Wurlitzer Style 32-A Concert PianOrchestra
Philipps Chassis

Original Location: Leadville, Colorado

Original Catalogue Specifications:

56 Note Musical Scale:


Chronological History:

Circa 1912/14
Manufactured by J.D. Philipps & Son, Bockenheim, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.

Circa 1912/14
Imported and sold by Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, New York.

Circa 19??
Shipped to Wurlitzer Distributor in Colorado ??

It is unknown what Wurlitzer distributor sold the PianOrchestra, but it is known that the Knight-Campbell Music Company of Denver, Colorado did sell PianOrchestras, and is the most likely candidate for having made the sale to John Bernat, in Leadville, Colorado.

Circa 1923
John Bernat, Bernat's Saloon, Crystal Palace Hotel, Leadville, Colorado.

Wurlitzer style 32 Concert PianOrchestra in the Crystal Palace Hotel, circa mid to late1920s.The Crystal Palace Hotel was located at 144 West Chestnut Street, although other addresses are occasionally referenced, depending upon the source of information used. For instance, a handwritten inscription on the obverse of a picture of the Concert PianOrchestra shows the address to be "130 West Chestnut Street." Nonetheless, the most consistently used address for the building is 144 West Chestnut Street. Perhaps the saloon's front door was 130 West Chestnut Street, while the door to the larger residence portion of the hotel building was 144 West Chestnut Street. What is certain is that the big building was located at the corner of Chestnut and Pine Streets in historic downtown Leadville, Colorado. Chestnut Street was a main business thoroughfare during the town's earlier boom-time years. Exactly when the old hotel building was erected is unknown, but it is speculated that it was probably built not too long after the discovery of gold by the Slater party in California Gulch (near Leadville, Colorado) in 1859-1860. A 1979 Leadville newspaper article states that it was built around 1880, but this assertion has not been confirmed. The hotel (sometimes referred to as a boarding house) was a large, three-story, rambling wood frame construction building that catered to the eating and sleeping needs of the early day miners, and probably continued in this capacity up through the 1920s, at which time its use as a boarding house began to dwindle.

Exactly how many different people have owned the imposing structure during its long existence is not currently known. A 1979 newspaper article mentions some, but not all of the individual owners, as: Frank Germon, Joe and Louis Martinelli, Rudolph Sayer, Louis Matekel, John Bernat and Mary Bailey, but this does not appear to be the order in which ownership occurred. According to Leadville Census data, in 1900 the owner was Frank Germon (Saloon Keeper - family - a cook - 6 Boarders). In 1910 the owner is shown as Joseph Martinelli (Saloon - Retail - Family plus 5 boarders), and the establishment was popularly known as Martinelli's Saloon, for the owners being Joe and Louis Martinelli, whose last name was boldly emblazoned across the side of the building. Although very faded, the Martinelli sign was still faintly visible when the building was finally demolished in April of 1961. It was sometime during the year of 1923 when an already successful Leadville saloon keeper and boarding house operator by the name of John Perme (a.k.a, John Bernat) bought the old Martinelli saloon and hotel boarding house building and moved in with his family, lock, stock, and barrel.

Johan and Johanna (Meglen) Perme's wedding portrait, July 13, 1903, Leadville, Colorado.Johann Perme (who by 1913 was generally known as John Bernat) was born on December 12, 1874, in Slivnica, Kopanj, Slovenia, although his obituary and gravestone read 1875, and his obituary incorrectly states that he was born in Vas Bieje, Grosuplje, Yugoslavia. His birth name was Johann Ev. Perme (Ev. is the abbreviation for his middle name, Evangelist, which differentiates the saint's day for which the child was named). He was the third child and first son born to Bartholomaeus and Maria (Stermole) Perme. As a young man Johann was enrolled in a Military School, which was a requirement of the time. Upon finishing school and returning home he was expected to enlist in the military, but Johann did not want to kill anybody, and so, consequently, he surreptitiously left his home country without permission. He was able to get a position on a ship and sailed to Canada. He is thought to have entered the United States through the Great Lakes region, circa 1899, possibly passing through Detroit, Michigan, and then settling in Minnesota. However, for some reason, he did not like the region and moved on, staying for awhile in Pueblo, Colorado, and then, in 1902, settling more or less permanently in Leadville, Colorado. As a side note, at some point after entering the U.S., Johann learned that his two younger brothers, Anton and Alojs, had followed his lead and had also immigrated to the U.S. But what Johann did not yet know, until much later in his life, is that both brothers had been shot and killed, evidently the result of some gambling disagreement, leaving Johann as the only surviving son.

