These days, music lovers are spoiled. With one small handheld device, you can flick your thumb and hear anything you want—from Jay-Z or Lady Gaga to a postwar blues rag or a Bach concerto. Some of us remember when you had to get up and turn over the vinyl record to hear the “B side” of an album, or when you’d put foil on your antenna to pick up the best radio station from a sea of static. Yet we were spoiled then, too—back in the Dark Ages, you had to actually make the music you wanted to hear.
“Orchestrions were never drunk or late to the show, like the band was some of the time.”
“All through history, people have wanted to be able to have music when they didn’t necessarily have musicians around,” says Art Reblitz, the author of The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. “That’s the point of everything from a wind-up phonograph to a player piano to an iPod. An iPod’s the same thing as a giant two-ton orchestrion 100 years ago, except you can put it in your pocket and enjoy whatever you want to hear.”
An orchestrion, if you’re wondering, is like a souped-up player piano from the early 1900s. These automatic music machines encased in beautiful wood cabinets don’t just play piano but also drums, bells, and pipes that can imitate violins as well as woodwinds and horns. As MP3 players get smaller and smaller, certain people are rejecting this miniaturization of the music-listening experience and full-on embracing orchestrion nostalgia.
Take, for example, jazz musician Pat Metheny, who was so inspired by watching a player piano, he created an elaborate stage show, called “The Orchestrion Project,” with a sprawling setup of automated instruments that he either pre-programs or controls through his guitar and pedals. Other eccentrics like Reblitz have developed an affinity for the authentic old-timey music machines, collecting, restoring, and even writing music for them.
“I saw a Seeburg orchestrion when I was 7 years old in an amusement arcade, with drums that played automatically,” Reblitz says, “and I thought, ‘I have to have one of them someday.’ As it turned out I ended up being able to make a living restoring them, and so I’ve been immersed in them all my life. My mom was a very fine concert piano teacher, so I grew up with beautiful piano music and got a degree in music education. But I always liked automatic instruments.”
Throughout history, a number of devices have been dubbed “orchestrions” but collectors generally limit the term “orchestrion” to electric-powered automated bands that were built around a piano or pipe organ and incorporate at least three other instruments—including at least one drum—that play along with the piano directed by a paper roll.
“An iPod’s the same thing as a giant two-ton orchestrion 100 years ago, except you can put it in your pocket.”
In all likelihood, most of us have not encountered an orchestrion—unless you’ve been to Zaharakos 1900s ice cream parlor in Columbus, Indiana, or Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, California. Many of the large, grand ones were destroyed by the 1930s, and only a few thousand live in collections today. But you’re probably familiar with early 20th-century band organs still found at amusement parks and fairground that blare perky polkas and cheerful waltzes while the merry-go-round spins. Scott Joplin’s 1902 ragtime hit “The Entertainer” (often associated with ice-cream trucks) and the official U.S. National March “Stars and Stripes Forever,” written by John Philip Sousa in 1896, are common band organ tunes.
While similar in scale, automatic band organs are very different from the biggest orchestrions (12 feet tall, 12 feet wide, and 5 feet deep) that the wealthy elite had on their palatial estates in the 1910s. Band organs were designed to be heard over screaming children and clacking roller coasters. And all their notes sound obviously like organ pipes. High-end orchestrions, like those made by Welte in Germany’s Black Forest, produced much more sophisticated sounds with a textured range of dynamics. Their finely tuned pipes could imitate string instruments like violins and cellos as well as they could horns.
“A Welte will play music with greater finesse than a band organ,” Reblitz says. “An American band organ plays early popular music well, but a big European organ can do a credible job playing an overture or an entire Strauss waltz. Another type of instrument, the reproducing piano, duplicated the playing of classical and popular pianists of the day, as if you had Rachmaninoff or George Gershwin playing in your living room.”
But high society alone, of course, could not sustain the industry. At their height of popularity around 1914, nearly everyone in America and Europe had enjoyed the sounds from an orchestrion—made by American companies like Wurlitzer and Seeburg as well as German companies like Welte, Hupfeld, Weber, and Philipps—at a sprawling Western-style saloon, a restaurant, an indoor skating rink, an ice-cream parlor, or an exposition like a World’s Fair.
Where you had music, you had dancing, and if you didn’t have to stop to change the tune, all the better. “Some orchestrions had automatic roll changers so you could play a long program of music without changing rolls yourself,” Reblitz says. “If you didn’t ever have them tuned, they could get pretty bad-sounding, but they were never drunk, like the band was some of the time. You didn’t have to worry if the band was going to show up tonight or not.”
While you can find examples of orchestrions of all different shapes and sizes today, Reblitz says that when it comes to the largest and rarest orchestrions, only one of a certain model might exist. “At one time, they were seemingly everywhere, considering the population was a lot smaller 100 years ago,” Reblitz says. “I used to tell people they used to be everywhere where you would have a jukebox now. But now there are no jukeboxes either.”
The largest and most important automatic music pioneer in America, Rudolph Wurlitzer made a name for himself in the Civil War selling bugles and drums to the Union Army; then in the late 1880s, his company grew in popularity marketing disc-playing Regina music boxes made in Rahway, New Jersey. In the 1910s, the firm was importing huge electric-powered Philipps orchestrions and selling them as the Wurlitzer PianOrchestra, as well as smaller coin-operated player pianos with no keys.
Very early Wurlitzer PianOrchestras even had an automaton, one moving figure on the front with a baton. This band master figure, who would move his conducting arm in time with the downbeat of the bass drum, was similar to the little automata like the band masters and bell ringers you tend to see more often on amusement-park band organs, which were also produced by Wurlitzer and other top mechanical music companies.
