The Herbert Norman Vincent Story

As told by his daughter, Doris (Vincent) Thomas

For many long years I had wanted to write something detailed about the life of Herbert N. Vincent, a gifted man who died in 1966, but did not know how to contact any of his surviving family to get the information I needed. Then, in early January of 2008, a granddaughter of Herbert N. Vincent found the article Memories of a Collector on this web site and immediately contacted the Mechanical Music Press Webmaster to share her appreciation about the mention of her grandfather. Thus, finally, the contact appeared that would lead me directly to Herbert Vincent's only surviving daughter, Doris A. (Vincent) Thomas, who graciously provided the majority of the information included in the Herbert Norman Vincent story. Some information and historical details were added by this author, Terry Hathaway, based upon my personal experience with Herbert Vincent and my career dealing with and restoring various automatic musical instruments.

The Master's Touch

Introduction (by Terry Hathaway)

Sketch from memory of Herbert N. Vincent by his oldest daughter, Marguerite, in 1966.
Sketch of Herbert Norman Vincent drawn
from memory by his oldest daughter,
Marguerite, soon after his passing in 1966.

The first time I met Herbert Vincent was in late July or August of 1955. Ruby Raney (wife of the late A.C. Raney, a mechanical music collector extraordinaire) introduced me. After a few pleasantries we walked into his workshop (I later learned that the building was owned by Ross Davis and was known as the Merry-Go-Round shop). Once inside I saw the prize that Mrs. Raney had brought me to see. There it was, a pristine Wurlitzer Bijou Orchestra, a keyboardless orchestrion that played a small 44-note Pianino music roll. It was standing in the middle of the shop, all dusty and needing mechanical repairs. It was to be the first automatic musical instrument that I was soon to call my own. It was a thrilling and unforgettable moment for me. There was a smell of antiquity that pervaded the large shop area and its historic contents, filling me with a sense of history that was indelibly burned into my brain and that has happily remained with me to this very day. It was at this pivotal point in time that I became an admirer of Herbert Vincent, an elderly gentleman who had the good fortune to work with the very mechanical music machines that both allured and fascinated me.

It almost goes without saying that I became a frequent visitor to Mr. Vincent’s intriguing shop of mechanical wonders. As the years waxed by I became very fond of this gracious and accommodating man, who put up with the endless questions asked by a mesmerized teenager. It was a sad day when I attended this man’s funeral in 1966. I sat towards the back of the church and still remember the scene as if it had occurred but a short time ago. This page is my tribute to a gentleman who deserves not to be forgotten, who excelled at keeping mechanical music alive and who was extremely influential in my life. The firm of Hathaway & Bowers, Inc., worldwide dealers devoted to automatic musical instruments of all kinds, began operation in 1967, a little less than a year after his passing. In hindsight, it is probably accurate to say that many of the great mechanical music collections of today would probably not exist if it were not for this one very honorable and mechanically gifted gentleman.

Herbert Norman Vincent

Herbert Norman Vincent -- October 4, 1894 – August 18, 1966

Herbert N. Vincent, circa 1910. Herbert Norman Vincent was born on October 4, 1894, in Los Angeles, California. He was the sixth son, as well as the sixth child, out of a total of eight children for William Lincoln Vincent and Adelia (Crawford) Vincent. William Vincent was born in Mattoon, Illinois, on February 14, 1862. Adelia Crawford, William’s wife to be, was born on June 25, 1865 in nearby Tuscola, Illinois. Eight children followed in this marriage:

In January of 1901, William Vincent’s wife, Adelia (Crawford) Vincent, passed away. Two years later, in 1903, William was remarried to Minnie Dora Lien, born October 25, 1877, in Forest City, Iowa (deceased June 6, 1975). Two daughters were born to newly married couple:

It is known that William Lincoln Vincent worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad (as did most of his sons at one time or another). And apparently, circa 1900 and for some known period of time thereafter, William was also the proprietor of a boarding house located on North Los Angeles Street, in downtown Los Angeles, reportedly where the 101 Freeway now crosses over Los Angeles Street. Then, sometime between 1906 and 1909 the family moved to San Dimas, California. According to a 1910 census entry, William Vincent was employed by the Union Pacific Railroad and his address was listed as being the Union Pacific Depot, which was located at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Grand Avenue, in San Dimas. As an employee of the railroad it is probable that the family lived in a railroad “camp” car that sat on a siding at or in the vicinity of the depot. William Vincent retired in 1935 to live in Arcadia, California.

But leading up to the move to San Dimas were some unfortunate conflicts and tensions building up within the family, which are said to have been originated by Minnie, William's second wife. In 1909 family differences culminated in Herbert dropping out of school while in the eighth grade and moving away from the family situation. With him he took along his 17 year-old sickly brother, Earl, and his two younger sisters, Carrie Jane and Rosie Minerva. The four of them moved into their own quarters elsewhere in San Dimas, where Herbert and Earl worked as orange packers for the Sunkist Orange Company and as day laborers packing and shipping oranges for the Union Pacific Railroad. Meeting the challenge, Herbert not only learned to care for his brother and two sisters, but quickly became skilled at his work, while additionally picking up the language of his Mexican and German speaking co-workers, as well as the unique lingo of the railroad. Moreover, because Herbert had dropped out of school early, before completing his education, he also continued to improve his English skills, polishing and expanding his vocabulary at every opportunity.

He also continued to develop his understanding and use of the American Indian language, at least in part because his heritage included one-quarter Cherokee Indian. Herbert’s 3rd Great Grandfather had married a Cherokee Chief’s daughter after arriving in America from France. Because of this Native American influence and heritage some of the family knew bits of the language and a great many of Herbert’s friends spoke the language fluently. Each tribe had its own way of speaking and so he would pick up bits and pieces here and there. Although Herbert never perfected fluency in the language, the basics had evidently been learned.

During 1910 the family situation had improved enough to allow Herbert, his brother Earl and the two sisters, Carrie and Rosie, to feel welcome once again. As a result of this attitude change they all moved back in with their father, William, who continued to work for the Union Pacific Railroad, possibly as a day laborer, but his exact capacity remains unknown. Two years later, in 1912, Herbert’s older brother, Earl, died at age 22. Herbert, then 18 years of age, was still spending a great deal of his time caring for his two younger sisters.