Compass used by Johann Perme to drive tunnel in mining operations.Once settled in Leadville, Johann spent the first several years as shifter at the Emmett mine, after which he leased and worked several local mining properties for a number of years. On July 13, 1903, Johan Perme married Joanna Meglen (first name also spelled Johanna, and the last name alternately shown as Maglen). He was 28, and she was 20 years of age. The wedding was officiated by the Rev. Father Perse, then pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Leadville. Johanna Meglen was born June 24, 1883 at Visejc 13, Hinje, Slovenia, and she immigrated to the U.S. in December of 1901, traveling first to live with her brothers, Anton and John, in Pueblo, Colorado. The couple's first child, Johanna (affectionately called Jennie), was born June 21, 1904.

Johann and Johanna Perme with their first child, Johanna (Jennie) Perme at about 1 year of age.Back in Slovenia, Johann's father, Bartholomaeus, wanted his oldest and only surviving son to return home, where he would eventually inherit his father's estate. But when his father asked his son to come home, Johann adamantly refused, probably in part because he had left Slovenia illegally, without permission, ostensibly to avoid military duty. Thus, he reasoned, if he returned home to Slovenia he might be subject to arrest and imprisonment. As a compromise to this dilemma, his father insisted that he could at least send his wife and daughter for a visit. This he did, and sometime in late summer of 1905 Johanna (Meglen) Perme, along with her daughter, Jennie, began the long journey to Slovenia to visit Johann Perme's Family. Their second child, Janez (the Americanized version of Janez is John), was born in Slovenia on February 18, 1906, but died there as an infant from Diphtheria on November 6, 1906. At some point in time during the visit Johann sent money for Johanna and Jennie's return ticket back to the U.S., but his father, wanting his son to come home to Slovenia, refused to give the money to Johanna. Not knowing what to do, Johanna was advised by a sister-in-law to go to her own parents and ask if they could afford to give her enough money for the return journey. Johanna with essentially no money, walked, along with her small daughter, from Slivnica to her parent's home in Visejec. There she was able to get enough money to make her way to Bremen, Germany, where she bought passage on the passenger steamship Kronprinz Wilhelm, arriving at Ellis Island, New York, on June 12, 1907.

While his wife was abroad Johann moved away from Leadville. After Johanna and his daughter returned from Europe in 1907 the couple lived in Bisbee, Arizona, where their third child, Josephine, was born in April of 1908. The family moved back to Leadville in time for the birth of their fourth child, Angela, in October of 1910. What happened for the next two years is mostly unknown, but during 1912 Johann Perme is known to have been working for Frank Zaitz. Then, sometime in 1913, he rented a building from his former employer and went into the saloon and boarding house business for himself. His first saloon enterprise was located at 530 Elm Street. It is also during this same year, 1913, that their fifth child, Pauline, was born, and Johann Perme is first listed in the Leadville City Directory under the name "BERNAT -- Bernat, John, Saloon, 530 Elm St." Another child, Joseph, was born in 1914 (and died in 1930), and in 1918 another son, Louis, was born. John "Bernat" Perme is still at the same Elm Street location when the 1920 Census was taken, and was located directly across the street from what was described in a 1979 newspaper article as the Eagles Hall.

