Musical Treasure Trove In Michigan
By Jayne I. Hanlin
Opened in May 1983, the Music House Museum, located just east of Traverse City, Michigan, has an extensive and impressive
collection of automated musical instruments.
The converted chicken house, granary, and dairy barn on the late 19th-century Stiffler farm display the unique items. Docents lead ninety-minute tours, detailing the history and describing the engineering of the rare instruments and then playing some. Listening to it is fascinating.
A chronological exhibit of phonographs begins with the work of Thomas Edison. Visitors
who choose self-guided tours can learn about the colorful morning glory horns as well as artistic phonograph cabinets and various old radios, including very early ones, in these galleries. Even a large wooden Nipper, the trademark for “His Master’s Voice” is there!
In my youth, I distinctly remember singing the words of the popular 1949 song Music! Music! Music! or Put Another Nickel In:
Put another nickel in In the nickelodeon
All I want is loving you And music, music, music.
At the time, I didn’t know what a nickelodeon was. Now I do! The origin of the word
comes from “nickel” and “odeon” (or theater entertainment). Often decorated with leaded- glass inserts, these elaborate mechanical organs had twenty-eight organ flute pipes on a mandolin rail that produce the iconic honky-tonk sound. Operated by punched paper rolls with multiple popular tunes, nickelodeons usually were leased rather than sold. One of the instruments in the museum’s authentic setting, the relocated Hurray Back Saloon formerly on East Front Street in Traverse City, had an extraordinary continuous 350-foot loop of perforated paper to play music selections
As a cellist, I was
especially interested in the 1925 Mills Violana, an automatic violin player with piano. Notes were played by spinning wheels instead of with a bow, and strings were mechanically picked up and plucked instead of pressed down with fingers. Charlie Mack, a very knowledgeable docent, challenged me to listen closely to the music and determine what else was so unusual about
its sound besides these aforementioned features. I correctly answered that I heard more than one violin;
he explained all four strings could be played simultaneously because this automated violin had a flat bridge whereas on a normal rounded bridge, string musicians can play only double stops.
Beginning in 1925, jukeboxes, which added singing and also enabled patrons to choose musical songs with coins, became popular, eventually replacing nickelodeons.
The oldest of the many music boxes in the collection is an 1884 roller organ that according to the invoice cost $6.74 plus seventy cents for shipping.
A church organ is limited to notes for preludes, hymns, and postludes; on the other hand, a theater organ can also produce colorful sounds like a police whistle, doorbell, telephone ring, horse hooves, siren, and a cow bell. During my visit, I gained an appreciation for theater organists of long ago. Each organist had to be familiar enough with the movie to be shown to be able to choose music and produce sounds that were in sync with the production on the screen. Sheet music scores did not exist for silent comedies. The music heard in different theaters was not identical.
It was very enjoyable to watch the last five minutes of The Battle of the Century, a hilarious film from 1927 starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, as one might see and hear it in a theater in bygone days. Apparently more than 3,000 cream pies — perhaps banana — were thrown in the filming of this silent comedy. The entertaining movie was accompanied by a CD recording with Dave Calendine, Chairman of the American Theatre Organ Society, playing the museum’s 1924 Wurlitzer organ — formerly in Detroit’s Cinderella Theatre. I wish I lived closer to this museum in order to attend its annual silent film series.
Near the organs was a player piano that can make twenty-six notes sound at once. The guide dramatically demonstrated that steadily pumping its pedals like an accelerator is not easy; he held on to the keyboard to prevent flying backwards off the bench.
The expensive 1925 Aeolian Duo Art Weber reproducing piano played a recording of soloist George Gershwin accompanying himself on the piano in the Andante movement from his Rhapsody in Blue. This instrument with dynamic range sounded realistic— quite unlike other automated predecessors. In the period before sound recordings became high quality, a recording like this one saved the sound of great pianists and composers of the day.
The gem of the museum is located on the upper level: a 1922 dance organ of Theofiel Mortier that is hand-carved from lime wood. Prominent in the original art deco portrait in a top panel of the proscenium (or façade) is his eldest daughter. Visitors who recognize the flower in her hair will understand why her father chose “Amaryllis” as the name for this gigantic instrument. At 32 feet wide and 18 feet tall, it misses the ceiling by a mere four inches!
A gift shop offers a selection of musical gifts and recordings on instruments in the collection.
Jayne I. Hanlin is an
initiate of Alpha Omicron
and current member of
the St. Louis Alumnae
chapter. Mrs. Hanlin,
the sister of famed pianist
Malcolm Frager, is the co-
author of Learning Latin Through
Mythology (Cambridge University Press, 1991).