The Vincert family siblings, circa early to mid 1912.Herbert Vincent was a quiet and relatively small man, only 5’4” tall and weighing in at 125 pounds, but he was a giant of a man in other ways. Blessed from birth with a genuine humility, a bright twinkle in his eye and a happy, contagious smile, he possessed a naturally intuitive intelligence with an outstanding mechanical acuity. In later years this still somewhat “hidden” talent would enable him to literally work magic with his hands, both in artistic ways and in dealing with mechanical ideas and mechanisms. It was these inherent talents that would eventually lead to his many successes in the area of mechanical music machines, and just about whatever else he chose to touch. In essence, Herbert was one of those fortunate few blessed with an inborn master’s touch, although he had not yet realized the extent of his gift. He was also an extremely honest man, one who did business with a handshake agreement, and who could then be counted on and trusted to carry out his end of the bargain.

It was in 1913 when young Herbert took on a job as a reel runner for silent movies, whereupon the job required him to deliver changes of film reels to numerous theaters, and do so reliably. Still living in San Dimas, his territory not only included theaters in the Los Angeles area, but he is known to have traveled as far north as Santa Barbara. The new job was a propitious turning point and opportunity that would soon lead to enormous changes in his life. It happened one day after delivering reels to a Santa Barbara theater, Herbert was asked to take the place of an actor who was unable to perform during the reel change intermission. Imagine this quiet little man getting up on stage and being silly, telling jokes and whatever else he needed to do in order to please the audience while the film reels were being changed. During his impromptu performance he happened to look down at the organist, a young lady by the name of Nellie May Blatchley, and smiled his usual twinkling little smile. Apparently he literately knocked her off the organ bench, she was so taken by this diminutive dynamo of a man.

In the words of Doris (Vincent) Thomas, youngest daughter of Herbert and Nellie Vincent:

Herbert Vincent standing alongside his youngest daughter, Doris Anita Vincent, in 1944.Their exciting chance meeting has always intrigued me. Mom was an organist in a large theater in Santa Barbara, California. She was very talented in the music world. I cannot even imagine keeping up with a movie that didn't have sound and try to figure out what the people were doing and saying and make up some sound to go with both. She had to read the lips and watch the action, which at times was very dramatic. Can you imagine horses galloping across the screen at break-neck speed and the six-guns firing off at least twelve shots as the cowboys and Indians battled across the plains? Can you just imagine the villain who carried off the screaming lady into the dark of night? And can you just imagine this with no sound or music? Well that is what my mother did, make the audience feel the mood and motion on the silver screen by playing very dramatic and timely music, so that the audience could feel like the horses were really galloping and the Indians were really carrying out their war cries, and the Villains were really terrorizing the women.
 
My Dad [Herbert Vincent] came into the picture in this same theater. He was a runner between theaters with the reels that had to be changed several times during a moving picture. There was only one set of four or five reels for each movie. Each reel was changed, which took a few minutes to thread into the old fashioned movie projectors. So between each change there was a short intermission. In that time slot someone had to entertain the audience, like a comedian, or entertainer of some sort.
 
Herbert N. Vincent and Nellie (Blatchley) Vincent wedding portrait of June 7, 1915.One particular day it seemed that there was no one to fill in the time slots, so the owner of the theater asked Herbie if he would fill in. Well, to be honest, he really was not an entertainer of any kind, but he gave it his best shot. He came out on the stage swinging his cane and looked down at Nellie sitting at the organ, gave her his famous smile and twinkle in his eye and nearly knocked Nellie off the organ bench. They made beautiful music together ever after, and were married on June 7, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, at the Church Of Epiphany. They celebrated their 50th anniversary and then had only one more year [before Herbert Vincent passed away August 18, 1966].

After his brief on-stage escapade, Herbert decided that he would do more with his talents, which were more or less still laying fallow in the back of his mind. He continued to see Nellie Blatchley and in 1914 finally met her family of musicians. Nellie was an accomplished organist and concert Pianist who also taught piano. Nellie’s brother, Leon Blatchley, was apparently a gregarious fellow, as well as being an accomplished musician who possessed a fine tenor voice. He played violin and the harmonica, and he played the trumpet, but not the actual musical instrument, rather he imitated it by cupping his hand and using his mouth. He also played the saw, holding it between his knees while stroking it with a violin bow, making music as he bent the saw back and forth. For some period of time Leon had an association with Harold Lloyd, a famous silent movie star of the 1920s, where Leon was a side-kick and did musical background work for Mr. Lloyd’s movies.

According to Leon Blatchley's 1918 World War I registration he is listed as a "piano mechanic" with the Glockner Music Company. Curiously, Herbert Vincent, according to his 1917 World War I registration document, was also known to have been working for Glockner Music, but as a "piano repairer." Exactly when Herbert Vincent or Leon Blatchley began working for Glockner Music is unknown, but it appears that Leon and Herbert probably enjoyed some sort of job related interaction for a few years. However, by 1920, according to the census, Leon was listed as a musician in motion pictures. Two years later, in 1922, he is listed in the voter's registration as a piano repairman. In 1928 he is listed as a cabinet maker; in 1920 as a proprietor of a cabinet shop, in 1936 as a repairman and lastly, in 1940, as a cabinet maker. Nellie and Leon’s father, Nelson Ellsworth Blatchley, was an accomplished concert violinist and conductor, as well as a piano and organ tuner, musical instrument repairman, violin and cabinet maker, a player piano expert and a tinkerer at large. During his later years he maintained a workshop located at 3440 Pasadena Avenue, Los Angeles, California, up through the early 1930s.

Herbert and Nellie Vincent standing alongside their new Saxon automobile, circa 1915.After meeting Nelson Blatchley, Herbert (or Herbie as he was sometimes affectionately known) began to learn the art of tuning pianos and organs, and even learned to play the cello, although he never became an accomplished musician. Herbert quickly picked up on the musical trades, learning how to tune pianos and organs first, and then how to take care of player pianos and other automatic music machines, a.k.a., coin pianos (sometimes referred to as nickelodeon pianos). Soon he had his own route of coin pianos, which eventually included some 80 machines, a few of which were little Wurlitzer Pianino 44-note cabinet pianos. What other coin-operated instruments might have been part of his route remains unknown, although he mentioned to me, this author, that several of his route pianos had been located in brothels in the Los Angeles area.