John Perme and friends outside his first saloon at 530 Elm Street, Leadville, Colorado.Up until 1913 he seems to have been generally known as Johann or John Perme, but then during 1913 he begins to be listed under the name of John Bernat. Whether true, or not, here is an interesting story suggesting the reason for instigating the name change: Unfortunately, as the story goes, there was another John Perme in town, also from the same village in Slovenia, and who also owned and operated a nearby saloon at 700 Elm Street. Thus, the stage was set for all sorts of confusion as to which John Perme got the bill for purchased goods and services. Moreover, this second John Perme was characterized as an unsavory ne'er-do-well who, as the rumor had it, refused to pay his bills in a timely fashion. Apparently, then, to the utter consternation of the respectable businessman John Perme, unpaid bills from the errant John Perme were constantly being sent to him, along with the demands for payment. This ongoing problem is supposedly what generated enough irritation to cause our "good" John Perme to feel obliged to use the surname of Bernat (pronounced Ber-not, with the second syllable accented) in his business dealings. The name Bernat was derived from the name of the house in which John Perme was born: The House of Bernard, Spodna Silvnica, Kopanj, Slovenia.

Nothing whatsoever is currently known about the "other" or second John Perme, other than what hearsay is ascribed to him in the above story. Moreover, there is no irrefutable evidence of any kind that has yet to be found that would testify one way or another as to his character, or lack of it. Anything mentioned here must be taken in its historical context and, as such, is not meant to impugn the character of this still mysterious individual, who, for all anyone knows, was a find and upstanding citizen.

John "Bernat" Perme in his saloon inside the Crystal Palace Hotel, Leadville, Colorado, Circa mid to late 1920s.In the 1920 Census John "Bernat" Perme is listed as a "Proprietor of Soft drinks," probably due to the onset of prohibition. Even then, however, some small amount of alcohol may have been surreptitiously dispensed, but not conspicuously consumed on the premises. By 1923, when he took possession of Martinelli's Crystal Palace Hotel building, the exciting heyday of mining discovery in Leadville had long ago waned, and the big, old, and rambling structure was no longer a center of thriving commercial activity. This same year another daughter, Rose, was born, and in 1926 along came another son, John, sometimes referred to affectionately as John Jr. The main hotel (or boarding house) entrance was centered in the comparatively narrow front side of the long, rectangular structure, which faced on Chestnut Street. Inside this main entrance door was a large hallway that essentially split the ground level floor into two distinct sides. The saloon, at the left front side of the building, was also accessible through a doorway from the entry hall. This barroom, known as Bernat's Saloon, was reportedly a large room, easily able to accommodate a long bar and matching mirrored back-bar, with the big Wurlitzer Concert PianOrchestra comfortably situated along another wall. On the right hand side of the entry hallway was a large sitting room and lobby area that Mr. Perme converted into living quarters for his wife and seven surviving children.

Leadville, Colorado, newspaper articles.How many boarders, if any, might have made the Crystal Palace Hotel their home once John "Bernat" Perme took over as owner and operator is quite unknown. What is known is that the 1930 Census does not list any boarders at the hotel, but it is entirely possible that there could have been boarders before that time. One daughter, Josephine, is said to have repeatedly stated that there were some 40 boarders, but these people could have been housed at the former premises located at 530 Elm Street, which was also a combination saloon and boarding house type wooden structure.

Since the Crystal Palace Hotel was built long before indoor amenities, it was basically a big wooden shell divided up into many rooms without any provision for what we currently describe as modern utilities. Because of this, John Perme added a bathroom and kitchen to the remodeled ground floor living quarters area, and a second bathroom was installed on the second floor for use by his children, where each of his seven children could have a separate bedroom of their own. The third (and top) floor apparently remained essentially unused, at least during the later years that John Perme owned the building, and was reportedly relegated to being an occasional place for his children and their playmates to explore and play.

