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by Tim Trager, in MMDigest 990822
firstname.lastname@example.org (Tim Trager)
Subject: Orchestrions With Animated Musical Novelties
The recent glass armonica discussions in MMD got me thinking about the other unusual instruments that are out there. Many of these other instruments fall in the novelty category, and they are all equally interesting and unique.
The J. C. Deagan Company of Chicago made many of these musical devices
for use in vaudeville and the circus. Over the years I have collected
a number of these instruments, such as shaker chimes, keyboard-operated
saucer bells, hand rubbed rosin chimes or rosin harp, keyboard-operated
orchestra bells, and a _loud_ Deagan Una-Fon which sounds like tuned doorbells
played from keyboard! Besides the Deagan products there is the musical
saw, of which professional ones were made without saw teeth.
There is also the Flex-A-Tone, made in the twenties by the Playatone Company of New York. New ones are being made today but they are just cheap toys when compared to the original professional ones made in the twenties. In its advertising, the Playatone Company claimed that their Flex-A-Tone made "Jazz Jazzier"!
The Flex-A-Tone sounds like a musical saw when properly played.
It is made of tempered steel, hand held, and is struck by two wood balls
mounted on flat steel springs. The hardness of the wooden balls is
tempered with rubberized cork. The pitch of the tempered steel is
changed by thumb pressure, while the whole thing is swung around with a
rapid "soup stirring" motion. The "soup stirring" motion creates
a nice tremolo effect. What is really fun, and also quite difficult,
is to play two Flex-A-Tones at once with each hand in harmony!
Another fun musical device is the slide whistle. In the 1920's beautiful professional slide whistles were made. Both the Flex-A-Tone and the slide whistle were featured in 1920's dance band music, like Paul Whiteman's recording of "Whispering", which has a nice slide whistle solo. By the way, Flex-A-Tones were also played with monkey organs in Berlin in the 1920's. The organ grinder would crank with one hand and play the Flex-A-Tone with the other!
Such musical novelties did not go unnoticed by mechanical musical instrument manufacturers. In Germany the Popper Company incorporated both the slide whistle and the Flex-A-Tone into different orchestrion models. The Popper Roland jazz orchestrion featured an animated slide whistle prominently displayed on the front of the cabinet. The pneumatic mechanism for the slide whistle would follow or "slide along with" the highest perforated note on the roll when turned on by a perforation in the roll. The musical effect is very good indeed!
The Popper Company did not overdo it and always left the customer wanting more. To my knowledge there are only five Popper Rolands in existence which have this device, including a nice example on public display in Fredy Kunzle's museum in Lichtensteig, Switzerland.
The larger Popper Ohio jazz orchestrion also featured a slide whistle.
One of these can be seen in Nethercutt's collection at the Meryl Norman
museum in San Sylmar CA. In Siegfried Wendel's collection in Ruedesheim,
Germany, a large Popper Ohio exists that plays a Flex-A-Tone! This
instrument is currently awaiting restoration, therefore we music await
to hear it play! I have not yet studied its mechanism to see how
they animated the "soup stirring" movement necessary for the tremolo effect!
Being of German design I am sure that it is quite complicated and very
In the late 1920's, the Leipziger Orchestrionwerke of Paul Lösche also made a jazz orchestrion which plays a slide whistle. It is similar to the Popper Roland and was probably built to compete with the Roland orchestrion.
The Lösche orchestrion with the slide whistle is in my collection and is the only such Lösche instrument known to exist. It has a very modern Bauhaus case. The orchestrion has a rank of violin pipes, a rank of flute pipes, piano, percussion, and the slide whistle. Like the Popper, when turned on by a perforation the slide whistle follows the highest note on the roll, which is usually a melody-line note. Air from the tremolo mechanism flows directly to the whistle.
For the MMD Gallery I have included a picture of the Lösche factory in Leipzig-Mockau, Germany as well as a photo of my Lösche with the front panel off showing the slide whistle and its pneumatic mechanism which is to the left of the whistle.
The pneumatic mechanism pushes up on a horizontal wood bar drilled with holes. This bar then is attached to the slide on the whistle. As the bar is pushed up or falls back, the slide on the whistle follows thus creating the slide whistle effect.
I am especially interested in mechanical instruments like my Lösche and the Popper Roland which feature animated musical novelties. I would enjoy hearing from collectors who have such instruments including the unusual J. C. Deagan instruments.
2 August 1999
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