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Robert Heilbuth
Band Organ Maker Robert Heilbuth
of San Francisco
by Doran Wittelsbach (020309 MMDigest)

In response to the post regarding Robert Heilbuth by Glenn Thomas in 011126 MMDigest, here's some info.

Robert Heilbuth is a German-born composer and band organ builder, now in his 90s, and he is the most cantankerous fellow I have ever met -- the last of the great San Francisco eccentrics!

He has a hippie's disdain for grooming and social climbing, mixed with a punk rocker's energetic contempt for pretentiousness.  He composes music especially for the "Heilbuth Band Organ" -- music that is energetic, creative, catchy, astounding.  He punches out the tunes by hand on piano rolls.  Why is the composer Conlon Nancarrow the subject of so much attention, and Heilbuth isn't?

Before he retired, Heilbuth worked as a piano tuner.  He loves waltzes and polkas, especially those by ("Skater's Waltz" composer) Emil Waldteufel.  He has met members of the Waldteufel family.

Heilbuth's band organs and tracker action pipe organs look like a pile of random bits and pieces, and they sound better than any band organ I've ever heard.  There are some Wurlitzer bits in there, but he uses no tremolo -- he _hates_ tremolo.  Amazing recordings of Heilbuth's compositions have been made by Wayne Schotten.  See his web site at

When I lived in San Francisco I repeatedly tried to convince Heilbuth to allow these recording to be put out as a record.  He would have none of it!  He would adamantly state that he didn't care about becoming known to the general public, or the "Genital Pubic" as he would call them.  Too bad, because those tapes have some fabulous stuff.  The songs have great names like "Ass Kicking Polka."

Heilbuth is infamous for being gruff, even petulant.  The late Anton LaVey (another great San Francisco character who was an organ player and founder of the Church of Satan) loved to tell Heilbuth stories, like how he would determine the detail of pneumatic tubing by chewing on a piece of it.  He said the different types had different tastes.

Or how he was called to do a last minute piano tuning for a San Francisco society matron, at the woman's mansion, just as a fancy party was getting underway.  The hostess at the party asked Heilbuth discreetly if he would mind putting on a suit jacket before he tuned the piano.  Heilbuth replied, with his loud German accent: "Lady, I'm a piano tuner, not a Hollywood actor."

The Heilbuth organs are made from scratch.  As mentioned, some ranks are Wurlitzer, but some are one-of-a-kind creations such as the "Esophagophone" which -- you guessed it -- is named after the esophagus.  The drums and cymbals in the Heilbuth Band Organ came from some old high school marching band.

With a good deal of patience I was able to convince Heilbuth to let me video tape him and his band organ in action.  I did this on 03/19/94.  He was fairly unfamiliar with videotape, and asked me when it was going to be developed.  I explained that it recorded instantly, like audio cassettes.  He actually answered four or five questions in a somewhat friendly and patient manner.  He must have been a little under the weather that day!

I have sent along to MMD a photo attachment.  This is Heilbuth probably around 1993.  He is visiting my wife, tuning her Marxophone, with her dove, "Birdling", on his shoulder.

Heilbuth is an extremely talented composer and organ builder.  One thing I was surprised about is that he had never heard of artist-magician-organ builder-automaton maker Cecil Nixon, since Heilbuth was living in San Francisco in the 1950's and 60's when Nixon was there living his last days.  (Anton LaVey knew both of them.)  I am the author of the slim biography of Cecil Nixon, entitled "Isis and Beyond."

I hope that, one day, Heilbuth's recordings will be issued on disc!

Doran Wittelsbach, Vancouver, Washington
Date: Thu, 07 Mar 2002 21:32:38 -0800

heilbuth1.jpg (74 kb)

9 March 2002

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