John "Bernat" Perme standing in doorway of Bernat's Saloon, with happy beer drinking patrons at his left.The building itself was generally remembered by the local townsfolk as the Crystal Palace Hotel. Nonetheless, once John Perme took possession of the building in 1923 the barroom inside the old hotel was known as Bernat's Saloon. Jody (Josephine Perme) Foster, a daughter of John Perme, stated in a 1979 newspaper article that she remembers her father paying somewhere about $5,000.00 for the big Wurlitzer PianOrchestra. "Every day," she said, "I would take out the accumulation of coins, which customers placed into it." Moreover, from observing the instrument itself many years later (while in the Bowers collection) it was still obvious that Mr. Perme had been proud of the big orchestrion, and that he often opened up the two (top to bottom) front doors to show off the interior of the fascinating machine. Admiring patrons were then then invited to scribble their names on the inside birds-eye maple veneer lining the interior of the tall doors. Literally hundreds of these penciled signatures crowded the inside of each of the two front doors, leaving behind a nostalgic legacy by the hundreds of enthralled patrons who enjoyed the automatic musical attraction standing in John Perme's Saloon.

Letter by Jno Bernat to the Knight-Campbell Music Company about a replacement motor for the Wurlitzer PianOrchestra.But where did John Bernat buy the PianOrchestra? It had long been speculated that he might have purchased it from the Knight-Campbell Music Company, Denver, Colorado, which was a very well-known and prolific Wurlitzer distributor in the western U.S. Supporting this speculation was a discovery by Dana Johnson in the early 1990s, when he disassembled the coin accumulator mechanism for restoration and found a business card from the Knight-Campbell Music Company; it was being used as a shim. Then, in November of 2005, a hand-written letter came to the attention of this author that seems to finally confirm that John Bernat did, indeed, buy the big PianOrchestra from the Knight-Campbell Music Company. Unfortunately, the date on the inquiry letter to the Knight-Campbell Music Company is not complete, and it raises the new question: Why did Mr. Bernat need a new motor only a few months after buying the big PianOrchestra? Generally speaking, the electric motors supplied with Wurlitzer orchestrions were exceptionally rugged and mechanically very durable and well built. The text of this letter, along with photographs of the Holtzer-Cabot motor, can be seen by clicking on the image at far right:

The Crystal Palace Hotel in its autumn days, derelict and nearly forgotten, it was demolished in April of 1961.John's wife, Johanna (Meglan) Perme, passed away in 1936, and by 1940 all of his daughters had married and moved away. During World War II his two sons joined the Army, and after the war his son Louie moved to Alaska, while his son John stayed around Leadville for a couple of years and then moved on to the Los Angeles area, where he graduated from USC in 1953. It is thought that Bernat's Saloon was probably closed to the public about 1947. With the death of John Perme (a.k.a., John Bernat) on April 17, 1950, and because his children had moved away to places other than Leadville, the Crystal Palace Hotel was essentially abandoned. Circa 1953, Louis Perme, John (Bernat) Perme's son and administrator of the estate, sold the old and dilapidated building, along with its contents, to a Mr. Pinkston, the final owner of the building. Shortly thereafter the Wurlitzer Concert PianOrchestra was sold to a Mr. Sam Arnholz, from Wichita, Kansas.

What kind of a man was John "Bernat" Perme? The family consensus is that he was known as an upstanding and generous man, lending money to whomever asked, and a man who was well liked in Leadville, although his popularity may have been more so with the Slovenian part of the community. While at 530 Elm Street John "Bernat" Perme is remembered as having made and sold his own wine, and on at least one occasion reportedly buying a whole railroad car full of grapes. But while the quantity of grapes purchased might be a child's exaggeration, his daughter, Angela, recalled watching her older sisters stomp grapes, preparing them for the making of wine. Whether anything stronger than wine was ever made on the premises is a subject of ongoing speculation, and is supported by a rumor that there was a "still" and it was underground in a cellar, although there is no hard evidence to substantiate this story. During the era of prohibition (January 16, 1920, to December 5, 1933) Bernat's Saloon was officially a "purveyor of soft drinks," but, in spite of this, it was apparently raided more than once by Federal agents looking for concealed containers of liquor.

