Meeting Farny Reginald Wurlitzer

A Few Hours with Farny Wurlitzer

In an effort to learn more about the PianOrchestra, and Wurlitzer in general, it was during the year of 1966 that I accompanied Dave Bowers to the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, New York, specifically to visit with Farny Wurlitzer. After many years of peering over Wurlitzer paraphernalia and the various illustrations of the Wurlitzer factory, there I was, actually walking up to the main entrance. Looking upward at the landmark Wurlitzer tower, I felt as though I was about to take a giant step backward in time. The landscaping and buildings looked more or less like the old catalogue illustrations I had seen, except that everything was now timeworn, and no longer picture perfect, the heyday of automatic music long ago past. The cement sidewalks leading through the landscaped gardens were cracked and weathered, the hedges not so neatly clipped anymore and the buildings were dusted with a hint of accumulated industrial grime that revealed their one time industrial importance.

The Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, New York, circa 1966.
The Wurlitzer Factory, North Tonawanda,
New York, circa 1966. At center is the
imposing Wurlitzer Tower, which is the
main entrance to the venerable facility.

Once inside the main doors, a uniformed guard announced our presence, and, then, after a brief wait, Farny Wurlitzer descended the wide and busy main stairway. He was elegantly attired in a dark business suit and impeccably well-mannered. He immediately welcomed us warmly with an outstretched arm. Under his other arm was a neatly wrapped package, containing an armful sized chunk of his favorite cheese, which he graciously presented to us as a token of friendship. After a few moments of introductory pleasantry, Farny invited us up to his second floor office, which, we noted, was essentially the same as it was when Wurlitzer was enjoying its great period of prosperity manufacturing, distributing, and selling automatic musical instruments.

Remarkably, Farny Wurlitzer still sat at the same quartered-oak "schoolteacher's" type desk that he had used since the factory was expanded and remodeled circa 1920. At another similar desk in the same office was his secretary, Alice, a very pleasant woman who had been Farny's secretary since the early 1930s. She happily assisted Farny in answering our parade of questions, often leaving the office for brief intervals to look up and find information to satisfy our curiosity, knowing exactly where to go to find old records and information. The whole meeting was wonderfully pleasant and cordial. As for the office decor itself, overall, there was nothing special or luxurious about it. The room was spacious feeling and large enough to easily accommodate a couple of desks, chairs, several file cabinets and other small items of furniture. The only out-of-the ordinary amenity apparent in this executive office was the paneled door off to one side that led to a small, private bathroom, with a marble stall and vintage plumbing fixtures.

At the time, Dave Bowers and I viewed the Wurlitzer PianOrchestra, as well as the other automatic musical instruments that Wurlitzer had manufactured, in a warm and nostalgic light. Farny Wurlitzer, as the last surviving Wurlitzer from the automatic music years, held a kind of celebrity status in our eyes. But notwithstanding our ideas and nostalgic fantasies, Farny viewed the automatic musical instruments very differently than Dave and I, since he had been in charge of keeping the factory operating since 1909, and resolving all the headaches that went along with manufacturing and repairing a bunch of complicated and often troublesome machines made out of little more than wood, cloth, and leather. He saw the PianOrchestra as a product line that was not always cooperative, and that required a good deal of technical skill to keep functional. His was a more practical view than ours, we being starry eyed collecting enthusiasts at the time. Still, with all the problems, Farny confided that he enjoyed the large orchestrions, and would rush down to the showroom to play the latest music roll releases.

To be sure, it was quite a thrill for Dave Bowers and I to be sitting in Farny's second floor office, chatting with one of the men responsible for bringing the Philipps Pianella (a.k.a. the Wurlitzer PianOrchestra) to the U.S. circa 1903-04, and the man who had been in charge of the automatic music division of Wurlitzer since 1909. Moreover, he was still sitting behind the same plain, rectangular, quartered-oak "schoolteacher's" style desk that he had used since the 1920s, when automatic music was still king. Before departing, we even had the privilege of using Farny's private, marble stalled bathroom -- one of delightful but lesser highlights of the days events. All in all, the time spent was wonderful and revealing, shedding some more light on the beginning days of the PianOrchestra and automatic musical instruments in general.

The First Four PianOrchestras

According to Farny Wurlitzer, the first shipment of four Philipps Pianella orchestrions turned out to be quite a disaster. Soon after the machines arrived in America they were tested, sold, and shipped out to waiting customers. Unfortunately, no one at the Wurlitzer company had any experience yet to warn them of the dangers inherent in abruptly relocating the German built machines into the climate differences common in the U.S. Within a week or so after the new PianOrchestras had been installed, the complaints started to arrive. Farny, himself, he lamented, had to go to a location in the Southern United States to fix one of the new PianOrchestras. Arriving on the scene, to his horror, leather gaskets had shriveled and the wooden chests were badly warped, causing disastrous air leaks that preventing the new PianOrchestra from working at all. The machine was so full of leaks, in fact, there was no quick hope of making it operate. Due to the relatively dry US climate, the instrument had dried out fairly quickly, causing both wood and leather parts to shrink and warp. Farny spent about a week doing the necessary repair work. Not knowing beforehand the extent of the problem, and thusly ill equipped, he had to scrounge for local materials in order to replace shriveled gaskets and to seal up the cracks in the warped chests. It was a miserable week, he intimated, the customer complaining bitterly, while he worked to get the orchestrion playing.

