Central Jersey residents will hear the old-time sound of a carnival coming to town when the Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA) and the Automatic Musical Instruments Collectors Association (AMICA) roll in a band organ rally in downtown Princeton on Saturday and Sunday, August 6 and 7.
The two nonprofits are dedicated to the preservation of the mechanical music devices that once accompanied more than 4,000 American carousels made during the attraction’s “golden days,” from the late 1800s through the Great Depression. Of those fewer than 150 exist today.
Belle Mead resident and editor of the AMICA Bulletin Glenn Thomas is a key organizer of this old-fashioned sound and visual extravaganza involving dozens of mechanical organs of various sizes and flair. It happens as AMICA holds its national convention at the Nassau Inn.
While it is the first time for such an event in Princeton — as well as New Jersey — it promises to be something for everyone.
“The organs come in three sizes,” notes Thomas. “Small ones, about the size of an ice cream cart, can be rolled out easily on small trolleys. These are what we call small crank, grind, or monkey organs, because operators crank them to make music from the organ pipes and percussion. We expect to have 10 or 15 of those on display.
“Medium-sized organs, about the size of a compact car, are operated by motors. Those come in on trailers and we expect to have five or six of those.
“Finally, there are the grand concert organs, those beautiful giants that can emulate whole concert bands and orchestras, and are so large they need to come in on tractor-trailers. We expect to have four or five of those.”
“By about the 1920s,” says Thomas during a telephone interview, “other than home player pianos, all these instruments were operated by electrical motors.”
It was those large mechanically operated band organs that produced the distinct carousel or merry-go-round music — sounds remembered by some and experienced in films and TV by others. In either case, the music evokes old-time America.
“A band organ sounds pretty much like what its name sounds like — a brass band or small symphony orchestra,” says Thomas, explaining that air is forced into a reservoir and then into tubes leading to pipes. It plays music written in perforated notes on moving paper rolls or rotating cylinders that trigger valves and stops to produce specific notes.
The instrument is not to be confused with the circus-connected calliope. “That is a hand-played instrument run on steam and has pipes that sound like a whistle.”
“My love for these instruments goes back to when I was a small kid growing up on the West Coast,” notes Thomas about his music-loving parents — a photographer father and secretary mother — taking him on outings. “I spent a fair amount of time in parks or on carousels like the ones on Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Park, Disneyland, or Knott’s Berry Farm, listening to the music. As I got into my teens and 20s, though, I became much more serious about the organs and, over the course of my career in financial services, I started acquiring and maintaining some.”
While band organs were originally developed in Germany, France, and Belgium, U.S. demand in the early 19th century launched the start of several U.S. band organ companies. The leader was the Wurlitzer Company, and its top-of-the-line were the models 165 and 166.
Thomas — who owns a specimen of both models — says, “They are considered the finest American band organs made during (Wurlitzer’s) technological strongest periods in the 1920s and ’30s. These are considered the treasured and best of the Wurlitzer band organs,” he says, adding that an example of one of the models will be on view in Princeton.
Speaking personally about the ones in his collection, he says, “Their rarity, antiqueness, visual beauty, and musical excellence mean a lot to me. One is the (actual) organ I saw when I was five years old. It is a tremendous source of pride to have possession of these wonderful musical instruments.”
Thomas’ collection also includes three large, vintage mechanical concert organs, several vintage coin-operated nickelodeons and orchestrions (machines that sound like an orchestra).
Retired from the financial industry in New York City, Thomas says he and his wife, who works for Johnson & Johnson, have five acres with a fairly good sized house that houses small musical machines and a carriage house that holds the larger instruments.
In addition to participating in various rallies, he says he opens his rare collection — one of the only ones in the state — “to approved groups that have approved purposes,” usually school groups.
With internet prices for instruments ranging from around $50,000 to $95,000, Thomas says his pursuit is “an expensive hobby,” one where rare objects are becoming rarer and more valued.
Another expense is maintenance. The technology is a century old and operates on leather and belts to create wind pressure. “It is a constant battle,” he says. “There are very few people in the country and world who are experts or fulltime restorers at these.”
Yet he is undeterred and finds satisfaction in the machine’s history and aesthetics. “Visitors are mesmerized by the great orchestral sounds and the elaborate, colorful, and beautifully carved facades,” he notes in a statement. “The craftsmanship is astounding, and by the time people walk away, they no longer see these instruments as makers of background sound at a carnival or ice rink. They listen to the variety of sounds, learn the history, and suddenly see just why collectors like myself take such care to preserve these instruments.”
Speaking about the sounds visitors will hear in Princeton, Thomas says that while music includes popular songs from the era and classical music visitors to the Princeton event will hear something unexpected. “We arrange today’s music to one of these hundred-year-old instruments.”
Thomas says that instruments will be stationed and played around Palmer Square, Nassau Presbyterian Church, Monument Park, All Wars Memorial, Garden Theater, Arts Council, Hinds Plaza, Princeton Shopping Center, and YMCA.
“They will play from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, August 6 and 7. There will be interpretive desks and exhibits to educate and inform the public what they are seeing and hearing,” he adds.
On Saturday at 1 p.m. at Nassau Presbyterian Church, the public is invited to a one-hour multi-media presentation and orientation about the music, the organizations, and their history.
And during the AMICA convention running August 3 through 6 at the Nassau Inn, a hospitality room will be open with displays of coin-operated nickelodeons, along with docents to explain and demonstrate the instruments.
“My single most important goal is to expose as much of a populace to these instruments,” says Thomas. “If we can get others interested, we’ve met our goal.”
For more information on the event, the machines, or the Automatic Musical Instruments Collectors Association, contact Glenn Thomas at email@example.com.