John and Johanna Perme apparently wanted to abide by the law restricting the making and sale of alcohol during prohibition. Nonetheless, boarders were not wanting to abide by the law, and so they simply went elsewhere to spend their money on drink, and them come back to boarding house liquored up and drunk. Johanna soon had enough of this behavior, and told John: "If we are going to have to clean up after these men, then we should at least be making some money for doing it." So, they did provide their boarders with some limited amount of alcoholic beverages, but just to keep them from going elsewhere to spend their money. Thus, John and Johanna had to be constantly on the lookout for Federal Agents. One recalled raid on Bernat's Saloon occurred when Federal Agents (or "revenuers," as they were called) arrived unannounced and without any warning at Bernat's Saloon. Fortunately, Johanna, John "Bernat" Perme's wife, was able to get the bottle of liquor under her skirt before it was discovered by the agents. She then made her way outside to the privy and was pouring out the liquor when one of the agents came up close to her. She exclaimed, "Are you going to stand there and watch me pee?" The Federal Agent apparently moved away, whereupon she was successful in disposing of any remaining evidence.

Another incident, which occurred at the Crystal Palace Hotel building, probably circa 1930-1933, involved and was recounted by John "Bernat" Perme's youngest son, John, began while the young lad was in downtown Leadville. He overheard that "revenuers" (a slang term for Federal Agents) were snooping around. He ran home and told his father that they were coming, whereupon the elder John retorted, "What do you know? You're just a kid!" As the story goes, there was a room in the middle and towards the back of the building, which was always about 40 degrees in temperature, where the Perme family hung their meat. In the wall there was a secret hole, where John Bernat kept his liquor bottle for the saloon. Not long after young John's warning cry, the Federal "revenuers" arrived at Bernat's Saloon, whereupon John Bernat gave John Junior the nod that signaled he was supposed to go get the liquor out of the building. One of the agents, however, must have noticed the nod, and realizing what was going on he followed the young boy, so that he was unable to surreptitiously get rid of the hidden jug of liquor. The boy led the agent on a wild goose chase, and went up-stairs and into every room throughout the whole three story building. Unable to shake his pursuer, John Jr. returned to the saloon, so that his father would know that he was not able to get rid of the bottle. Somehow, however, John "Bernat" Perme did manage to eventually get hold of the bottle and went to the bathroom to pour it out. Unfortunately, the liquid did not flow rapidly through the small neck of the jug, and so an agent caught the elder John in the act of dumping it before the jug was completely empty. The legal consequence of this incident, if any, is unknown, but there is speculation that John "Bernat" Perme might have gone to jail more than once for some prohibition or liquor tax infraction. However, apart from speculation, no incontrovertible evidence has been presented one way or another that proves whether John "Bernat" Perme had ever been incarcerated, or not. In the final analysis, one fact does remain fairly certain, and that is: John "Bernat" Perme seems to have been a fairly prominent, well respected, generous, and admirable citizen of Leadville, Colorado.

Cabbage slicer of the type used by Johanna Perme to prepare cabbage for making sauerkraut.On the subject of food, with hungry, hard-working boarders to feed at the Elm Street establishment it is almost a certainty that some kind of meat was served with meals, including sausage, which the Perme's made themselves. Then when they took up residence in the old Crystal Palace Hotel building, it is known that they hung meat in a special room toward the back of the building, where the temperature was nearly a constant 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, meat was probably an integral part of daily meals, with or without borders to feed. Whether the meat was domesticated, wild, or a mix of the two is unknown. There is no evidence that John Perme was a hunter, although his two sons Louie and John were known to hunt and fish over a period of time in their later years.

All of the Perme children agreed that their mother, Johanna, was a good cook. She baked bread for the family in an outside oven in which she built a fire. To test the temperature she would put her hand inside the oven and could tell if it was at the correct temperature -- no thermometer was necessary for this talented and savvy cook. One of her specialties was a Slovenian sweet bread called Potica, along with several other sweets evidently made on a regular basis. Curiously, Joanna was said to have only used white flour, because in the old country (Slovenia) all that was available was "brown" flour. To compliment the family diet there was a family garden, with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and other home grown staples. Cabbage was put through a cabbage slicer and turned into home-made sauerkraut. Another popular family dish was kidney beans, with onions, oil and vinegar, and barley was often used in soups, and there were various dishes made with dumplings. All said, the Perme family appears to have had a robust and rounded diet befitting the oftentimes cold and harsh climate characteristic of Leadville, which was situated high up in the Colorado mountains.

