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Keyframe Article
Ramblings About America

Ramblings About America

by Philip Jamison


August 1996 saw your correspondent at the Musical Box Society International annual convention in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago is an important city historically for automatic music. From 1905-1924, the Marquette Piano Company manufactured the popular Cremona nickelodeons and, from 1907-1919, the J P Seeburg Piano Company became the largest manufacturer of coin pianos, selling over 18,000 including orchestrions, photoplayers (used to accompany silent films), and mortuary organs (a player piano with tastefully-voiced pipes for a musical send-off). There were also Nelson-Wiggen, Western Electric, and the Operators piano companies. Of course, no collector forgets The Mills Novelty Company, makers of the delightful (and hugely successful) Mills Violano-Virtuoso automatic violin.

An interesting exhibit was presented at the convention hotel of every sort of automatic instrument, including each of the Chicago brands. Two highlights for me, though not native to Illinois, were Siegfried Wendel's reproduction Weber Maesto, complete with animated facade and an exact copy of the Maesto's electric motor. Another was a lovely Johnny Verbeeck organ. This is a 44-key scaled-down replica of an 87-key Gavioli designed for collector Tim Trager. Tim had just taken delivery of the new organ and first played it on the convention floor! Its sound was crisp and clear, with brass trumpets and twirling columns. It was about 2 meters tall and 3 wide, I would estimate. A Pell 51-keyless organ with 84 pipes was also an attraction.

With the prices of classic instruments beyond high (and their availability limited) reproductions are becoming more popular (and economically feasible). Dave Ramey, a well-known Chicago-area restorer, has, for some years, been producing excellent Encore Automatic Banjo machines. This year, he displayed his 'Ramey Banjo-Orchestra', which combined banjo, piano and percussion. It plays a special 10-tune roll. The Encore firm apparently built a very few similar machines, but none survive. Dave's workmanship is enviable.

Chicago has become a center of automatic music collecting, and a visit to Jasper San Filippo's collection was a highlight. This must be the largest collection of orchestrions and fairground organs extant and each is restored and displayed to perfection. The palatial main building contains 47,000 square feet. Jasper's latest and most ambitious project is The Eden Palais Salon Carousel, the facade of which measures 93 feet wide and 36 feet high. A new building has been constructed to house this huge steam-powered carousel. Its unique Gavioli façade is pictured right and the organ itself has been restored by Johnny Verbeeck. Unfortunately, I don't know the scale of this organ, but I'm told it has 400 pipes. A team of restorers are working full-time on-site to restore this monument.

The Palais Salon Gavioli - Photo: Philip Jamison

No less impressive was the collection of Jim and Sherrie Krughoff which includes the impressive 97-key 'De Grote Steenput' (left), a concert fairground organ powerfully equipped with 786 pipes and 14 registers. This was made by Steenput Frères of Puurs, Belgium in 1928 and restored by Johnny Verbeeck. The favourite tune of the day for me was Trumpeter's Holiday arranged by Wayne Holton of Texas. This made clever use of the brass trumpet register.


Copyright © 1996 Philip Jamison

Originally published in edition 1 of The Key Frame 1997.


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