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Strike Up the Band
by Bob Brooke


Despite the popularity of intricately carved carousels, music was the real draw of amusement parks and fairs for many people around the turn of the 20th century. Automatic musical instruments, known as band organs in America and fairground organs in Europe, were the centerpiece of the carousels.

An automatic musical instrument can be compared to a data processing machine. A piano roll stored Information that the organ retrieved in logical order, resulting in music. Manufacturers used this basic cylindrical system for many different types of automatic musical instruments from petit music boxes to massive band organs. The relationship between an automatic musical instrument and its rolls is symbiotic—one needs the other because one cannot make music without the other.

The Barrel Organ
The barrel organ, operated by a pinned wooden cylinder on which protruding metal pins represented, was standard in the 19th century. The important instruments of Bruder, Ruth, Gavioli, Fray Limonaire and other European companies sold by the thousands in America. The decade from 1905 to 1915 saw the production of the most elaborate organs ever made. Most distributors still imported large scale band organs from Europe, and manufacturers tried to outdo each other with lavish facades. At Cleveland's Euclid Beach Park, on the south shore of Lake Erie, vacationers skated to the music of a 110-key Gavioli organ. At Coney Island the carousel horses went around and around to lilting melodies from a 94-key Bruder organ.

WATCH A VIDEO:  Band Organ Playing a Carousel Waltz

But American companies had begun to take hold. In 1893, Eugene DeKleist, a German former employee of Limanaire, established the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory in New York State. During the 1890s, this firm made barrel organs, barrel-operated pianos, barrel-operated xylophones, tubular chimes, and related instruments mainly for carousels and amusement parks.

The Wurlitzer Monopoly
Beginning in 1897, DeKleist developed a working relationship with the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, founded in Cincinnati in 1856. By the early 1900s, Delfleist's factory had been renamed the DeKleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, and nearly all of its output went to Wurlitzer, who acted as its sole agent in America. In 1909 Wurlltzer acquired Kleist's company and moved its manufacturing operations to New York. Wurlitzer manufactured many band organs, theater organs, coin-operated pianos, and other instruments under the Wurlitzer name in the city of North Tonawanda. 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. After 1920 most of the company's competition folded, leaving Wurlitzer with a huge share of the market.

Meanwhile, some of DeKleist's former employees founded the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works in 1906. Confusion occurs because there were two competing companies with similar names operating in the same city at the same time. From then until the 1920s, it produced an array of instruments under different names, including Capitol, Rand, Fox and Electrotone. During the company's peak period from 1908 to 1914, their military band organs were strong competitors for Wurlitzer and other manufacturers.

The Mills Novelty Company, found in Chicago in 1890, was a leading manufacturer of gambling devices with automatic musical products. In 1905 they marketed the Automatic Virtuosa, a device that contained a real violin which played four strings by means of rotating rosined celluloid discs which acted as bows. Metal "fingers" stopped each string at appropriate length called for by the music roll. The company combined this Automatic Virtuosa with a 44-note piano and renamed it the Violano-Virtuoso in 1909. That same year the U.S. Patent Office included it among unusual items with a high human interest for its exhibit at the Alaska Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The exhibit provided the Mills Novelty Company with a promotional windfall and sales for this instrument continued until 1931.

Three Considerations Affecting Automatic Musical Instruments
Three things have affected the survival of automatic musical instruments. The time of
manufacture is an important consideration. Machines built before 1910 such as the Wurlitzer Automatic Harp and the Encore banjo became obsolete by the 1920s when many were scrapped and replaced with smaller cabinet-style automatic instruments. Businesses continued to use machines made in the 1920s for several decades, so their survival rate is much higher.

The original method of distribution is also an important consideration. Automatic instrument manufacturers sold coin-op music boxes, pianos and orchestrions either directly to a proprietor or to a route operator who owned the instruments and put them in various locations. Restaurant owners and other proprietors tended to shove their dated machines into storage. Route operators scrapped their old machines because they couldn't afford to store instruments that weren't bringing in revenue. Floods, fires, insect infestation and urban renewal also claimed many machines.

The smaller the instrument, the greater its chances of escaping unscathed. A small tabletop music box could easily be moved to the attic when the lure of the radio made it lose its appeal. When its popularity waned, a small cabinet-style coin piano could be moved into a back room for storage. But when massive band organs were no longer wanted, it was much easier to tear them apart and sell the parts for scrap. Therefore, fewer are available.

Escalating Prices
During the 1940s through the early 1960s collectors of automatic musical instruments could build huge collections for modest sums of money. The majority of them lived in England, Holland, and the U.S.

By the end of the 1960s, increasing worldwide popularity brought higher prices.
Investors, rather than collectors, purchased many machines during the 1970s and 1980s. This trend ended in the late 1980s. Today, even with a hefty bank account, it’s difficult to enjoy music from these magnificent large instruments at home. That’s because most automatic musical instruments are now in the hands of collectors and preservationists who cherish them and these items rarely are put up for sale. With many people conducting a difficult search for a limited and dwindling supply of desirable instruments, the results are skyrocketing prices.

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