Of historical note, the PianOrchestra is specifically mentioned, and accompanied with a penciled drawing, in Muriel Wolle's book, Stampede to Timberline, where she describes seeing the PianOrchestra in its original location. Reportedly, Johnny Bernat, as she named him, told her that he had ordered it from Germany in the 1880s, where it had been made especially for him. Muriel described it saying: "it was almost as wide as the room and was all mirrors and stained glass doors. In the middle stood a bronze figure of a girl holding aloft a bunch of glass grapes, which were lighted from within by electricity." After Mrs. Wolle had sketched the exterior of the vast musical instrument, the automatic Wurlitzer, Mr. Bernat "began to remove all the doors, revealing the intricate `innards' of cymbals, pipes and strings." Mrs. Wolle then drew a picture of these workings with all their myriad parts.

Sue Fikany, who graciously provided some of the information on John Perme (a.k.a., John Bernat) fondly remembers the PianOrchestra as a child. Born in 1924, during the late 1920s and early 1930s she and her good friend, Rose Perme, one of John Perme's daughters, would often enjoy listening to and observing the fascinating innards of the big Wurlitzer PianOrchestra. Rose's father, John "Bernat" Perme, would give them nickels, so that they could enjoy the big music machine as much as they desired. Sue's grandfather, Steve Frankovich (of Croatian ancestry, and who arrived in town about the same time as John Bernat), owned the wood frame building almost next door to the Crystal Palace Hotel, which he purchased in 1905 for $300.00. Mr. Frankovich operated a bar on the ground floor, while he and his family lived in the second floor living quarters. Then, in 1920, prohibition came in and put his bar out of business, and so the building was converted to the Vienna Grocery and Meat Market. The adjoined brick building next door, the former Miner's Exchange Bank building, was bought and the two buildings connected internally, so that the old bank building could be used for storage and warehousing of grocery items.

The Crystal Palace Hotel building being demolished in April of 1961.It was probably in the late 1950s when Durrell Armstrong, during a trip to Denver, Colorado, heard about the legendary Wurlitzer 32-A Concert PianOrchestra. He was told that someone had seen it in a place called the Crystal Palace Inn or Bar about six months earlier. Durrell and a friend, Don Fulmer drove to Leadville and quickly found the place, a big, old, rambling, three-story wood-frame structure in dilapidated condition. It was closed up, but they easily found the owner of the building, who said that the PianOrchestra had been sold quite a while ago to Sam Arnholz in Wichita, Kansas, for $900.00. The Crystal Palace Hotel was demolished during the summer of 1961, leaving behind an empty, weed strewn lot that remains derelict to this day.

Circa 1953
Sam Arnholz, Wichita, Kansas.

Durrell Armstrong describes Sam Arnholz as being in the wholesale coffee business, and that he collected antique automobiles. The 32-A PianOrchestra sat in his warehouse amid coffee and automobiles for several years. This was only two blocks away from Durrell Armstrong's office, where he could see the pipework sticking up and visible through the warehouse window as he drove by each day.

Circa 19??
Jesse Gibbs.

Durrell Armstrong believes that Jesse Gibbs acquired the PianOrchestra from Sam Arnholz, but the date is unknown. Jesse Gibbs rebuilt band organs and calliopes in his Parsons, Kansas, shop, until 1949, when, due to a declining business fixing band organs and calliopes, he moved to Wichita, Kansas. Then, in 1951, he open a business rebuilding player pianos.

Circa 1965
Stan Peters, Monticello, Iowa.

Stan Peters was a well known and respected "picker" of antiques, who, knowing of the 32-A PianOrchestra, offered it to his clients, no doubt adding something to the asking price for his efforts. In addition to selling a number of automatic musical instruments over many years, he was also a collector, although it is unknown to this author to what extent.