On June 7, 1915, Herbert Norman Vincent and Nellie May Blatchley were married in Los Angeles, California, at the Church of Epiphany.

Nellie May Blatchley

Nellie May Blatchley was born on April 20, 1889, in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She was the first Child of seven for Nelson Ellsworth Blatchley and Ada May [Noxon] Blatchley, who were married in 1888. Her father was born in 1863, and was the only child in a musical family and was raised by his grandparents. After his regular schooling he traveled abroad to attend Oxford University in England, circa 1881-1886. His official curriculum and how it transformed into something else remains a mystery, other than he went to Oxford with the idea of becoming a Doctor, but instead returned home with an education on the theory and workings of the piano. His occupation was now that of a concert violinist, orchestra director, piano and organ tuner and repair man. By 1895 his daughter, Nellie, was learning about pianos, the making of violins and preparing for eventual schooling in a musical conservatory. Her father insisted that she become the finest pianist around.

During the years 1896-1897 the family spent time in and traveled around the State of Georgia, following along with an orchestra for which Nelson E. Blatchley was the Director. The little family’s second daughter, Vesta, was born during this time. Then in 1899 they were off to Omaha, Nebraska, to keep pace with more musical endeavors. A son, Leon, was born here. In the year 1900 the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Nellie began learning the fundamentals of becoming a piano teacher. Everyday she took a horse and buggy across the Mississippi River into Springfield, Illinois, so as to attend and study at the conservatory of music. Two more daughters were born during the time in St. Louis, Nelita in 1903, and Ada in 1906.

During 1907-1908 the family was off to North Carolina, with Nellie attending the conservatory of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains. A musical group was formed here with students from the conservatory, which included Nellie, Raymond Schofield, Arista Doolittle and Lulu Wilson. They called themselves the “Happy Four.” Meanwhile, her father was developing a business in Ashville, North Carolina, on Starnes Avenue, where he tuned pianos and rebuilt pipe organs. Another daughter, Helen, joined the family in 1909. Then in 1910 the orchestra and music department of some unknown institution asked Nelson Blatchley to come to Cincinnati, Ohio, but they did not stay there for long. 1910-1911 took them to Terra Haute, Indiana, where Nelson was engaged in orchestral work. Nellie was a pianist and teacher, while her father, Nelson, continued to be a director of music and also do repair work on pianos and pipe organs. Still another daughter, Alma, was born in 1911.

Sometime during 1912, Nellie took her younger sister, Nelita, with her by train to Long Beach, California. The rest of the family was to move west to Los Angeles later on. In the meantime, Nellie stayed with her Aunt in Long Beach and went to work teaching and playing a theater organ in a local movie theater. At some point she took a job at a theater in Santa Barbara, where she was to eventually meet Herbert Vincent. Nellie married Herbert Norman Vincent in 1915, and continued teaching and working for the Red Cross.

Probably during 1916 or 1917 Herbert and Nellie Vincent moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job with the Glockner Music Company (which, according to Herbert Vincent, was a Wurlitzer distributor). In the 1920 census Nellie is listed as a piano teacher. Their first child, a daughter, Marguerite Lorraine, was born on October 1, 1922 (deceased December 5, 1995), and their second daughter, Doris Anita, was born on October 6, 1925. As would be expected, after the birth of their first child Nellie’s main focus naturally turned toward her growing family. But in spite of her family duties she continued teaching piano, singing in the local church choir (where she was also the organist), and working on local election boards and other community activities.

Nelson Blatchley's workshop, circa 1930.Nellie Vincent strived to give her two daughters the opportunity of becoming accomplished musical performers and entertainers. They were expected to listen to and know every opera by heart, and to excel at music in general. Piano lessons began before five years of age. The girl’s grandfather, Nelson Blatchley, taught them violin. Moreover, before his granddaughters were five years old he actually made them 1/2 size violins, then 3/4 size and finally full size violins. Fortunately for his grandchildren Nelson Blatchley’s shop was close by at “Five Points,” in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles. This meant that the two young ladies could go visit his shop frequently, and marvel over the many player pianos, regular pianos and various musical instruments and furniture that awaited repairs and cluttered his approximately 20 by 25 foot deep shop.

Doris (Vincent) Thomas best describes this childhood fantasy world:

Grandpa Blatchley had a shop just a few blocks from the family homestead in Los Angeles, which housed various pianos, music boxes and nickelodeon’s, amid many other instruments and some old gramophones and phonographs. When he had baby-sitting duty, and also had to go to work, I was offered a shiny new penny to walk along with him, be good, and stay within the walkways. This didn’t happen very often as my questions overtook any “goodness.” What is this, I would ask? Where does the music come from? Can I play this? Will you turn that on? What is a record? What is a music roll? Why did you do that? When do we eat? When do we get to go home?

Since grandpa had to get some work done my imagination would step in and take over. I’d wind up the music boxes and pretend I was the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nut Cracker Suite, spinning and twirling in circles, dancing on tippy toes. I’d turn on player pianos and organs and wow! I am now a great conductor leading the orchestra of hundreds of players with my “board” baton. Strike up the band with a tune on a band organ and march! March! March! 1-2-3-4- and so on. What? It’s time to go back home to Grandma? Well, okay, if you have had enough, “party pooper.” That must have been enough noise to knock a person’s socks off, I guess. So much for that shiny penny that was offered.

Sadly, this childhood place of fascinating music and dreams disappeared for the Vincent children in late 1934, when the elderly Nelson Blatchley suffered a severe stroke, and then was hospitalized in September of 1935. He passed away in November of 1936.

Nellie (Blatchley) Vincent passed away on March 7, 1977, and was survived by her two daughters, Marguerite (Vincent) Duckworth and Doris (Vincent) Thomas.