This situation, although unpleasant, was a valuable lesson, and must have provided much incentive, because immediately upon Farny's return to the North Tonawanda factory, Philipps was sent an urgent cable instructing them to hold any further shipments. Basically, if they wanted to sell any more Pianella orchestrions to Wurlitzer, management insisted that Philipps use only very carefully and thoroughly cured kiln-dried woods for any America bound instruments. But that still left the problem of getting the machines to America without a long soaking in the damp or wet conditions normal to oceanic shipping. So, the newly completed machines were sealed in watertight soldered tin containers for shipment, thereby hoping to prevent any future reoccurrence of the problems associated with the machines rapidly drying out upon arrival in the U.S.

Transforming the Pianella Into a PianOrchestra

Another ongoing problem for Wurlitzer was music. The American audiences generally were not much taken with the German tunes supplied by the Philipps company. So, sheet music for the latest American favorites were shipped to Germany. But, as Farny Wurlitzer explained, the interminable delays in getting new American styled music rolls not only caused numerous customer complaints, but impacted instrument sales, too. The first, in a series of frustrating delays, was the shipping time to Philipps. Then, once the sheet music arrived at the Philipps factory, there followed another delay: the wait for busy German music arrangers, who had to learn a new style of arranging. Next, the finished arrangements had to wait in line again, this time for their turn at the Philipps perforators, which were normally busily punching out music rolls for the mainstay European market. Then, the finished product had to be packed for overseas shipping, and so on, so that by the time the new music rolls arrived in the United States, the tunes were out of date and oftentimes no longer popular favorites. As a solution, the Wurlitzer Company finally commenced PianOrchestra music arrangement and roll cutting in its North Tonawanda plant.

Since Wurlitzer had already enjoyed many years of being prosperous in the business of supplying many kinds of regular musical instruments, such as drums, harps, violins, and other hand-played band and orchestral instruments, the Pianella machines shipped to Wurlitzer minus things such as the cymbals and bass and snare drums. Other trapwork, like the actual tambourine and triangle, were not substituted by Wurlitzer, probably because the pneumatic reiterating actions required a tambourine or triangle of precise metric proportions, ones that exactly fitted the mechanical action, something the prevailing standardized American stock counterparts did not currently accommodate.

Wurlitzer had other standard European components left out also. Due to the widespread differences between American and European electrical standards, virtually all electricals were installed at the Wurlitzer factory, using standard American equipment. The only readily apparent exception to this, as seen in the integral case and chassis design machines, is the pneumatic and/or solenoid operated mercury-pot trip switch, located on the right side of the music roll mechanism. The solenoid armature could be activated either by a remote battery powered wall box, or by the start/rewind push-button, usually located near the left side of the music roll mechanism. The pneumatic motor portion of the trip switch assembly stopped the machine after each tune (activated by a perforation in the music roll), or, in the case of the last tune on the roll, immediately after rewinding of the music roll is completed.

There were two basic formats for the PianOrchestra: the integrated case and chassis design, and the unit chassis design. In both formats, access doors and panels in front and along the sides permitted easy maintenance. The integrated case and chassis designs are just that, you got a furniture case with all the mechanical components and supporting shelves screwed and fastened onto the case structure -- making up one integrated unit. With the unit-chassis design, as the name implies, you got a rugged chassis framework that supported and contained all the necessary mechanical components. The furniture case was separate, and consisted of either a free-standing, exterior shell that literally wrapped around and hides from view the self-contained chassis, or the casework included a floor, with the chassis slipping into the casework from the rear. All known PianOrchestras of the unit chassis design are fitted with American made casework.

In the furniture cases for the unit chassis machines, Wurlitzer fitted them with colorful American style leaded opalescent art-glass designs. In contrast, the integrated style machines with German cases had no opalescent glasses. Instead, they were often liberally endowed with beautifully carved gilt ornamentation, set off through the use of individual beveled mirrors and/or geometrically arranged panels of beveled mirrors set in brass piping (such as was common for the music roll access door). The use of decorative glass, unlike the highly colorful American art-glass designs, generally consisted of a single color (commonly clear or green) of glue chipped glass, the individual panes cut and arranged in flowing geometric patterns. A distinctive feature of the German glass artistry was the use of mitered brass piping to support the individual glass panes, instead of lead or zinc, as was the case in American art glass designs.