Friday, June 22, 2018

Carousel Organs

Two years ago, we stumbled upon the Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA)'s showcase in Princeton. It was a "Who knew" kind of moment. Every other year they hold this event at Knoebels Amusement Park, and the other every other year it is held someplace else. Don has been following them. 

This year it was held at Knoebels Amusement Park -- a free amusement park. I'll share more about that in my next post. 

Looking at their website, I see they have more than one rally a year, but one is their big rally. What we saw in August 2016 was the COAA Rally at Amica Convention. Yes, I am still confused.

Unlike the Princeton event, the one at Kennywood did not include a map. We were told by the first owner there were about 25 large mechanical organs, and 25-30 smaller ones. I wish I knew how they chose their spots. Some seemed more prime than others: shadier, more foot traffic, etc. Adding to the confusion is that Knoebels is host to several (two, three?) carousel organs, which is throwing off my ability to count.

Twice a day (at 1 pm and 4 pm) they had a presentation of hand organs -- ones that are portable. At the first

performance they had eight different organs (one was tied to another by the man in the top hat). Each owner spoke a bit, then played a song. The emcee told us how far they traveled (the furthest as 1197 miles). Songs ranged from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to "Dizzy Fingers." While walking around the park I heard a large one play "Mr. Sandman," and a handheld one play "La Foule" -- a favorite accordion piece of mine.

Cranky People Wanted sign
I ended up returning at 4 PM because Don was riding a roller coaster I didn't feel like riding. There was a different batch of eight hand organs for that performance. After the played a song, they went back and answered the question: "When did you first fall in love with mechanical instruments?" They all vividly remember either hearing a carousel organ (perhaps in Binghamton, or another city with many carousels) or knowing someone with a player piano. They then played a second song.

My favorite sign at the event was "Cranky People Wanted," because the hand held organs are hand-cranked.

At the half-way point in the concert three people came up and held a concertina concert. They have one sender and the rest are receivers (the day before there were five in total). These are even more portable. They wove their way through the audience.

They are a self-identified aging population. We spoke at length with Terry and Pat. They readily admit they do not know if they will return to Knoebels in two years. This loquacious couple had their carousel organ built to their specifications (yes, they are still being made). They wanted the case to be Craftsman style, and visible from all four sides. They are just charming. Finally Pat lovingly told her husband that "these nice people might want to see other organs."

There were a couple of repeats from Princeton.

Perhaps the oddest one was made a 1200 pound granite organ. As you can imagine, some holes took longer than others to drill.

Organs work on computers (like the one above), SD memory chips, pin wooden barrels (which are unique), and paper rolls (like the one below). The paper rolls are basically an early computer as they work on the binary system -- they either play a note or they don't. 1 or 0. My geeky friends' eyes are popping. My non-geeky ones still don't get it.

At the 1 PM concert, the emcee talked about the history of organ grinders, something Terry and Pat also shared with us. In the early 1900s people would rent them for a dollar a day and stroll around town playing music for tips. In those days for poor people to hear music was rare. You might hear it church, but most people did not have the exposure to it like was have today. In Gigi's interview she talked about following an organ grinder for blocks dancing to his music. It was a treat we cannot imagine now a day. Buskers would get to keep whatever they earned above their dollar investment. Disabled veterans of wars in Europe made money by playing these organs. 

It is hard not to smile when you hear a carousel organ or calliope. The COAA's 400 members consider theirs the "happiest music on earth."

As a parting shot, a few more pictures:

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