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Organ Grinders Keep Tradition Alive - 2002-04-15

Organ grinders were once a familiar sight on the streets of Europe. The sidewalk entertainers cranked the handles of music machines as a monkey accepted donations from passers-by. A small fraternity of enthusiasts is keeping the Old World tradition alive in California.

Richard Ingram turns the handle of a monkey organ that was produced by modern craftsmen in Belgium. At the rear of the machine, he hand-feeds a long sheet of connected cards, each with perforations. He said, "There are actual keys that pop up in the holes in the card. And each key opens a valve, which lets air into the pipe." And that produces the tones.

A dozen music machines, including Mr. Ingram's hand-crafted model from Belgium, were recently on display in Los Angeles. Frank Nix points to another, manufactured in Paris in 1905. "This is what we call a French fairground organ," he said. "It was probably used alongside a travelling carousel or what they call travelling bioscopes, which were old-time shows similar to what you would see in a circus nowadays, the side shows. They used them anyplace where there was a crowd where they could collect a buck." Or a franc or Deutschemark, as the case would be.

Retired engineer Ken Hodge spent 21 years at the U.S. space agency NASA. He became fascinated with the intricate workings of antique player pianos, and from there, started collecting automated instruments. He turns the crank on a traditional-looking monkey organ, a handsome wooden box with a toy monkey positioned beside it.

He explains that this a state-of-the-art model recently made in England. He said, "Instead of using a paper roll for music or what they call 'book music,' which are accordion-pleated collections of punched holes in cardboard, it has a solid-state memory, which is a cassette that can hold up to 32 different tunes. So we are not moving paper or cardboard rolls through the machine at all."

The electronic codes are stored on cassette, but Mr. Hodge said the rest of the instrument works the old-fashioned way. "The effort in cranking the monkey organ," he said, "is merely for working the bellows, which provide the air that goes through the organ pipes. The organ pipes are actually "speaking," as the saying goes, their sounds. So the sounds are authentic; the music is now stored in 21st century media." Mr. Hodge and his fellow enthusiasts belong to an organization called the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association.

Fellow member Bill Blair says, once involved, collecting becomes a passion. "Once you get bitten by the hobby," he said, "you keep expanding and buying another one and another one, until now my house is full of about 40 or 50 instruments all together. I have automatic pianos and music boxes, automatic violin players and banjo players and even antique phonographs and juke boxes and that sort of thing."

The hobby can be expensive, says collector Frank Nix, as he displays his large antique music machine from France. Like many machines from the early 1900s, this one has an electric motor that drives the bellows, forcing air through the organ pipes.

Mr. Nix said, "Instruments of this style, according to condition, can run anywhere from $5,000 or $10,000 up to a quarter of a million dollars, according to the size and what they have got. So it is not a cheap hobby, but it is very, very satisfying."

And it keeps alive a tradition that blends music, Old World craftsmanship and New World technology.