Herbert Vincent and Automatic Musical Instruments

Herbert Vincent’s foray into the world of automatic music began circa 1914, soon after he met Nelson Blatchley, the father of his wife-to-be, Nellie Blatchley. It all started when he began to learn the art of tuning pianos and organs. From here the young Herbert quickly picked up on how to take care of player pianos and other automatic music machines, such as band organs and coin pianos in general. It is thought that it was probably about 1915 when he began building up a route of coin pianos, which eventually amounted to some 80 machines, a few of which were reportedly one or another model of the Wurlitzer Pianino, a cute little 44-note cabinet piano. Exactly where these coin pianos were located is unknown, although Herbert Vincent did personally mention (and with a smile and twinkle in his eye) to this author that several of his pianos had been located in brothels in Los Angeles.

By 1917 Herbert Vincent had a landed job working for William L. Glockner (owner of Glockner Music Company), a Musical Instrument Dealer and Wurlitzer agent located at 917 South Broadway, Los Angeles (the company later moved, circa 1919, to 325 New High Street (now Spring Street) in Downtown Los Angeles). Exactly when Herbert Vincent started work at Glockner is unknown, but his 1917 World War I registration card specifically mentions Glockner Music Company as his employer. In the 1920 Federal Census he is listed as a Piano Repairer for a music company, which was probably Glockner Music Company. One of the things this author remembers him talking about was the large, still surviving Wurlitzer Style 32 Concert PianOrchestra that was in the Glockner showroom. The big instrument remained unsold until it was disposed of, circa 1922, by auction, for something like $200, when the company went out of business.

By the time the couple’s second daughter, Doris Anita, was born in 1925, Herbert was working for the Wurlitzer Music Company, with its offices up on the 4th floor of the Wurlitzer Building, located at 816 South Broadway, in downtown Los Angeles (the elegant Wurlitzer cartouche is still visible on the front of the building). At some point in his career with Wurlitzer the company awarded him a gift of ivory cue balls for playing pool, a game for which Herbert excelled. Exactly what Herbert Vincent’s job function at Wurlitzer was is unknown, but it is reasonable to assume that he continued tuning and repairing pianos and organs made and sold by the company.

The 1930 Federal Census lists Herbert Vincent as a piano tuner, but out on his own. This suggests that he was no longer employed by the Wurlitzer Music Company, or perhaps he was still associated but continued working on a referral or per assignment basis. At about this same time he began to lose interest in his coin piano route business and the machines were either sold off or otherwise disposed of, but, in any case, the ultimate fate of any of his route pianos remains unknown. Herbert Vincent did tell this author that after coin-pianos fell out of favor a lot of them were simply taken by the truckload down to the harbor and dumped off the end of a pier into the ocean, and he remembered seeing this happen time and time again. He also mentioned that the electric motors were usually stripped out beforehand, since the motors were still useful as compared to the rest of the obsolete machines. He mentioned that there were Western-Electrics, Wurlitzers, all kinds…. I formed a mental picture while listening to the story and that image remains with me to this very day.

Herbert Vincent with backdrop at the Palace Studios in Los Angeles.Whatever the exact reason might have been for ending his coin piano route and business, circa 1930-32, Herbert took on a job in downtown Los Angeles at the Palace Studios, where he was asked to design backdrops for photographs. It was during this period that he was asked to design a photo booth whereby someone could have their picture taken with a fancy background featuring the 1932 Olympics or various Holidays. After the March 10, 1933, Long Beach earthquake he was given the job of photographing the resulting damage, and while on this mission he was not heard from for some time. Later in 1933 his job required him to install one of the photo booth machines at the National Guard Camp Canteen, San Luis Obispo, California. Some additional backdrops were designed so that the soldiers at the camp could have their picture taken with a suitable military backdrop. Additionally, he glued patriotic gold backed insignias onto rings, bracelets, lockets, etc., and these jewelry items would be sold in the base canteen. During the time he was away from his home in Los Angeles, while working at the Canteen, Herbert roomed with his sister Carrie and her family at their home in Orcutt (near Santa Maria), California.

There were some hard times for Herbert and Nellie Vincent and family during the sorry depression years, as was the case for most everyone else. Amongst the precious happy moments there were some unexpected long term disappointments, some described here as seen through the eyes of the couples youngest daughter, Doris Vincent:

Through the Eyes of a Child:

Newspaper article about a musical given at the Epiphany Church Rectory.Mom said we are going to entertain the people of the church to cheer them up in this time of need. It was during the depression years and everything was doom and gloom, so to speak. It didn’t matter much to me as a child, because I didn’t know what it meant, except that people were sort of sad. My Mom didn’t have any pupils coming to the house anymore, and my Dad had to do odd jobs that he hadn’t performed before. One day we had gone somewhere and when returning home my mother burst into tears when seeing a sign in front of our house. She was so upset; I hated to see her that way. Nothing I could do seemed to please her anymore. I used to be able to make her laugh at my antics, but she didn’t want to play house with us girls anymore. I didn’t find out until a good many years later that the depression had hurt the pocketbook and Daddy couldn’t afford the payments on the small loan that he had against the house, so it was sold out from under them.
 
Anyway, it was time to please other people and make the most of all that was in the way of a good time. Mom decided to entertain the congregation of our church in the best way she knew how, and she did it well. She wrote little plays and she used our talents to play the various parts. We sang and danced the Minuet with fancy costumes made up from the old discarded clothing found in the little trunk in the closet. A few baubles and some ribbon from the sewing basket made us so beautiful. Our music filled the hearts of the people around us and they were happy.
 
Over the years we became a popular item on any program at the church and were requested to entertain a lot. Mom was the playwright; Dad the stage hand, with music and dancing by Marguerite and Doris. This went on for a good many years. But as time went on the little house that we had moved into (after the big house was taken from us) wasn’t what we were happy with, and so we moved into another house in Highland Park. It was a nice two story house and we settled there for a number of years. It was a place where dreams were actually a reality. I was now in the second or third grade.

