Coin Operated Television Chairs, Circa 1970

I’ve had a few people e-mail me asking about coin operated televisions found in airports or bus terminals in the 1970s and/or 1980s. I can’t say I’ve been all that much help but I have come up with a pair of newspaper articles from 1970 that discuss the contraptions. Unfortunately, the articles — published a month apart — seem to be about two completely different companies producing television chairs.

The first, a June 26th, 1970 article in The Los Angeles Times by Mary B. Murphy, talks about the Tel-a-Chair company, which was a division of something called International Movie Chair, Inc. [1]. At the time, there were roughly 160 Tel-a-Chairs in operation in Southern California, including 49 at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at 6th and Los Angeles that were grossing $4,000 every month. Ten minutes of television time cost 10 cents while a half-hour cost 25 cents [2]. According to the article, the Tel-a-Chair was invented by John R. Rice. Each Tel-a-Chair featured a 9-inch set connected to an apparently very comfortable chair:

“By a sit-in test, the Tel-a-Chairs are more comfortable than anything else in the terminal, unless you happen to fall asleep in one of them. Greyhound spends $5,000 to $6,000 a month for security in its downtown terminal, and besides keeping drunks and rabble-rousers out, one of the guard’s main functions it to remove sleepers from the Tel-a-Chairs.” [3]

Tel-a-Chair franchiser Jerry Mulvaney stated that the company was “anticipating an additional 800 [Tel-a-Chairs] within the next 90 days. These hopefully will be installed in hospitals, Greyhound and Continental Trailways terminals and at International Airport” [4]. And, supposedly, the company was hoping to create an “instant rating system for TV network advertisers” using the Tel-a-Chair, although no specifics were supplied.

In the second article, published on July 26th, 1970 in The New York Times, it was the TV-Chair being tested, this time at the Milwaukee Greyhound bus terminal. According to the article, the TV-Chair was invented by John W. Rich and was manufactured by a company called Plastic Cast Products and distributed by Rich’s Midwest International corporation [5]. The TV-Chair, a fiberglass chairs with its own Panasonic television set, was “installed in some 65 cities from California to Ohio and Florida” [6].

TV-Chairs in Use in Milwaukee – July 26th, 1970
Copyright © Thomas Lorsung for The New York Times, July 26th, 1970

According to the article, “the chairs are rarely empty during rush hours” and have been ingeniously installed:

“The chairs here are arranged back to back so that freeloading viewers are only able to gather beside the sets at the end. Kibitzers are also discouraged because the TV sound comes out of earphones encased in each chair. Each viewer can select his own programs.” [7]

Like the Tel-a-Chair, the main problem hitting the TV-Chair was that it was simply too darn comfortable. “Sometimes I go around and find people asleep in them,” said Milwaukee Greyhound manager Arthur M. Wittman [8]. And like the Tel-a-Chair, ten minutes of television time cost ten cents and a half-hour cost a quarter. The similarities between the two chairs, especially the name of the inventor (John R. Rice and John W. Rich) suggest that the Tel-a-Chair and the TV-Chair were one and the same. Still, the chairs were being tested in very different parts of the country and really, how many ways are there to set up a television set on a chair?

I wish I had more to share about the Tel-a-Chair and the TV-Chair, but I don’t. I found a few other articles that mentioned a generic “coin-operated television set” at airports, the last of which was from 1978, but these two articles were the only ones with specific information.

1 Murphy, Mary B. “L.A. Testing Site for Tel-a-Chairs.” Los Angeles Times. 26 Jun. 1970: E19.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 “For a Price, New TV-Chairs in Bus Terminals Take the Boredom Out of Waiting.” New York Times. 26 Jul. 1970: 152.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.

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43 Replies to “Coin Operated Television Chairs, Circa 1970”

  1. I remember these at the old Lee terminal of Louisville’s main airport, Standiford Field. As a kid I looked at these with envy since I wanted to watch tv but was lucky to fall into pocket change.

  2. Imagine if they were still around today. On the one hand, with airport waits in the hours these days they could prove very popular. But I’m sure it would cost an arm and a leg to watch even a few minutes of television.

  3. They still exist in rare occurance!
    I know of a tiny Snack Shop with 4 sets built into the tables like the old tabletop juke boxes, which play 15 minutes for a quarter.

  4. That’s pretty neat. I wonder if any of the hundreds of TV-Chair/Tel-a-Chairs produced in the 1970s are still around in working order. Those would be fun to try out.

    1. The recent movie “Battle of the Sexes” about Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs features these in a 1973 Hawaii airport scene. A close-up (at 1:00) clearly shows “Midwest International Salt Lake City, Utah Model 500” on the front plate.

      1. Wouldn’t it be nice if cable and apps worked liked that you only get charged 5cents an hour while your TV is on like electric bill.

  5. Eventually Midwest international was owned by Bridgeport ct company Bunting Inc. They also made key operated tv’s fir hospital rooms renting them out for $3-5 a day. They used to collect about 8-12 million quarters a year often running change counting machines in their basement of their house on the shore of westport ct. How much they actually paid taxes on is Anyones best guess. And paid their employees a but better than minimum

  6. This is great! I was just discussing these with a friend and now I can show one to him. =D

    My grandfather was a Greyhound driver for 46 years and I got to see a lot of these (but not use them too often, darn it all). =)

  7. These were also present in the old Monroe County (Rochester, NY) airport, before it was rebuilt in the early 90s.

  8. I’m 27, and I have a clear memory of using one of these TV chairs in an international airport in the early 1990s.

  9. Of course with the switch to Digital Broadcasting the chairs are obsolete. Pity. I discovered them at the Portland, Oregon, Amtrak, Greyhound terminal in 1999. On my next visit several years later they were gone.

  10. JFK Airport in New York City had pay television chairs in Terminal 8 (American Airlines) in 1985. When I flew through that terminal ten years later in 1995, an airport employee told me that they recently had been removed. My recollection is that the monitors were small and in black and white.

  11. They used to have these at Love Field in Dallas, TX back in the 70’s. We used to beg our patents for a quarter so we could watch TV!

  12. I went through New Orleans in 2002, and spotted these chairs then. Probably in the airport, maybe in whatever took me from airport to city (bus depot? can’t quite remember!). Not sure if they were functional. (Didn’t try) I took a photo, though its pretty poor quality.

  13. I remember these from the Greyhound bus terminal in Philadelphia in 1977. Obviously, cell phones do a much better job then these could ever do.

  14. On a long bus trip-Provo UT to SLO CA -I had a stop over at the downtown L.A. Greyhound station where I watched Pres. Nixon resign on one of these…

  15. This was my father’s company in Salt Lake City, Utah called Midwest International. His name is Reid S. Larsen. The chairs were built and sent for repairs to Salt Lake. I’m not sure of the year dad closed down but the chairs were all over the United States in airports and bus depots.

    1. Very cool, I remember them being around the Detroit area. Too bad they still arent, it’s a piece of history now.

  16. I was the commission agent for Greyhound in Gallup, NM and had 6 of the chairs in the 1980’s. They were black and white and quite comfortable. I later worked at the Greyhound station in Albuquerque and did the repairs on the chairs while they were there. People were always prying off the signs.

  17. I remember there being 2 of these in the Winston-Salem, NC airport terminal in the 1980s. I even convinced my mom to let me use one once!

  18. You can see them briefly (with a sleeping patron) in the beginning of the 1973 movie “The laughing policeman” starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern, probably at the now demolished San Francisco Transbay Terminal (from 1939).

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