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MMD > Archives > March 2008 > 2008.03.13 > 02Prev  Next

Organ Grinder in 1950s Philadelphia
By Brad Hunter

The posting about the organ grinder in a poem reminds me of what was
possibly the last active organ grinder in Philadelphia.  In the
mid-1950s when I was just a two or three-year-old toddler my mother
and I used to visit a popular shopping district at 5th & Olney in
Philadelphia.  One day we heard very unusual and happy music coming
from the corner down the street.  Mother grabbed my hand and rushed
me down the street to see the "organ grinder."

On the corner was an old man in his 80s dressed in a very old and worn
ethnic costume of black pants, a highly stitched and decorated red
shirt, black decorated vest, and a funny hat.  He had a large handlebar
moustache and he spoke little if any English.  On his shoulder was
a small monkey with a similar hat and a collar with a long string tied
to it; the other end was fastened to the man's belt.

The organ was a small beat-up box unit carried by a wide leather belt.
He propped the organ on a post and held it with one arm while he cranked
the organ with the other hand.  He had a small metal cup on the ground
by his feet.  As a child I had never seen, or heard, such a sight.  The
"organ grinder" was cranking this colorful box which produced loud
wonderful happy music like nothing I had ever heard!  Mother handed me
a nickel and said, "Hold out your hand and give it to the monkey."

As I stood there with my hand out, the monkey with lightning speed
jumped from the man's shoulder, rushed over to me and grabbed the
nickel from my hand and dropped it in the metal cup.  It then quickly
tipped it's hat and showed it teeth, all this just one foot from me.
This scared the living daylights out of me -- the monkey moved at three
or four times normal human speed!  The organ grinder just smiled and
kept on cranking, and nodding his head at my mother for the nickel

We saw this organ grinder three or four times over the next few years,
and then never again.  My mother said that he had been around for many
years.  I suspect that he was one of the very last original authentic
street organ grinders still active in Philadelphia in the 1950s.

As a child Mom's parents owned a bakery store on a corner in
Philadelphia.  She told me about the "hurdy gurdy man" that used to
stop on their corner on a regular basis when she was my age, two to
four years old.  The "hurdy gurdy," as she called it, was a large
rectangular box on a wooden cart, in reality possibly a street organ
or piano.

The man had his wife push the cart up and down the street and crank it
while he collected all the money!  My mom thought it very funny that
his wife did all the hard work pushing and cranking to make the music,
while he just walked alongside of her collecting the money!

They were said to be a regular sight on their corner for many years,
all year 'round.  This was in the 1915-1930 era.  They were said to
always draw small crowds of children as well as adults.

Brad Hunter

(Message sent Thu 13 Mar 2008, 18:14:50 GMT, from time zone GMT-0700.)

Key Words in Subject:  1950s, Grinder, Organ, Philadelphia

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