With the worst of the depression years behind them, it was about 1934 when the repair of band organs and the larger automatic musical machines became an obsession and financial necessity. He added to his current work of tuning and repairing local church organs, theater organs, and merry-go-round band organs by taking on repair work from carnivals, fairs, kiddielands, and all kinds of public attractions over a much larger geographic area. Air Calliopes, such as made by Tangley, National, and Artizan, were also repaired, but these portable contraptions were definitely not something he enjoyed fixing. He also built cabinets or anything that was asked of him.

At some point, probably in the late 1930s, Herbert Vincent was in contact with Oswald (Ozzie) Wurdeman, another well known mechanical music restoration artist of that day. Mr. Vincent’s daughter, Doris, remembers him telling her mother that he had had a nice conversation with Mr. Wurdeman. He had called to consult and ask about something to do with an electric violin, and also about some music rolls. [Editor’s note: Oswald Wurdeman, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was a well known second generation expert on the care and restoration of the Mills Violano-Virtuoso. His father had owned the Electric Violin Company of Minneapolis.]

Figuring very prominently in Herbert Vincent’s life was a man by the name of Ross R. Davis. He owned and operated the Lincoln Park and Griffith Park Merry-Go-Rounds in Los Angeles, and the Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round in Berkeley, California. When the two men met is unknown, but the best guess is sometime during the early 1930s. Doris (Vincent) Thomas, Herbert Vincent’s youngest daughter, mentioned that it seemed to her that Ross had always been around, and that he lived in the same area as her mother’s parents, Nelson and Ada Blatchley. Whatever the case, the two men became very close friends.

The Ross R. Davis Merry-Go-Round shop.As part of his carousel business, Ross Davis had a simple wood frame building with galvanized sheet metal strips covering the sides and a corrugated metal roof. The building was essentially the Merry-Go-Round shop, with easily damaged mounts and scenic panels stored inside, and the more weather resisted metal rigging and other durable parts stored out-of-doors on the ground. Sometime between the mid 1930s and 1940 Ross insisted that “Vince” should use his building, which he did. As time went on and Ross Davis spread the word about Mr. Herbert N. Vincent’s talent and superb accomplishments he became more and more known simply as “Vince,” and the name stuck with him. During the 1940s “Vince” had become well known across the country and there was a constant demand for his services. The modest Merry-Go-Round building became his workshop and domain until Herbert Vincent’s sudden passing while in his workshop in 1966.

Herbert Vincent newspaper article, circa 1963.The Merry-Go-Round shop was a very casual and friendly place. No one dressed up to visit there, and if you did you were likely to get dusty and smudge your fancy garments. It was a workshop without any pretense of being something different. Consequently, it possessed absolutely no provision for entertaining visitors or making them comfortable. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating place and people traveled from distant places just to sniff the sweetly nostalgic aroma that lingered there. And no one called ahead to find out if anyone might be present, because there was no telephone at the shop. People just dropped by and took a chance at finding the big loading door open, inviting them in, or discovering it closed and they disappointed and out of luck. But Herbert Vincent loved his work at the shop and so he was usually busy working away on some band organ or other mechanical music machine, and so chances were good that he would be present.

When not out of town fixing some errant machine, he usually arrived at the shop early in the morning and did not go home until about 5:00 o'clock in the afternoon -- and this was his normal schedule six days per week. Occasionally he would bring a brown bag and eat lunch at the shop, other times the building would be closed up at noon and Herbert would be gone for an hour. Occasionally his lunch time was spent enjoying his grandchildren, taking them to Lincoln Park where they would order the house special, a bacon and tomato sandwich on wheat toast and a very large cookie. Then the kids would get a few rides on the merry-go-round, and back to work at the shop he would go, where a visitor was sometimes patiently waiting. Herbert was always the perfect gentlemen, and if he was busy when a visitor arrived he would invariably put his work aside and engage in pleasant and informative conversation.

The shop building was located at 5210 Alhambra Avenue, Los Angeles, California, in an area that was sparsely industrialized when the building was built. However, by the time this author first visited the building in mid 1955 the area was densely built up and the front storage yard area, between Alhambra Avenue and the Merry-Go-Round shop building, has been leased out to a metal welding and fabricating company. Consequently, access to the historic shop was limited to a dirt alley or road running along the back side of the businesses facing on Alhambra Avenue.

Raymond Thomas -- The Master's Apprentice

Raymond Thomas -- September 28, 1924 - July 31, 1996

Ray Thomas came to California, from Texas, in 1931. As Doris (Thomas) Vincent, his then wife to be, put it: "I could tell you a lot of things about Ray, as we were pals for a great many years before discovering something other than puppy love." Ray was in the US Navy from 1942 to 1946, and took his basic training at the San Diego Naval Training Station, San Diego, California. He was "in the States" throughout most of his service career, assigned to duties such as working on a tug boat in the San Diego Harbor, patrolling the coastline at and near the 32nd street base. He was on the landing crew of the blimp facility at the Santa Ana Naval Air Base, and he was on the landing crew at the Delmar Naval Air Base and the Lompoc Naval Air base. For a short time he was stationed aboard the USS Rutland, APA 192, which was a landing craft for shuttling Marines. They would take marines into a battle station, disgorge them and then depart the area. It was during his time at the Santa Ana Naval Air Base that he married Doris Vincent, on September 27, 1943, and it was while aboard ship that his daughter, Carol, was born on November 6, 1944. Ray was discharged from the US Navy in April of 1946.

Ray first went to work for his father-in-law, Herbert Vincent, at the Merry-Go-Round shop, in 1949. At the time Ray was a construction worker, but work was slow in coming and so his apprenticeship in mechanical music machines began as a temporary fill-in job and to help out his father-in-law, “Vince,” who was facing some serious health issues. Before long Ray was turning his focus more and more toward working full time as Herbert Vincent’s apprentice. He had hoped to learn about and become proficient in all aspects of the business, but time ran out when Herbert Vincent passed away in 1966.

Wurlitzer style 125 band organ owned by Gene Ballard, circa 1960s.After Herbert's sudden death, due to a heart attack suffered while working at the shop, Ray and his wife, Doris, serviced and finished what Ray already knew about, and bluffed his way through other situations. Ray would ponder over an organ to try to make it right. Sometimes he would lay awake at night and finally ask, "What do I do Dad?" Eventually the answer would come to him, but only Herbert Vincent knew the machines he had been working on as if they were a part of his family. There were no books, notes, or anything written down to tell anyone what belonged to whom or what was owed. Herbert Vincent was a handshake agreement type of guy. If Ray did not know about a machine he just had to wait for the owner to show up and say, "Hey, that's mine."

