Boom, clang, tinkle.
Last weekend my husband and I explored Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh. A converted 5 & 10 store in Franklin, now the home of DeBence Antique Music World, provided irresistible bait. From tour guide, executive director, and ace restorer Scotty Greene, we learned the history of the DeBence collection of over one-hundred working, automatic musical instruments. A retired mechanical engineer, Scotty and his wife Dottie are dedicated caretakers of this mechanical wonderland. It’s impossible not to grin widely while listening to music boxes, player pianos, street organs, fairground organs, calliopes, nickelodeons and other self-playing instruments.
Ring, jingle, toll.
The music that fills DeBence’s, though composed decades ago, comes to life on instruments unmitigated by the recording process. (Not surprisingly, recording technology rapidly displaced the technology of automatic musical instruments.) A tour of DeBence’s will easily prove that electric amplification is not required to produce sounds capable of traveling long distances.
Close your eyes. Are you at the circus? Riding a carousal? You might be standing in front of a live marching band. But this is no parade. It’s live music booming from a 1920s military band organ.
According to the company catalog of 1928, the WurliTzer band organ, manufactured in North Tonawanda, NY, was built for “skating rinks, fairs, carousels and summer resorts. WurliTzer Military Band Organs produce lively, enjoyable music of such great volume that they are sure to attract Crowds . . .” When Scotty flips the on switch, be ready to skate away. The volume directly in front of the mighty WurliTzer, style 165, succeeds in generating “the loud, lively, enjoyable music that everybody likes, and that cannot be drowned out by the noise of the skaters.”
Just across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, Sharpsburg’s Bayernhof Museum provides an opportunity to hear a band organ closer to home. Their WurliTzer Military Band Organ, Style 125, was also employed in amusement parks for carousels and in skating rinks. Bayernhof’s web site understates the sound when it proclaims, “It’s 101 pipes are a bit overpowering when played indoors, even in a room as large as its home in Bayernhof. In addition, it has percussion in the form of a bass drum, snare drum and top mounted cymbal. It is quite substantial, weighing almost 800 pounds. WurliTzer built band organs in several sizes, with the larger ones having trombone and saxophone pipes, bells, castanets, and crash cymbals, in addition to a larger number of organ pipes.”
Rattle, snap, thunder—
Next time you’re strolling down a board walk, riding a painted horse, or gliding in a rink, hear the music. You might be in the presence of a self-playing musical instrument from another ear. In the mean time, the Music Department’s mechanical instrument guide books and recordings await you.
Barrel Organ: The Story of the Mechanical Organ and Its Repair, Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume
Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, Q. David Bowers
Catch the Brass Ring [Recording made from a WurliTzer band organ, style 165!]