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Kooky Ukes, Artistry in Woods

Kooky Ukes, Artistry in Woods

I remember the first time we saw one of these strange, but cool instruments. Mel and I were visiting our friend Christina and she asked if we were interested in this ukulele. She explained to me that these were pretty popular in the 60s. She said surfers would play them and when a righteous wave would come up, they’d turn them upside down, stick their heads in the sand, grab their board, and hit the waves! This explains the long neck of most of the ukuleles.

These ukuleles were considered novelty ukuleles and usually just ended up hanging on peoples walls as wood art. They definitely have a style to them.

They were created by Ancil Swagerty (1911-1991). These were produced by the Swagerty Specialties Company in San Clemente California in the 1960s. The firm ceased trading in the early 1970’s. These pieces of wall hanging art eventually became to be known as pretty good sounding ukuleles. With their exaggerated shape and bright colors they were real eye catchers.

The ukuleles that were produced by Swaggerty were the following 3 models…

The Tripartite-soundhole Treholipee (originally sold for $ 19.95)

Treholipee – The Treholipee is 47″ long and they can be in yellow, orange or green.  You might wonder where the name came from for this instrument?  It appears the “Tre” is for three.  The “Holi” is for holes.  I’m not sure what the “pee” stands for.

The Kook-a-la-lee (Originally sold for $12.95)

The Kook-a-La-Lee seems to have been a close relation to the Treholipee.  The main differences are that it was two inches shorter (at 45″) and the headstock was straight and not curved.  Another difference is that the Kook-a-La-Lee has a heart-shaped sound hole and not the three music note holes sported by the Treholipee.

And finally the Surf-a-lele (originally sold for $13.95)

The Surf-a-Lele was like a compact version of the Kook-a-La-Lee.  The idea was that there was a need for a smaller version so that you could play it in tighter areas.

These unique ukuleles were endorsed by musician, comedian & writer Steve Allen. These were proclaimed to be “a new sound for a new generation”. These Kooky-ukes were sold In department stores and west coast music stores. They were promoted as part of the California surfing lifestyle.

Some of the Swaggerty ukuleles have a “Murf The Surf” character decal on them designed by famous artist Rick Griffin! Only some of the ukuleles have this decal making those ukuleles more desirable.

Out of the four we own, only the Surf-A-Lele had this decal by artist Rick Griffin.

These instruments are made of beech ply. They are quite thin in the body like a Travel Ukulele and apparently, people are surprised with how good they sound. It appears that there was also a 3 string strumstick kind of Kooky Uke and a double neck version, (that was supposedly never sold commercially but just given to Swagerty’s friends?)

Double-neck Kook-a-La-Lee – Apparently, there was a variation of the Kook-a-La-Lee that had two necks!!  These were made specially for friends and were never marketed to the general public. Besides having two necks, they are also different from the standard Kook-a-La-Lee in that the sound holes are round and not heart-shaped.  The decal on the body also just says Kook-a-La-Lee. For me this is the holy grail ukulele, maybe one day we will find one!

The Polk-a-Lay-Lee was not part of this series. They are knock offs made by the Petersen Co. of Ohio in the early 60’s. It was given away as part of an advertising campaign for the Polk Bros. furniture and electrical goods company. It has a plastic fretboard, tuners and saddle, and comes in different colours (both the Ukulele and the plastic work). On the box they came in they are called Wander-a-lay-lee though the headstock says Polk-a-lay-lee.

Polk-a-lay-lee

The “Little Guitar” is also not part of the “Kooky Ukes” series but it was made by Swagerty as kind of the follow up. It wasn’t as popular and I don’t think Swagerty designed anymore Ukuleles after this.

Little Guitar – This instrument is the rarest in the Kooky-Ukes line.  These made their appearance somewhere between 1964 and 1968.

Ancil was granted a patent for the Treholipee in 1966. There was believed to be roughly 60,000 of these manufactured. The Treholipee flagship for Swagerty’s Kooky Ukes line of instruments. Both the Treholipee and the Kook-a-Lele had long headstocks and the idea was the surfers could stick the instruments upside-down in the sand when it was time for surfin’.

Here is the companion book to these Kooky Ukes. This is pretty hard to find as well. If anyone out there has one reach out cuz I am on the hunt!

Here is an original tag that would have been hanging from one of these fantastic ukuleles. I don’t imagine many of these are laying around.

Here is Frank Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, posing with a Kook-a-la-lee! I am just guessing it was tied to “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”.

These pieces are great pieces of beach culture and I am sure many have not seen one of these in the flesh. Since I have started collecting them I plan to try and learn how to play a little. Off to the next thing!

 

Sources:

http://database.ukulelecorner.co.uk/rst/swaggerty?tmpl=%2Fsystem%2Fapp%2Ftemplates%2Fprint%2F&showPrintDialog=1

https://sites.google.com/site/ukulelemakers/rst/swaggerty

https://trademark.trademarkia.com/kookalalee-72200507.html

https://reverb.com/item/4272819-swaggerty-gaggle-of-kook-a-lele-s-three-of-em-1960s-free-shipping

https://reverb.com/item/1757572-1960-s-vintage-swagerty-novelty-tenor-uke-ukulele-singing-treholipee-orange-all-original-rare-10

https://www.gbase.com/gear/swagerty-and-petersen-novelty-ukes-singing-tr

 

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