June 10, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Not far from the shores of Como Lake in St. Paul, about a half dozen mechanical music boxes play all at once as enthusiasts stand back and admire.
The term "music box" covers all types of automatic musical instruments, including coin-operated nickelodeons, violin-playing machines, monkey organs, and musical toys.
And then there's the Caliola machine.
Like many mechanical music boxes it's brightly painted. This particular machine is relatively young. It's only about 20 years old. Some of the others here are real antiques. They can cost anything from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.
Some sound big and booming, others play quietly, intended for more intimate surroundings. Some music boxes have wild paint jobs, covered with intricate detail. Many sport figurines, foot high people or wild animals who dance or play a tambourine or pound a tiny drum.
Fifty-year old Tracy Tolzman is a postal carrier from Sunrise, Minnesota. He stands by his 122 year old band organ.
"This particular band organ has this kind of grunting trombone line," he says. "There's only three pipes that play trombone, and it really pounds out that beat. And it's just the way the music is arranged. We call it happiest music on earth."
So, how does it work? Ask Tolzman and you get a complicated explanation involving hand cranks, springs, pumps, vacuums, valves, and pipes.
"The little kids are just absolutely fascinated by all that mechanical action on these organs," he says. "They see the bellows running or to see the drum pounding all by itself. They're pretty fascinated by it. And it is fascinating. And we've had plenty of adults asking us how in the world does this all work and how could they figure that out in 1883?"
The history of mechanical music boxes begins with... Swiss watches.
In the 1700s, watchmakers started putting chimes into clocks to mark the hour. Then somebody got the idea -- why not make the clocks play music? Eventually the clockmakers just got rid of the clocks, and by 1796, the music box was born.
The heyday for the mechanical music box was in the late 1800s.
St. Paul collector Richard Poppe's house is filled with a museum-like display of his boxes. He says his passion stems from childhood.
"My grandmother had two cylinder music boxes," he says." One of which was my great-grandmothers, because my great-grandfather had given her one and inscribed underneath is the date in the 1800s when he gave it to her. So as a small child, my grandmother would play those for me, and I've actually ended up with one of those myself."
A cylinder looks like a wooden corn on the cob. It spins slowly, powered by a clockwork motor. Tiny nubs on the cylinder pluck the teeth of a tuned metal comb. Each cylinder has eight to ten songs. A complete revolution produces one song, then it's on to the next. When the performance ends there's a satisfying "click."
The cylinder sits in a varnished wooden cabinet about the size of a bread box. Some mechanical music boxes can be large like pipe organs. Poppe has one small enough to fit in his hand. He cranks up a 3 by 2 inch box with a tiny bird inside. As it sings he talks about how each of these boxes is a work of art.
"They're visually stimulating. The Nickelodean's have stained glass, and lights behind them. The music boxes have the fancy exotic woods, but not only that the mechanisms are usually finely machined and works of art, in addition to the musical part, which is obviously very art," he says.
Poppe is a trustee with the Musical Box Society International. The Society is made up of collectors and enthusiasts. They set up museums, publish books and sponsor conventions and rallies all dedicated to mechanical music boxes.
They're trying to spread their love of music boxes to a new generation. And so they commissioned a film by Society member and local filmmaker Hayden Grooms. His film is called "Marvels of Mechanical Music." It mixes the collector's passion for mechanics and nostalgia.
"I just think they're a marvelous era in invention and in music that's kind of not been noticed by many people," Hayden says. "So I hope that people will understand the beauty of these machines and appreciate how they work. They're fascinating."
The film takes viewers on a tour through the world of identifying, playing, and collecting mechanical music boxes. Historians in the film describe the machines as the world's first computer. Grooms sheds light on how the machines work through 3-D animations. It's a peek into a world that Grooms hopes will entice others to embrace the collector's passion for music boxes.
"It really has the ability to take you back in time, and reminds you of how music used to be when the public used to go places and listen to these machines."