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And the Band Played On
by Bob Brooke


Brightly painted bejeweled steeds seem to float around, accompanied by a menagerie of camels, lions, and even dragons. Up and down, round and round they go, keeping time with the music of a band organ. From about 1900 to 1930, automatic-playing organs were not only the heart of carousels but the music of the midway at carnivals, circuses, and fairs.

The music of the band organ recaptures a bygone time, appealing to nostalgia, awakening memories for adults and creating new ones for children. Long-forgotten tunes cause memories to flood back—images of carefree days at the old amusement parks.

The pipes of the band organ duplicate the sounds of French horns, trumpets, oboes, clarinets, cellos and other instruments. Without a band organ, the magic of the carousel wouldn’t exist. The only sounds would be the soft thud as a horse rises and falls or the sound of the gears meshing overhead. It’s the music that’s the soul of the carousel—the band organ its heart.

Band organs run on compressed air, pushed through bellows, creating what many people believe is "the happiest music on earth." A wheel at the back of the organ turns a crankshaft, operating purnp sticks that drive a bellows. The resulting air pressure and vacuum create the music when a gear or pulley on the crankshaft operates the belt or gear. As air releases into the pipes, music goes forth.

There are three basic types of band organs—those operating on a cylinder, also called barrel organs, those operating on folded cardboard books, called book organs, and those operating on paper music rolls. Each produces a different kind of sound, although they all work on the same principle, using either compressed air or vacuum.

Band Organ History
Band organs originated in Europe. According to historians, automatic instruments date back as far as the 16th century, when they exclusively existed for the pleasure of the aristocracy.

The cylinder or “barrel” organ operated on the design of a music box. Craftsmen used wood to make the barrels in the 10 century but later switched to metal. Metal pins or staple-like protrusions helically arranged on the cylinder opened the valves, creating music.

In the 16th century, craftsmen built large barrel-operated pipe organs, powered by heavy weights or water, for churches and the music rooms of royalty and the wealthy. It wasn’t until about 1700 that hand-cranked organs produced music for the masses. Probably first build in Germany or Austria, these instruments became popular throughout the Europe.

Street organs were portable, suspended by a leather strap around the operator’s neck, enabling him to carry it. Some pulled theirs along on a cart. Like strolling musicians, the organ operators collected coins from their audience before moving on to the next location. With only about six songs per cylinder, street organs had a limited repertoire.

Larger versions, known as fairground organs, produced throughout Europe by Italian, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, French, German and English makers, became common additions to fairs. Some organs included percussion instruments such as bass and snare drums, and cymbals. Powered by water or steam, the fairground organ accommodated cylinders with 8 to 10 tunes. After playing a song, the operator opened a latch and shifted the cylinder right or left, lining up a different set of pins.

The next advancement came in 1892, with the invention of the key frame by Anselme Gavioli. This device, which gave birth to the book organ, played music punched onto stacked, folded cardboard. There are two kinds of book organs—key and keyless. Gavioli's key organs use metal fingers or tines to reach through the music's rectangular perforations, activating a pounch-and-valve system. As the key triggers and opens the valve, the air enables the pipes to produce the notes.

Other organ manufacturers quickly adopted and modified Gavioli's invention. Some used the keyless system, which doesn’t involve metal fingers. The cardboard passes under rollers holding it in place against the tracker bar.

The tracker bar, usually made of brass, has holes in it. Music scores for keyless organs have circular perforations. With the music held in place by a grooved roller, compressed air passes through the holes in the music and tracker bar, actuating the pneumatics and producing the sound.

With the heavy wooden cylinders for the larger organs costing $100 or more, the folded cardboard books were a welcome change. Book music was durable and offered greater musical versatility. Because the pneumatics of a book organ moved faster than the barrel organ, more complicated music with increased instrumentation was possible. Not only were the books lighter but easier to store.

However, the book system did have its drawbacks. The music required the attention of the operator when the yards of music are finally all played out. And cardboard music, while sturdy and lightweight, couldn't be mass produced.