To make matters worse, Ray and Doris were in the midst of a move to the San Diego area, California. Consequently, many extra days were added to their moving schedule packing up unfinished music machines and shop equipment, all of which amounted to many additional truckloads of stuff to be moved. Ray carried on the business out of his family’s new home in Santee, California, for a couple of years while still wondering what to do with all the parts of the different machines. Eventually all was bought, given away or otherwise disposed of in some manner. Unfortunately, the money earned from his restoration efforts alone was not enough to raise his family on, and so he worked two jobs in order to keep on learning the mechanical music trade. Ray was a good learner and he gave the business his best effort, but it did not work out financially. In 1969 his restoration efforts came to an end, but he did continue on with mechanical things by opening his own machine shop, which he named Quik-Rite, making parts for the U.S. Government. Still, to this day all of Herbert Vincent’s large tools and equipment remain in the Thomas family, along with many of the small hand tools, including the ever present hot glue pot and brush, and a treasured little hammer that Herbert Vincent used so often.

Sitting on the Sidelines – A Narration by Doris (Vincent) Thomas

Herbert, Marguerite, Nellie and Doris Vincent, Easter, 1936.Herbert Vincent was not only a mechanical organ and piano expert, but a tennis pro of his time. I can remember the white shirt with very colorful arm bands about the elbow area, long white pants, white tennis shoes and watching that ball being beaten back and forth with his opponent. He must have been victorious quite often as he sure smiled a lot. His tennis racket was kept up and away like a trophy, to not be used for anything but what it was meant to be. He also excelled at the pool tables and billiards. We watched our Daddy play tennis matches or maybe a pool tournament. He was a great pool player and a big shot at the time “Willie Hoppy” gave him a pool cue. The Wurlitzer Company gave him a set of ivory pool balls. When my mom had a meeting to attend our father had to watch over us. This usually happened on Monday night, when he shot pool with a bunch of guys. Marguerite and I went along and it was so boring, so he had us lay down on an empty table, cover us and we went to sleep to the sound of the balls clicking and the score thingy's going across the line above our heads.

I do not remember any stories of his adventures with the coin piano route. However, he told of going over the Ridge Route on his way to Bakersfield to take care of a piano. It took him three days to make it over the mountains. In some places he had to back up to let someone coming from the other direction get by. My memories of growing up in the player piano and mechanical music machine (or nickelodeon) business are not of the names of the various machines, but of the working parts. These are what intrigued me, as seen through the eyes of a little person with rose colored glasses, so to speak. However, that said, I do remember a few of the names of machines that were in the shop or on my father’s repair trips, but usually not who owned them.

There were Seeburg and Cremona pianos and Wurlitzers of all kinds. I remember a noisy Mills Automatic Violin. Other familiar names I remember are Aeolian Pianola, Angelus Player Pianos, Baldwin Pianos, Gulbranson Players, North Tonawanda Music Company in New York, Gavioli band organs, Hupfeld and Welte machines, and Regina Music boxes. He also talked of a Mr. Wurdeman, who he spoke with a few times. He also talked of Calliopes and as he said, "I hate the contraptions." He also did not care for the banjos and the mandolins, either.

As the years flew by, when my mother was busy and had an appointment I had to go with my Dad. He also had appointments to keep, some that he could take me along with him. When he would go out to tune one of the big theater organs, while the theater was standing idle, I would sit at the console to hold down keys while he was tuning pipes up in the organ chambers. If he had repair work to do he would sit me down in the loges where I felt like a queen in the big comfortable seats. But please do not ask me what type of theater organs he took care of as I really did not care. I know they were very big and my Mom played one in a theater, but that is about all I remember. At church she played a big pipe organ that looked a lot different. I went with Dad here also, again to hold down keys, and I got to sit on the big bench seat and pretend I was in a castle and the music resounded through all the halls and rooms.

Then there were the times when my sister and I joined him at the carnival shows, the kiddielands, the circus, parks, and attractions. We were just along for the ride. The merry-go-rounds were all equipped with band organs of some kind. My sister and I learned the art of riding `round and `round while trying to get the gold ring from the dangling contraption that held mostly silver rings but only a single gold one. We were really good at it, as we had lots of experience.

We had a couple of favorite places, just like everyone does, one being the Long Beach Pike. There was a very large merry-go-round organ there. Mr. Illions, who ran the concessions there, let us ride to our hearts content. Whenever Dad had to go there it was so much fun. The Merry go-round was enclosed in this huge building, I think because of the damp surroundings due to the ocean. Next door was a hot dog stand and it was an outdoor affair. Our Mom refused us the pleasure of enjoying one though, as it was outdoors and had a greasy looking grill that held the hot dogs, and the buns were handled by a man in a dirty apron. The "Plunge," as it was called in those days, was enclosed in a pavilion, a tall domed building that was used on New Years at midnight to throw thousands and thousands of pennies to the people waiting patiently below. There was a penny arcade that had horse races. This consisted of little horses racing on a track and you tried to beat the next in line. There was a fun house with a laughing lady and a floor that came up and met you. It was really exciting. Then at night we could take a ride around the horseshoe pier, with the lights shining on the water below. It was awesome!

When returning to the Merry-Go-Round shop there was so much to do, but it was dark in the corners and what was under all those canvas and cloth covers? My Mom, being a lady, was not allowed in the shop, and she wouldn't have gone there if she was allowed, because it was a very dusty place and that dust would rub off onto the fancy apparel that adorned her body.

A large cylinder that looked like an old converted water heater sat in the center of the shop for warmth when lit. This was some type of a heater I suppose. The minimal lighting hung from a wire overhead. In the back corner facing a wall was and old player piano that seemed so unwanted, and it probably was. It was covered over, but when little hands demanded a look under the covering, there it was. I think it must have been discarded by someone and forgotten about.