The biggest threat to Wurlitzer’s domination came along in 1909 when J.P. Seeburg and Company entered the market. That company made everything from a small coin-operated player piano called the Seeburg L to the 7-foot-tall statue-adorned Seeburg H orchestrion. Generally, Reblitz says, the U.S.-made machines were less nuanced than the European ones. American companies tended to simply doctor music rolls meant for player pianos so they would incorporate the other instruments, and the effect tended to create a mechanical sound.
“It’s a generalization because there are some human-sounding American orchestrions and rolls, and some very mechanical-sounding European ones,” he says. “But in general the Europeans were more interested in hearing serious music. In Germany, you might hear trauss waltzes, like ‘Blue Danube’ and marches, pieces that fall under the category of ‘salon music.’ Here, you would hear ‘Backstreet Blues’ or ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas.’
“Ironically, when the Germans roll arrangers became interested in American dance band music in the late 1920s, they made some of the most superb music machines and rolls in the world based on American band arrangements. But the American companies rarely did this. They mainly stuck to embellished piano arranging.”
As it was, if you had a Wurlitzer or a Welte, you had to buy a roll created specifically for that machine, so American and German music was not interchangeable. But then, “Seeburg had the brilliant idea of standardizing its music rolls,” Reblitz says. “Then other companies made similar rolls, and in turn, other companies made pianos that would play them. Because of that, Seeburg had a lot wider variety of music available for its orchestrions. On the other hand, Wurlitzer was hiring people to sit at drawing boards and draw songs out on the roll, which also made them a little more mechanical sounding. Personally, I think that’s one of the reasons why Seeburg dominated in the 1920s; the music was more up-to-date.”
But the first real devastating blow for giant orchestrions in the United States was the 18th Amendment, or the Prohibition of Alcohol, which passed in 1919 and led to government cracked down on large saloons. Inadvertently, this law probably started us on the path to the pocket-sized music players.
“The federal government made a big show of closing down fancy, big saloons,” Reblitz says. “They smashed things up and made a big production out of it. But in the saloon’s place, thousands of speakeasies sprang up in very small spaces. Well, now there was a need for little coin-operated instruments, like a little cabinet player piano with no keyboard. It would sit in a corner and not take up much space.”
Within 10 years, two newfangled inventions delivered the final death knell to orchestrions: the amplified radio and the coin-operated phonograph.
“Mechanical music was pretty much dead before the Depression started in 1929, thanks to the amplifier,” Reblitz says. “That went not only for bars that had jukeboxes now instead of coin-pianos, but in movie theaters. The theater pipe organ survived into the ’30s, when some of the biggest movie palaces were built. But soon, sound movies took over. At home, amplified phonographs and radios took the place of player pianos. They were lighter and smaller. They could sing, in contrast to a player piano, which could not replicate human voices.”
Because of this drastic change, many of the largest models of orchestrions did not survive past the 1920s, and those that did often number as few as one. You’re much more likely to find a smaller automatic music player like a Seeburg L speakeasy piano.
“The bigger the instrument, the less chance there is of survival,” Reblitz says. “The biggest orchestrions in the old days were rare to begin with. They may have only made a few of them because only a few commercial places could afford them. Let’s say you owned a restaurant, and you had one of these things. It wouldn’t go through a doorway, and by 1930, you couldn’t buy new popular music for it anymore. If you took a huge machine out, you could put in six more tables.
“Unless you really liked the music machine, as a business owner, it was nothing more to you than a restaurant freezer. But if you had a little coin-operated piano in the late 1920s in your establishment and you just bought a jukebox, you might push the piano into the backroom and say, ‘Maybe we’ll fix it someday.'”
Fortunately, Wurlitzer and Seeburg continued to flourish, one-upping each other throughout the 20th century. While Seeburg dominated the speakeasy coin-piano market in the 1920s and 1930s, Wurlitzer had the theater-organ market cornered. Then, Wurlitzer made the most beautiful jukeboxes in the 1940s with color plastics and bubble tubes, which were the most popular, until Seeburg introduced its “Select-O-Matic” jukebox in the 1950s that could hold 100 records. These two companies were neck-in-neck in the jukebox world until the last few decades, especially when Apple brought an end to the jukebox era, thanks to a little computerized device that could hold thousands of songs.
Today, there are hundreds of orchestrion collectors, most of whom have just a few machines. Some of them, like Reblitz, also arrange new music for their music machines. Of course, a lot of popular music now, like hip-hop or experimental jazz won’t work on the simple devices. But, “anything that would sound good on a piano can be arranged effectively for an orchestrion. Back in the ’70s, people wanted to hear ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,’ by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando and the ragtime music from the movie ‘The Sting.'”
Reblitz also finds work restoring orchestrions so that they play like new for the handful of automatic-music aficionados who have large, important collections of gorgeous orchestrions with stained glass and hand-carved wood details. But why would any collector need more than one of the contraptions in their homes?
“Every brand of big orchestrion sounded a little different,” Reblitz says. “They had different music arrangers, and they interpreted the existing songs differently. Plus, each has its own beautiful appearance and an interesting history. Individuals from all walks of life enjoy collecting so they can hear many different kinds of music and share it with other people. Each instrument is like a musical time machine, playing exactly the same music that our grandparents heard when the instruments were new.”
(You can learn more about orchestrions, band organs, and coin-pianos at Art Reblitz’s Mechanical Music Press site, or pick up a copy of his book, The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. You can also visit Dick Hack’s Mechanical Music site, the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, the Elztalmuseum Waldkirch in Germany’s Black Forest, and Durward R. Center’s Flickr page. Other helpful sites include the Musical Box Society’ and the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.