The American Contribution
No one knows for certain when the first carousel operated in the United States. Long a popular amusement in Europe and elsewhere, wooden horses suspended from chains or affixed to a revolving platform started to appear in America around the middle of the 19th century.

While fairground organs are a European invention, many were imported to the United States. Founded by James Armitage and Allan Herschell in 1872, the Armitage-Herschell Co. produced steam riding galleries in their North Tonawanda, New York factories. Powered by a steam boiler, these carousels featured stationary horses on a circular track, commonly referred to as "track machines." To cover the sound of the mechanism and at-tract attention and customers to these portable carousels, Armitage and Herschell place a band organ at the center.

Eugene De Kleist of Dusseldorf, Germany, brought his Old World organ expertise to America at the request of Armitage and Herschell in 1893. De Kleist moved to New York, where he opened the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Works, producing barrel organs, barrel-operated pianos and other instruments specifically for the amusement industry.

The Mighty Wurlitzer
Another German, Rudolph Wurlitzer, emigrated to Cincinnati in 1856. Initially selling woodwind instruments imported from Germany, he added drums and percussion instruments during the Civil War. By 1865 he opened a store in Chicago, and incorporated the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in 1890.

In 1909 Wurlltzer acquired DeKleist's company and moved its manufacturing operations to New York State. The firm manufactured most of the band organs, operated by pinned cylinders and referred to in Wurlitzer catalogs as military band organs, between 1890 and 1905. From 1905 to 1910 there was a period of transition while paper rolls became standard after 1910.

The Wurlitzer name dominated the industry. And carousels and other amusement rides weren't the only customers. Across the country dance halls, ice rinks, roller rinks, carnivals, circuses, theaters and parks clamored for Wurliitzer products.

The Style 165 Duplex Orchestral Organ became one of Wurlitzer's most popular models. Measuring nearly 8'/z feet high with the facade and nearly 13 feet wide, it featured a double tracker frame. Never again would the music stop as a roll rewound. With its 69 keys, the Style 165 featured 18 bass pipes, 20 accompaniment, drums, cymbal, triangle, castanets, and 154 melody pipes imitating trumpets, violas, flutes, piccolos, violins, bells and bassoons. In 1916 it sold for $3,500.

To eliminate downtime while music was rewinding, some organs had two music rolls. Wurlitzer called this their "duplex mechanism." As one roll rewound, the other played.

At that time, the smallest Wurlitzer band organ, a model 104 measuring just over 4 feet high and 3˝ feet wide in a plain cabinet cost $550. This model featured 100 pipes. A model 125, designed for carousels and rinks, cost $775. Because of the visible brass horns, bass and snare drums, Wurlitzer called it a military band organ. The Style 125 became Wurlitzer's most popular brass trumpet organ.

Known as the "Monster Military Band Organ," Wurlitzeer designed the massive Style 155 organ especially for skating rinks. Its brass and wooden pipes filled rinks measuring 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, equaling a band of 12 to 15 musicians. In 1912 this roll-operated organ sold for $3,250.

The largest Wurlitzer organ was the Style 180 or Concert Band Organ—the company produced only five. Intended for the largest of skating rinks, the 180 had 480 pipes and measured more than 7 feet high, and more than 7 feet long, with a depth of 4 feet 31/2 inches. Designed to play special 180 rolls costing $50 each, this organ sold for $8,000 in 1926.

Most of Wurlitzer's automatic instruments such as the coin piano, theater organ and orchestrions faded in popularity, but not the band organ. Used by carnivals and circuses throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Bring Band Organ Music to Life

Watch and listen to this beautiful Wurlitzer 165 band organ.  Go behind it and see the workings as it plays. Wurlitzer converted this original Bruder band organ in 1915 to a Duplex 165 for showman C. W. Parker. Contracted to carnival operator Harry W. Wright of LaPorte, Indiana for many years. Discovered derelict in 2006 with missing pipes, parts, and no facade. Restored to full 165 instrumentation and added 166 instrumentation to augment factory original brass trumpet pipes. Featuring music of the Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy composed by LeRoy Shield and arranged by Rich Olsen. Organ owned by Glenn Thomas, Belle Mead, New Jersey.

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