As prolific as the Radio Shack chain was in the ’60s, it’s surprising we don’t see more vintage Realistic guitar amps today. Maybe they were never valued enough to be handed down, much less hunted down.
If anything, you’re likely to have stumbled on the Carnival 34, a straightforward 1×12″ combo, but even those are few and far between. As for this Entertainer 34, well, we’ve only seen this one in the flesh. And the Fender G-Decs, Peavey Solos, Marshall MGs, and other modern all-in-one “guitar practice systems” had better watch out, because the Entertainer packs a rather nifty surprise.
Much like the hallowed mullet haircut, the Entertainer 34 was all business in the front, and a party in the back. Plug into any of the front panel’s three inputs (Hi-Gain, Lo-Gain, Bright) and you’re rewarded with surprisingly tasty tube tone. Hop around back, and – shazam! – there’s a fully functional gramophone to facilitate play-along jams with your favorite LPs and 45s. Have you ever seen anything cooler? We wager you haven’t.
Literature on this thing is very scarce (we could find none other than a mention in a Radio Shack Washington’s Day Sale ad in the sports section of the February 21, 1967 edition of The Lowell Sun of Lowell, Massachusetts… lurking below a story about boxer Casius Clay’s failure to achieve a deferment of military service). As part of Radio Shack’s “Red Hot Guitar Amp Sale,” which stretched to a whopping two models, the Entertainer 34 was down from $99.50 to $69.50, alongside a $20 reduction that took the gramophone-less Carnival 34 to a mere $49.95. The ad copy also tells us the Entertainer 34 is a “34-watt guitar amp with built-in record changer,” though once you scope the specs, you realize that output rating is the kind of scandalous exaggeration that only your cheaper makers tried to get away with.
Aside from the obvious answer, where did this thing come from? Did Radio Shack manufacture guitar amps back in the day? So many questions, and perhaps not quite so many answers. To the first, it’s difficult to tell for certain, but we have ferreted out some likely origins. To the second, of course not: Radio Shack or its umbrella brand, Realistic, didn’t make much of anything, and sourced the universally budget-minded goods from other manufacturers. While the control panel, graphics, and grillecloth were quite different, the Entertainer 34’s cabinet and handle are in line with those of the Mark X amp made by the New-Jersey-based Gregory in the mid/late ’60s. More tellingly, it carries the same tube complement and displays similar construction within the chassis. There are slight differences from the only Mark X amp we have seen, but it was not uncommon for budget brands to alter layouts on a whim, and the basic circuit and signal path are virtually identical. It might seem surprising that a major national chain jobbed its work to a fleeting, fly-by-night maker (we believe Gregory vanished in the late ’60s), but these amps were cheap as chips, of course. To discount them to $69.50, you can bet Radio Shack was buying them for very short money indeed.
For all that, though, there’s no mention of Gregory to be found on the Entertainer 34, so such speculations remain unconfirmed. The record-player side of the package is stocked with components mostly of European origin, so who knows how that came to be; perhaps it was simply an affordable import of a size convenient to mount into the erstwhile Carnival 34.
Despite the rather generic design and parsimonious construction, the Entertainer 34 isn’t a bad little guitar amp. Or, consider the going rate for the Carnival 34 sans turntable up against $114 for a ’67 Fender Princeton… but, yeah, it’s from Radio Shack. Regardless, it has the ingredients to get the job done, particularly if crunchy and tactile British-voiced tones at fairly low volumes float your boat. The powerhouse runs on a pair of EL84s with a EZ81 rectifier tube (as found in a vintage Vox AC15) supplying the voltages. The simple preamp uses half a 12AX7 for gain (with a passive treble-bleed Tone knob) and half for the bias-modulating tremolo circuit, while a second 12AX7 constitutes driver and cathodyne inverter for the output stage. The EL84s are cathode-biased, but without the traditional bypass cap to fatten things up, and there’s a little negative feedback between the output transformer’s secondary and the cathode of the driver to tighten the response a little. Textbook stuff, of course, and probably copied pretty directly from any of several available applications manuals, but it’s effective enough.
As for that rather specious claim to 34 watts of power, well, the far-from-oversized output transformer is mounted right there inside the chassis, and stamped on top with its rating – “12W.” And that sounds just about right. Even up against a 22-watt Fender Deluxe Reverb of the same era with a similar 12″ speaker the Entertainer 34 was likely to leave the budding garage rocker feeling rather anemic, and perhaps somewhat cheated. Crank it in the space of your own home, though – or your own home studio – and there is certainly a tone you can work with. And then your Deluxe Reverb owner had to jerry-rig the family record player and plug it into his amp’s #2 input to get anything close to the same all-in-one, play-along excitement, and that’s got to count for something. The fact that the record player achieves some of the same “juicy, crunchy” EL84 tone as the guitar amp might not do much for the audiophile in you, but for the budding garage rocker in all of us, it’s a pretty groovy way to go.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
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