I did a key word search of the MMD this morning and could not find anything
listed with Charles Smallwood's name. I am new at this, and there probably
is something there, but I could not find it. I am posting a rememberance
of a man who started collecting automatic musical instruments in 1935, and
continued until his death in 1986.
When I met Charles Smallwood in the 1970's, I cannot remember the exact
year, the MBSI was having a convention in San Francisco that year, I was
making three to four trips a year to the coast to visit the Malones, buy
instruments, and take a vacation. When the notice about the MBSI convention
came up, I wrote a letter to Charlie asking if I could visit with him to
discuss streetcars... something very dear to him. I got his address from a
group of Electric Railroaders that I belonged to. I waited a month, but
the letter was unanswered. I wrote another letter with the same results.
About two weeks before the convention, I wrote yet another letter a bit
more insistent. In a few days a post card arrived with this cryptic
message: "When you get here, come to the cable car barns and look me up".
Signed... Charles Smallwood.
When I got to SFO, I went to the cable car house and was surprised to find
that Charlie was the superintendent! He ran the place. We sat in his
office just off the car storage area and talked streetcars, railroads, and
more streetcars. Lunch came and we ate Chinese down the street, came back
and talked more streetcars. All the while he was dispatching trucks to
"push 'em over the tip"... push cable cars over the tip of a hill when they
were unable to grab the rope. The day ended with an invitation to come to
his house that evening to look at photos. His collection was legendary.
I had registered at the MBSI convention and there were things I wanted to
do, but that evening I showed up at Charlie's house on 40th Avenue not too
far from the Cliff House. He let me in the side door of what he called the
basement. When I walked in the only sound you could hear was that of my
jaw hitting the concrete. I was surrounded by more coin operated pianos
than I had ever seen in one place in my life. I had no idea that Charlie
collected them, I just thought he was a "traction nut" like me. The
entire room was crammed with pianos and stacked on top of them, literally
to the ceiling, were rolls.
In the middle of all of this was Charlie's shop or workroom which contained
filing cabinets filled with railroad photos. We visited... but my interest
was in the pianos more than the railroad stuff, so we talked pianos, then
streetcars and more pianos. The telephone kept ringing and Charlie would
not answer it. After a while I asked him why. "Oh, there is a convention
in town of some group interested in music boxes, and those calls are
probably people wanting to come out and see this stuff. Now about that
obscure railroad that ran from San Jose to........." I had never told
Charlie why I was in town. When I told him, he asked me not to say
anything to anyone about him. I honored his request.
The next day some of the people at the convention asked me where I had been
the night before as I had missed part of the convention. I said nothing.
There was a display of automatic musical instruments in the hotel during
the convention, but I was seeing the biggest collection in the city. I
was back at Charlie's the next night and the next. The second night he
invited me to his shop on Balboa. I met him there the next morning, and
again the collection boggled the mind. I saw my first National Piano with
roll changer in that shop. It was Charlie's favorite and he had over 100
rolls for it. The Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina was also stored there. To
make a long story short, I missed the entire MBSI convention... the banquet,
the tours... everything. Several people commented that I had missed a
really good time. Little did they know.
Through the years there were more visits. Charlie was the most unselfish
person I have known in this business. When he found out that I had a bunch
of Peerless "O" rolls and nothing to play them on, he gave me a Peerless
tracker bar so I could build something to play those rolls. I have
drawings... excellent ones... that he made of the Seeburg "G" pipe chest, the
Nelson-Wiggin "folded" xylophone action and last but certainly not least,
drawings of the switcher that Nelson-Wiggin used in those "A" Roll pianos
that had both xylophones and orchestra bells. He loaned his rolls for
re-cutting, and a lot of what we have available today, came from Charles
When Charlie died, his collection was auctioned off by Butterfield and
Butterfield. The auction was held on August 25, 1987 and included all his
transit memorabilia, toys and cash registers. Lots 160-414, the mechanical
music stuff, were sold the next day. Since Charlie "tinkered" a lot, many
of the items had been separated from their respective instruments, and
those who attended were faced with the dilemma of a coin piano in one lot,
and its corresponding "innards" in another lot. I missed it... sorry to
say... but then again, I knew the kind, gentle and unselfish man that had
owned it all. Maybe it was best that way.