Nathan Boleus shown painting a scenic panel for a band organ facade.In the added on back room it was a bit brighter, as it was built later to store the many retired merry-go-round horses that were awaiting restoration and repainting. Nate Boleus, or “Grandpa Nate,” as we kids called him, did all the painting of the horses. What a fantastic artist he was! There was also an upstairs. Up these rickety wooden stairs without any type of railing or banister was this floor, like a loft. I was too scared to go up and see just what was stored there, but my Dad told me there were spare wooden pipes for the various mechanical music instruments and just junk in general. [Editor’s note: This author did go up onto this “second floor” many times, scrounging for forgotten treasures. It was like a mezzanine level for storage, but this floor only extended outward along a portion of the front inside length of the building. The outside edge of the floor was supported by metal rods attached to ceiling support timbers, with the access stairs attached at the outside edge, too. From this suspended floor I could look down over most of the workshop area.]

I had always wondered why there was a small bed up there [on the second floor]. Well, Ross Davis was a very soft-hearted man and he felt sorry for this fellow, Jim Hayes, who did odd jobs now and then. Jim was harmless and worthless and a drunk. We were not allowed at the shop when he was present.

On Dad’s long work bench was a wood lathe, where he made parts that he could no longer repair. A large sander sat on a stand in the middle of the shop and it really made a mess. His drill press stood majestically alone. The tool box that he used daily sat on the workbench, and we could not possibly forget the famous little glue pot and brush that sat next to an electrical outlet. It was plugged in early in the morning and not undone until closing time at the shop. Clamps of all sorts and sizes graced the walls. There were drawers filled with gears, parts, leathers, zephyr skins, rubber cloth and materials for covering pneumatics and valves and bellows, etc. There was box upon box of unused musical wood pipes, and box after box of paper rolls of music sitting in every available place. Herbert could go right to whatever someone wanted and find it without hesitation. He knew just what he had and where it was located.

My Dad had several helpers over the years. His grandson John wanted to learn but he was so busy that he didn't have a lot of time, and his grandson Ed helped him quite a bit in his spare time [John and Ed’s mother was Marguerite (Vincent) Duckworth, Herbert Vincent’s oldest daughter]. His granddaughters Carol and Linda [daughters of Doris (Vincent) Thomas, youngest daughter of Herbert Vincent] spent their two week summer vacation at the home of their grandparents, Herbert and Nellie, whom they affectionately called “Mimi” and “Bop.” The girls went with "Bop," as they called him, a great many times and cleaned up around the tools, etc., and loved going to Lincoln Park for lunch, where they would get a couple of rides on the merry-go-round. Carol still remembers the pungent odor of the thick orange shellac that was used to seal around metal fittings and valve parts, but most of all she remembers stripping the rubber cloth off of the little pneumatics and scrapping off the excess glue, and then "Bop" would sand and recover them.

Ruith basnd organ located on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.I have sat on benches when he tuned organs while I held down keys for him, went with him to amusement parks and concessions to fix a broken down machine, to large theaters in the greater Los Angeles area to fix a pipe organ, to the Long Beach pike to fix the big Looff organ, to Balboa Park in San Diego where the merry-go-round band organ was in need of his great expertise, to the Santa Cruz boardwalk to fix the big Ruth organ or pack it up and bring back parts to the workshop, to the Newport-Balboa beach concessions, parks, and movie sets and across the country. You name it, he could do it. I had this feeling that I was so privileged to have the pleasure of being his daughter. His shop was his domain. He lived for his work days and helping someone figure out their problem or to solve what machine they really wanted. What makes the Violano-Virtuoso work, and why wouldn't bellows put out air as they were intended to do? Why wouldn’t a tracker bar pick up on the player roll that was transmitting a tune? How to recover drums, and tune all the various pipes and such? What a guy. How could he make so much music come out of a box? It was amazing to me.

During the war years my sister and I helped out with the work that seemed to keep coming no matter what. We revamped the pneumatic valves, delivered the parts or the whole machine, helped clean up parts, and went to downtown Los Angeles to Andrews Hardware store to pick up leathers and parts. We spent hours on end picking out just the right hides for covering bellows or making pouches for the valves, etc. It is a real art and of course no one knows that better than you [referring to this author]. We listened to what Herbie had to say about someone's collection and what they expected as he did all the hard work.

He was asked to design a machine that would play music when a nickel was dropped in a slot, and that he did. He designed a ticket booth to accommodate the sale of tickets for the carousels, instead of handing a person a nickel, which a lot of the time was dropped on the floor of the carousel and never seen again. He also designed a booth with a camera that you could take your own picture. He rebuilt band organs and music boxes. My goodness, what he could make music do. And he built cabinets and all sorts of things, and he knew the answer to all my very dumb and unending questions.

He loved to fish -- deep sea and ocean fishing. His vacations were spent fishing, playing cards with siblings and camping out while Mom did the wifely duties and her swimming. Everything else was put aside until the vacation time lapsed, and then back in to the music world they went. We camped at Newport Bay in the campground there. It was one dollar and twenty five cents for a week. We were there either for a couple of weeks or all summer, with aunts and uncles sharing the same campsite with six tents, all facing one another, flaps up and tables down the center to form a place for card games and eating, etc. When a good catch on the barge or pier was accomplished the men would proceed to the smoke house in camp to smoke their catch. Halibut and sword fish were just the most for them. We would walk to the pier to see the catch of the fisherman for the day, all displayed on ice in their boats, which you could buy. Then we would take a walk along the boardwalk that had sand drifted over the tops. Maybe even get an ice cream if money was available.

Just across the bay was Lido Isle, where the choir members from the church would meet at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hand. Mrs. Hand was my god-mother. Her son was also an organist. We had a lot of gatherings there to have fun and swim, etc. When camping at the Newport campsite several of us would swim across the bay and rest at the home of Richard Arlen, then a star of the movies. He would let us sit on his dock to get our breath before swimming back across the channel.

