy.
At its peak, Wurlitzer employed 3,000 people and built pianos, nickelodeons, organs and jukeboxes on Niagara Falls Boulevard in North Tonawanda.
And although Mrs. Andersen posed for advertising photos for only a year or two in the late 1950s, the excitement and strange good luck still makes her family proud. When Gentile was visiting Western New York a few years ago, she pulled over and snapped a photo of the building’s red “Wurlitzer” sign, which still lights up at night.
“It was just a fluke how it happened,” said Gentile, speaking from her home in Fort Lauderdale. “We always had a jukebox … right in the main living room.”
The first Wurlitzer jukebox was the 1946 “Bubbler,” which featured bubbles that floated around inside an illuminated arch on the machine’s front panel
When Mrs. Andersen modeled, the Bubbler was Wurlitzer’s main product, said Douglas Hershberger, a local historian.
“The jukebox was the salvation of Wurlitzer at a time when they might have sunk,” he said.
Gentile remembers how the family’s Wurlitzer jukebox was a centerpiece of family life while she was growing up.
She said her mother’s modeling career was short-lived because her first husband disapproved and she had to sneak off to work.
When her mother married Gentile’s late father, Nunzio Gentile, in about 1963, she kept one of the advertising posters on the living room wall and was fond of dancing to the jukebox’s music.
Mrs. Andersen had three more children with Gentile, although they later divorced. While they were together, along with four stepchildren, there were 10 kids in the house.
“It was basically the Brady Bunch,” Gentile said.
Because of her mother’s welcoming style, the family home became a neighborhood hub.
“We always did a lot of entertaining at our house, the juke was always going,” said Gentile, who remembers how the hit record, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” played one Halloween when, dressed in a lion costume, she helped her mother pass out candy. “Our house was always a revolving door. It was crazy. Mom loved children.”
Mrs. Andersen, a native of Toronto, is survived by three sons, Samuel Enzinna, Thomas Gentile and Girard Gentile; five daughters, Rebecca Tresino, Pamela Enzinna, Victoria Gentile, Lisa Gentile and Marilyn Gentile; and 13 grandchildren. Andrew Andersen, her third husband of 35 years, died three years ago.
A few months earlier, Wanda Andersen had left her Amherst home and moved to Florida to be closer to her children. She kept a framed copy of her jukebox ad in her room at the nursing home, and loved telling the nurses about her brief modeling career.
“It just uplifted her,” Gentile said. “It made her feel special.”
Mrs. Andersen asked to have her ashes sprinkled over the ocean. On a calm day when there’s a breeze, her daughters plan to go out on a boat and drop them in the water while they play some of her favorite songs. “Maybe she’ll drift off into an island,” her daughter said. “She just loved the tropics.”