by Bob Moore
I grew up in Canandaigua, New York. My father's uncle, William Muar, owned an amusement park there, the now defunct Roseland Park. My mother and father worked there from my very beginning, and so I was exposed to the amusement park life on a daily basis. My mother would put me in one of the chariots on the carousel when it was my nap time and the band organ would put me to sleep. I believe it was this early exposure to band organs that sparked my life long interest in these instruments, which continues unabated to this day. Since there were exposed belts and pulleys in the machine room of the carousel, I was not allowed to go inside. Thus, I could only get occasional peeks at the back of the organ when the door was open. It looked fascinating to me and I wanted to know how it worked.
When I was older, I was allowed to go inside the machine room of the carousel and watch the music roll as it passed across the tracker bar. I would stand for hours watching the holes as the music played. I began to make some sense of it. Later, around 1961, I started to work as a ride operator until 1964, when I joined the Navy for four years. I returned to work at the park for the 1969 season, then moved to Florida. I had learned how to change the rolls on the organ and I studied the Wurlitzer 150 duplex roll system, but still more questions than answers remained. I didn't know how the valves worked and there was nothing I could find in the libraries that would explain this to me. Back in the late fifties and early sixties there was little information available to tell the novice how automatic musical instruments worked. That changed for me when Larry Givens wrote his book on rebuilding player pianos.
That book sparked my appetite for more information. Soon, I was a regular customer of the Vestal Press, buying almost everything they had to offer. This basic information gave me the confidence to try my hand at rebuilding a player piano. Lots of mistakes were made, of course, but I got it working. I hadn't learned proper rebuilding techniques yet and a whole lot of white glue went into that first player piano rebuilding effort. I did more players and some O-roll conversions and with each completed restoration I got better and better at what I did, but what I really wanted to work with was a band organ.
I was fortunate to meet Harold Staie, circa 1973. He had a large collection of automatic musical machines that needed work and he allowed me to work on them. I gained a lot of valuable knowledge by working on his collection. I quickly became very familiar with Seeburg, Wurlitzer, Nelson-Wiggen and other choice mechanical music machines. Then, about 1975, another fellow and I partnered together and purchased a Bruder band organ. It was just what I was looking for. It had been converted to use the Wurlitzer 165 duplex music roll system (two roll mechanisms placed side by side). I had developed a real love for 165 band organ music early on when I would visit Seabreeze Park in Rochester, New York. The Wurlitzer style 165 organ on their carousel blew me away and I wanted one of those magnificent things. This Bruder would allow me to have the capabilities of the 165 duplex roll system, and since it was not a pristine instrument, I felt I could make whatever modifications I wanted without messing up an instrument in original condition.
After about eight-years of work, I had the Bruder organ playing to my satisfaction. I added castanets, triangle, and a crash cymbal, to fill out the percussion section. I built a set of orchestra bells and also added register controls, and additional pipes were built to fill in sections that were incomplete. Then, my brother bought out my partner's half of the organ, so together we would rent it out for special events. We sold it in 1999 and it has been missed ever since.
In 1990 I learned that Disney World was looking for someone to maintain their music machine collection. I applied for the job and was accepted for the position. One thing that was impressed upon me from the very start was that they were not running a museum. They did, however, want the machines to run properly and to look good, but restoring them to museum quality was not a high priority. I stressed that in order to maintain the value of their investment, certain standards in work had to be maintained. I had to balance the company’s desire to have the instruments out where they could grab quarters against my desire to preserve valuable pieces of history.
Many of the instruments in the Disney collection came from Paul Eakins. I owned many of the recordings he made and now I had several of the same instruments under my care. I considered it a privilege to have this responsibility and tried to give my best effort when working on them. Some machines were completely disassembled when I started working there. The Seeburg H and the Wurlitzer photoplayer both had all of their pneumatic components removed from their cases and stored on shelves. I had never worked on either style instrument, so I had a giant puzzle to deal with. The Mortier organ known as the Emperor was also apart in three main sections.
I had to prioritize my work based upon display value of each instrument. The mortuary organs in the collection would probably never be displayed in the park, so they were low on the list. It was my goal to have comparable instruments in storage ready to go on display to replace those that were in current use. This way I could, in turn, remove each instrument to the shop and do a complete overhaul if needed, without a location being without an instrument. The Seeburg H was a spectacular machine and one of the largest orchestrions in the collection. I felt that the Seeburg H would be a good candidate as a replacement for the Wurlitzer PianOrchestra.
Having to maintain what was on public display and in use consumed a lot of my time. Many of the music rolls also needed repair. I spent a lot of time repairing rolls for the PianOrchestra. I needed good rolls with snappy tunes to fill the roll-changer, but a large portion of what we had was of a classical nature and unsuitable for our use. We also had some music rolls that were intended for the silent picture theaters, since one song ran into the next without interruption. They were good songs, rags, two-steps and marches, so I would cut the roll where one song would end and the next would start. This I would hand cut the endings and beginnings for each tune and provide sufficient space in between so they could be used for coin operation. This was necessary because we had to stretch what we had, since re-cut rolls for the PianOrchestra were unavailable at the time. My wife had a cheesecake business and the boxes that the cream cheese came in were just the right size for a PianOrchestra roll. I painted each box black and made wooden inserts in each end to center the roll and allow for the wire leader on the end of the roll. I also tried to identify the tunes on each roll to the best of my ability and write them on the roll and the box.
I would restore sections of the Seeburg H as time permitted. I had managed to restore the percussion shelf, pipe chest, xylophone, pneumatic stack and other components, when I was told that the collection was to be sold. I was instructed to assemble everything as best I could in preparation for the sale. I assembled the Wurlitzer photoplayer as best I could using pictures in books and by matching screw-holes. The Seeburg H was easier to assemble, since I was already somewhat familiar with its interior layout. It was a great disappointment for me to never be able to hear the Seeburg H in person, and it was a sad day for me when the instruments were loaded onto trucks and shipped away.
We still have a few mechanical musical instruments at Disney World. Big Bertha from Paul Eakins is at the Grand Floridian Hotel, but sounding terrible. She needs to come out for a complete rebuild, but it is not likely to happen soon because of the difficulty of removing her from her present location. She is mounted in a niche overlooking the Park Fair restaurant and the only way to remove her would be to bring a fork lift into the dining room and then lift her out. Even so, to bring her back to full voice would not be allowed, since even now, in her feeble condition, people complain that she is too loud.
A Seeburg KT is playing nicely in the Main Street train station, and a Seeburg E with flute pipes is in Crocket's Tavern in Fort Wilderness and is played occasionally. A Coinola Midget with flute pipes and a Wurlitzer style C Orchestra Piano are in storage and in playable condition. Currently, there are no plans to put these instruments back out on display. I still maintain what is left on display on an as needed basis, but most of my time is now devoted to maintaining parade floats as a mechanic.
I have recently purchased (in 2003) a Bruder barrel-organ, which is compatible with the Wurlitzer 150 scale. I intend to convert it over in such a way that if the next owner wants to return it to its original state it will be possible. Soon, I will be able to enjoy the music I loved listening to long ago, and, who knows, maybe even take a nap.
Information provided by Bob Moore.