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MMD > Archives > January 1997 > 1997.01.30 > 07Prev  Next


"Nickelodeon", "Orchestrion"
By Craig Brougher

Stan Rhine was asking about how we should name and classify certain antique automatic instruments, notably "orchestrion" and "nickelodeon."

For years, I have been corrected for calling nickel pianos "nickelodeons." Shucks, it's not that important to me. I suppose I'll keep calling them that for a long time to come. I know that it was a moniker for a nickel movie house, and most of them a few years later had some kind of automatic source of "live" music in them, too. The best part of the show was the music. You could sit and listen to that happy sound for hours, but I'll bet few would stand the flickering, speckled, jerky films without some music to wash them down.

When the nickelodeon movie house went the way of the dinosaur, it left a little memento behind: its instrumented automata, representative of that era. And when I say "nickelodeon" (because it just rolls right off the tongue), and somebody else says, "That's not a nickelodeon. A Nickelodeon was a nickel movie house," then I am just making sure they never forget that facet of their history which was responsible for selling so many nickelodeons! Besides, I would have paid a nickel any day to have heard the nickelodeon, and that movie would have just been wallpaper -- uh, dirty wallpaper. I would have been willing to put up with it.

The other angle to the question is the fact that calling coin operated automata "nickelodeons" is NOT wrong. It was a coined (ahem) term for them that is just as legit as any other generic term. I have even seen old advertisements using the term to sell pianos. We call tires "wheels" interchangeably, and today, the term is [accepted as] correct for both. But the name "wheel" for a tire came from the wheel it is mounted on. Technically, it is a tire. But "wheel" just rolls off my tongue, too!

It suits me to call any and all orchestrions "nickelodeons" (even ones with quarter slots), but I don't call all nickelodeons "orchestrions." To me, technical terminology is important, but generic terms are merely "acceptance and domain." I don't like to have to be talking about "that long black thingy with the four holes and the bumps on it" if I have a real name.

> If an instrument does not meet the "orchestrion" criteria used by
> Bowers in his Encyclopedia, then wouldn't "coin piano" or "automatic
> piano" be preferable to designate the lower-order instrument rather
> than lumping them all together as "nickelodeons?"

I'd say, whatever you are comfortable with. And I also believe that Bower's criteria (if I recall, 10 or more types of instruments) is about right to designate the orchestrion. I do not believe that "nickelodeon" has any criteria. It seems, in my mind, to be very un-specific. I don't feel ignorant or guilty to call them nickelodeons at all, and when I'm corrected, I just say, "Oh. Sorry."

Craig Brougher


(Message sent Thu 30 Jan 1997, 14:22:46 GMT, from time zone GMT.)

Key Words in Subject:  Nickelodeon, Orchestrion

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