Herbert and Nellie Vincent in front of their modest home, 1965.My farther, Mr. Herbert N. Vincent, became "Vince" more and more as time went on, and as Ross Davis spread the word of his accomplishments, and the name stuck with him. My dad had a motto. “Make someone happy. Fix their problem and you will find that a handshake and a smile goes a long way.” Until his dying day he never believed in a signed contract for any amount due. Simply a handshake and a smile was all that was necessary. He was there for anyone who needed him, at any given time. He took care of all of us and my grandparents as well, and gave up his own time to give a lending hand to someone else. He was a very dedicated Episcopalian, and the church valued him. He kept the pipe organ in top shape, as well as doing numerous other jobs around the church and rectory. He was on the Vestry and sang in the choir. He was just one great man and I wish everyone could have known him.

Mrs. Nutt and the Delivery of the Little Street Piano.

After the death of her husband, Mrs. Nutt commissioned Herbert Vincent to begin the restoration of a small street piano. Once the restoration was complete Ray Thomas was asked to deliver the little machine. It was a very adventurous trip. Ray, along with his wife, Doris, drove into the little town of Eloy, Arizona, located midway between Tucson and Phoenix. They had no permanent address information for Mrs. Nutt. The post office would give them no information, and so they proceeded to ask about town, where everyone seemed to know of her or was personally acquainted. Ray was given instructions to go out this remote, very narrow two lane road, passing run down buildings along the way out to a ranch, which was “out there” somewhere. “You can't miss it,” they were told.

Mrs. Nutt's little street piano.
Mrs. Nutt's little so-called “Pianinno,”
a hand-cranked mechanical street piano.

Ray and Doris finally arrived at a ranch that looked as though it might be the place, although not at all what they expected, but a little more updated. They decided to give it a shot. Ray went up to the door and received no answer. What do we do now? Try again, but still no answer. Eventually a man speaking a strange language came around the corner and motioned for Ray and Doris to follow along. Where was he taking us, they wondered? They could not understand a word he was saying except for the gesturing to “come along.”

They soon came to another door where Mrs. Nutt appeared, without a smile, telling Ray to bring the street piano around to this entrance. So back to the car he went and backed up to the door with the trailer, whereupon the man with the strange language helped him unload it. They followed Mrs. Nutt into a huge room. It was a very cold, huge room with very high ceilings and a big and varied collection of stuff. At the floor level were a great many mechanical musical machines, all lined up against the wall and going all the way around the room. From above the musical collection to the ceiling were animal heads and stuffed whole animals mounted on the wall. Eerie and scary was a thought that came to Ray or Doris’s mind. Let us out of here, they thought!

It was about this same time that Mrs. Nutt finally opened up and began a long spiel about her life on Safari in Africa, which she had done a great many times. She had been accompanied by her late husband, who was also an avid hunter. She explained how she and her husband had collected the animals they had shot and then had them mounted by a taxidermist. While Ray was happily engrossed in Mrs. Nutt’s safari stories, Doris did not like the atmosphere of the place and wanted to leave. Little was said about the mechanical musical collection, except that it was a hobby. “Every one of the music machines was in the best of shape and all were in working order, especially now that “Vince” had rebuilt the little “Pianinno,” she said. But Ray and Doris thought that “the little street piano looked out of place beside all of the other mechanical organs, because it was so small.” Then, after a few cookies, a check, a handshake and final goodbye, Ray and Doris were escorted out and on their way home, thanks to Mrs. Nutt.

Disneyland

Getting ready for the opening of a wonderful new amusement park, especially one designed by Walt Disney and based upon his cartoon characters, sounded like something out of a dream. Being called on to be part of this fantastic new operation was quite an honor for Herbert Vincent, who was asked to get twenty plus antique mechanical music machines ready to go into various parts the park, ready to bedazzle the visiting crowds once Disneyland opened to the public. The range of mechanical instruments to be rehabbed included small music boxes, coin operated pianos, orchestrions, and at least one band organ.

At first all of the music machines were housed in a huge warehouse on the premises. Then, as the public buildings were finished the instruments were moved to there intended locations. When the park was nearly ready to open Herbert Vincent was offered the position of being on the grounds and in charge of keeping all of the automatic musical instruments in top playing condition, since no one on the Disney staff knew anything about maintaining them. He declined the assignment, however, because he had far too much business in his own shop, and he did not want to be tied down answering to someone else. “Vince” had been out on his own for some forty years and he intended to keep it that way.

But he did ask his son-in-law apprentice, Ray Thomas, to help him out, as he felt Ray knew enough to keep the Disneyland music machines running smoothly. Ray had been learning the mechanical music field for a great many years by this time, and so, after talking to the Disneyland person in charge, arrangements were made to put in a maintenance shop just off Main Street USA, located behind the Candle Shop. This shop worked well for a good period of time, but as Disneyland kept growing the musical instruments were gradually phased out to a point where “canned music recordings” replaced the paper music rolls and the need for maintaining the old time mechanisms. This was sort of an insult to the type of business that Herbert Vincent intended his work to represent, so they let go of a working arrangement with Disneyland and Ray Thomas went back to work helping his father-in-law at the old Merry-Go-Round shop on Alhambra Avenue.

[Editor’s note: Circa 1972-73 the automatic musical machines at Disneyland, Anaheim, California, were moved to Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida. Then, circa 1997, the majority of the Disneyworld mechanical music collection was sold off to various mechanical music collectors. Not one of the instruments serviced by Herbert Vincent or Ray Thomas remain today as part of the Disney empire.]

A Partial Clientele List for "Vince"

Over the years Herbert Vincent was involved with many well known artisans, amusement owners and operators and mechanical music collectors. His youngest daughter, Doris, recalls (in the listing below) a sampling of some well-known names and places that were part of her father’s illustrious career in automatic music.

In addition to the above, there were many other carnivals and kiddie parks, as well as private collectors who required the services of Herbert Vincent. He was in constant demand, and he was always there for anyone and never made a person sign a contract. A hand shake was his way of doing business, and is what made him happy. If he were here today he would flash his famous twinkling smile and say, "and how was your day?"

Credits:

Information provided by Doris A. (Vincent) Thomas, Janet (Thomas) Haralson and to a minor extent by Terry Hathaway. Information compiled, edited, and paraphrased by Terry Hathaway.

Photographs:

Doris A. (Vincent) Thomas and Janet (Thomas) Haralson.