Circa 1965
Bowers Collection, Vestal, New York.

Dave Bowers purchased the PianOrchestra from Stan Peters, sight unseen, who sold it as a "Wurlitzer 165 Band Organ of an unusual variety." Once the machine was in Dave Bowers' possession, however, he was delighted to see that he had bought something he considered to be quite a bit more interesting. Mr. Peters stated, or at least inferred, to Dave Bowers that he had purchased the PianOrchestra from its original location, the Crystal Palace Hotel, in Leadville, Colorado. Obviously, though, given the above statements by Durrell Armstrong, it is apparent that Peters did not buy the PianOrchestra from its original location.

Dave Bowers did or had some restoration work done, mostly recovering pneumatics and the like. Although the PianOrchestra was in pristine condition, with little additional effort required to have it in reasonable operational condition, any further restoration work lagged, due to moving from Ohio to California, as well as other interests, such as starting Hathaway & Bowers, Inc.

In the late 1960s, on a cold winter evening, Dave Bowers, his wife and two kids, and Art Reblitz visited Leadville, but the Crystal Palace Hotel was gone, just an empty lot remained. Walking into a bar closest to the vacant lot, Dave Bowers asked the bartender if he remembered anything about the old hotel, and a man sitting at the bar said, "Yeah - I was on the crew that tore the building down."

Circa 1976
Cohen Collection, Studio City, California.

I did limited restoration work on the PianOrchestra while the instrument sat off to one side of the American International Galleries, Inc., Irvine, California warehouse showroom. Gaskets were replaced, including the refitting of main trunk cardboard vacuum and wind-pressure supply lines, due to minor sagging and deformation of the chassis structure over time. Some valve work was done, some pneumatic motors recovered, and any other work necessary to put the instrument in good playing condition. A late style Philipps xylophone was added, at Jerry Cohen's request. There was no refinishing or repainting of interior components, as this was considered unnecessary by Mr. Cohen, his main concern being functionality.

In 1979 a majority of the Cohen collection suffered a disastrous fire, severely damaging most of the collection, the unique Wurlitzer Concert PianOrchestra included. It was an incredible sight, the room filled with ghostly remnants, charred black, partially fallen in and the floor and bottom of the machines lost in several inches of wet, sloppy ash and rubble. Although salvageable with a great deal of time and effort, much of the PianOrchestra, and all of its pipework, would basically have to be newly remanufactured. Thus, wanting to get the disaster behind him and start his collection anew, Jerry Cohen elected to sell the damaged Concert PianOrchestra to someone willing to endure such an extensive reconstruction effort.

Circa 1979
Milhous collection, California.

Front view of the PianOrchestra's fire damaged main chassis.After the disastrous fire in the Cohen's music room, Dave Bowers bought back the style 32A Concert PianOrchestra. He then shipped the cabinet to Roy Haning and Neal White, Troy, Ohio, and the chassis and mechanisms to Art Reblitz, Colorado Springs, Colorado. But before any restoration work commenced Dave Bowers traded the PianOrchestra to Ron Cappel for a Link 2E cabinet piano. Ron Cappel then in turn sold the badly damaged orchestrion to the Milhous brothers. Art Reblitz remembers the burnt chassis well, remarking that the chassis and mechanisms from the waist down appeared to be restorable, while the parts from the waist up to about shoulder height were good enough to serve as patterns, and everything above the upper pipe chest shelf was almost gone.

The Milhous restoration workship, with Noel Burndahl busy woring at machenery in the background.The Milhous brothers immediately had the big machine shipped to their restoration shop in San Dimas, California, where Noel Burndahl was the main restorer at the time. Dana Johnson was hired shortly thereafter, and according to Dana, Noel Burndahl made the decision to replace all the structural parts, pumps, et cetera, because he wanted to eliminate any possibility of odor from the fire. The pipework was so badly damaged that only the reed blocks, reeds, and boots were deemed salvageable. New resonators for the reed pipes were made by the Jerome Meyer company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the same company that made metal pipes for Seeburg, Nelson-Wiggen, Operators, and Cremona coin pianos. The company also made new metal gamba pipes for the PianOrchestra. John Nolte, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made all new wood flute, violin, viola, and violoncello pipes for the instrument.

