When I was kid, we used to go to an amusement park in Ontario called Crystal Beach. We used to play in the sand and kick our feet in the lake, then check out the kiddie amusement park. There were grown-up rides, too, but we were too small to go on them. So, we spent our afternoon driving kiddie cars or rockets on a circular track. There were similar rides in boats, going around and around in a little pool of water.
My brother loved Leo, the Paper-Eating Lion. It was a garbage receptacle in the shape of a circus lion’s cage. Leo’s head poked through the bars and his mouth was part of a vacuum that sucked in light paper waste. No need to say that the area around Leo the Paper-Eating Lion was as clean as a whistle.
There were fun rides, Crystal Beach suckers, cotton candy and a little train that toodled around the perimeter of the park. Our favorite ride, though, was the merry-go-round. It was a grand attraction with hand-carved horses and a mechanic band organ that played Sousa marches and popular tunes from the 1890s. We went around, up and down, and I loved watching the machine play its melody over and over. There were drums that beat to the tune that was carried by a cheerful pipe organ. It was like something out of a gay 90s retrospective.
Crystal Beach is long gone and the rides scattered to the four winds. Some were sold to other amusement parks, some were restored for a local museum. The others were destroyed. I always wondered what happened to that band organ and I never found out. Is is still around, captivating children in some other city lucky enough to keep its amusements alive? I hope so. In the meantime, I’ve come across an article online about orchestrions, which basically are grown-up versions of the mechanical band organs we may know better. Once upon a time, they were common fixtures in restaurants and saloons, where a patron could feed it a coin and listen to an entire orchestra, at least if that person had a good imagination.
Lo and behold, the past is present. There are a limited number of these behemoth orchestrions still around, maybe a few thousand. Collectors have found and restored them. How about a little Yankee Doodle on this gorgeous machine?
Evidently, this machine is still in use and you can see at its home in Columbus, Indiana if you’re ever passing by, or even if you live there! Boy, don’t that beat the lowly pipe and drum machine I loved so much as a child.
But, wait, there’s more! They really did try to turn these things into portable orchestras, complete with strings and woodwinds to match the drums, organ and piano. Some of the designs amaze me as much as the music does. The top of the line orchestrions could be large as “12 feet tall, 12 feet wide, and 5 feet deep.” You’d almost have to buy a second house to fit it all in. These giants were serious though, and incredibly expensive. They became the toys of the guilded age rich, both here as well as in Europe.
Damn! That thing’s playing violins, too. I’d go to the Utrecht’s Speelklok tot Pierement Museum in the Netherlands just to see that player in action. I’m crazy about old musical instruments and players. I’d probably faint dead away if someone gave me an old phonograph with a needle and a stack of 78s to play. Just look at this!
These lovely creatures were eventually supplanted by phonographs and then radio. They were too big to comfortably fit into most commercial establishments and, besides, they could make as much money on the new music players at a fraction of the expense. So, the orchestrion passed away and only the humble organ bands remained to provide the background music for carousels. And now even those are gone.
But not forgotten, it seems. A few of these beasts have been restored for sale. I don’t know who would buy them except other collectors, but I’m glad they’re still around to remind us of what the past sounded like.
The article from which I’ve drawn this bit of information finishes with a contemporary take on this old, mechanical model. Jazz musician Pat Metheny grew up with a player piano in his grandfather’s house and used it as a model for his own compositions. He’s got the benefit of modern solenoid technology and the result is really beautiful.