Circa 1994-95: Milhous collection moved to Florida.

The Newly reconstructed Wurlitzer style 32A Concert PianOrchestra in the Milhous collection.At some point -- probably when the Milhous brothers moved their operation to Florida -- Dana Johnson opened his own shop and took over the restoration, moving all the parts to his new facility. Dana planned the restoration, and began building the new chassis, feeder pumps, piano back, pipe chests, pipe pouch manifold blocks, tracker bar and many other parts, some of which he completed and installed. New piano action parts were made by Robert Streicher, with the piano action bushings installed by Art Reblitz.

Not long after the move to Florida, Robert Brown was hired to manage the continuing restoration efforts regarding the PianOrchestra, and he decided to ship the PianOrchestra to Mike Argain, Fresno, California. Although complimentary of the professional quality work already completed by Dana Johnson, Mike was nonetheless given the dirty job of sorting out and unscrambling the pile of charred parts, so as to make use of whatever he could, as well as completing the restoration work already begun.

Interior view of the newly reconstructed Wurlitzer style 32A Concert PianOrchestra.All in all, the restoration of the Style 32A Concert PianOrchestra essentially meant building a new machine nearly from scratch, using the burned hulk as a pattern, while salvaging any original wood and metal parts that were still useful. Of the more delicate tasks for Mike Argain was completing the new tracker-bar assembly. It was a tricky, skill intensive job, because the original tracker bar was a very complexly milled, multi-section, hard-maple glued-up assembly, which also contained the tracker system bleeds. According to Mike Argain, even the metal roll changer was badly damaged from the fire, it being so very hot and then suddenly chilled by cold water from a fireman's hose. The main side plates had fractured into many pieces.

Left side interior view of the newly reconstructed Wurlitzer style 32A Concert PianOrchestra.Curiously, though, the six original green paper music rolls loaded on the machine at the time of the fire were still in exceptionally good condition, and playable without any problem, except for a section of one roll. It was the beginning of tune #2, as I recall, the place where the machine had shut off when last played. That portion of the music roll, several windings deep, had become quite parched and shrunken, making perhaps three feet of the music roll unplayable. I well remember taking that roll off the remains of the PianOrchestra the day after the fire. Standing in several inches of soggy ash, my nose filled with the acrid fumes of freshly burnt materials, I carefully rewound the roll by hand, attempting to preserve whatever could still be saved.

What remained of the free-standing, oak veneered furniture case was shipped to Jeff Black, Chicago, Illinois, who, as part of a commercial millwork shop in Chicago, used the fire damaged case as a pattern for manufacturing a completely new, replica unit. New art glass was made by Bull Run Glass Studios of Cincinnati, Ohio. Sadly, however, the hundreds of names scribbled on the inside of the two front doors by patrons to John Perme's Saloon could not be salvaged, and, consequently, have been lost to a now silent history.

In March of 1998, all restoration work on the exterior case and the chassis, with its associated mechanisms, was completed in time for the rebuilt PianOrchestra to be enjoyed at the Southeast Chapter meeting of the Musical Box Society International.


The Wurlitzer 32A Concert PianOrchestra was sold at auction in Florida on February 25, 2012, by RM Auctions (headquartered in Auburn, Indiana).


Written by Terry Hathaway, with information provided by Terry Hathaway, Dave Bowers, Durrell Armstrong, Robert Brown, Mike Argain, Art Reblitz, Beverly & Roger Phillips (Roger Phillips is the grandson of John Perme, aka John Bernat, of Leadville, Colorado), Sue Fikany (Leadville, Colorado, resident), Sylvia Cohen, Don Pease and Dana Johnson.


Circa 1914 Wurlitzer catalogue; Dan Adams photographs; Beverly & Roger Phillips, Sue Fikany; Art Reblitz; Robert Brown, Jere DeBacker and Dana Johnson.