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  • Poetry


Wherefrom come thou, Glock Frauenzimmer?

The path into spooky kitsch is littered with the shelly husks of corroded tin robots, while a soundtrack is played in REAL STEREO by a Regina Music Box endlessly performing from a cylinder alternately spun by the three norns of Americanum Fantasticum: Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and Philip K. Dick. It’s night time and the lighting from the Victorian chandeliers casts an odd glow on the often empty but now well populated Main Street . Suddenly, a parade pulls up, and Frank L. Baum takes you by the hand so you’re not crushed when a horde of monkeys on roller skates carrying the icons of the founding fathers and Lincoln, and their attendant whistling marchers glide past.

From More from the Gay Nineties Village Audio Fidelity Records, 1957:

So, you’ve never heard of a Wurlitzer Fascinator! You’ve never been to a county fair, an amusement park, or a circus? You’ve never wandered around the side shows looking at bearded ladies, strong men, flame eaters, or girl-slicing magicians? You’ve never sat beneath a big top and watched lithe-bodied acrobats swing to and fro defying fear and gravity? You’ve never seen the elephants dance or thirsty clowns pile out of an exploding Model-T? You’ve never seen the lions jump through hoops, seals balance balls, or dare-devil riders do somersaults over the backs of galloping horses? No? Then you’ve probably missed the reedy piping of the good old Fascinator as it puffed its mechanical heart out in accompaniment to children’s cries for popcorn and cotton candy.

On the other hand, if you’re a kid from way back who took any and every opportunity to run off to the fair or carnival, the sounds you will hear in this album will immediately place you in the show grounds of your childhood and surround you with a milling crowd of calico dresses and wide-brimmed straw hats. Over there is a man selling balloons and plastic pinwheels on a stick to hold up to the wind. And as the pinwheel turns, the wind brings with it animal smells from the barred wagons holding the ever-prowling lions and tigers, and of course, the monkeys, competing with each other in their antics to gain favor and peanuts from the kids straining to reach the bars.

The old Wurlitzer was there, quickening the pulse, the very heartbeat of the circus. Or if it wasn’t always a Wurlitzer, it was a Calliope or a Mortier Band Organ or a Regina Music Box or any one of the other nine mechanical music makers recorded in this album.

Like many things American, nickelodeons—and all these grand old instruments come under this definition—started in Europe. Perhaps the first was one built by Justinian Morse in England as early as 1731. Morse connected a rather complicated peg-studded board to the keys of an organ. It proved impractical and was abandoned. About the same time in Paris, however, a famous automaton maker named Vaucauson pierced a cylinder in such a way that when it was turned, it regulated the movement of needles to produce designs corresponding to the holes in the cylinder. No music came out of it, though some years later Jacquard incorporated Vaucauson’s cylinder principle into his new invention, the silk loom. Vaucauson’s contribution to what eventually evolved into music rolls were jointed pieces of cardboard folded in book form and pierced with holes which traced for the loom the pattern to be woven.

We hear next of nickelodeons being built in San Francisco and Chicago in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the period out of which came most of the instruments recorded in this album. They found homes in bars, saloons, cafes, railroad stations—anywhere that people congregated—as well as at fairs, carnivals, and circuses. Among them, the player piano became so popular that it found its way into private homes and many an evening was spent with the neighbors and friends standing ’round the piano, cranking ice cream freezers to make home-made ice cream, popping corn, pulling taffy, and bobbing for apples while the player rolled out Dark Town Strutters Ball just as you have it here.

From the player piano, we all know more or less how the nickelodeon evolved. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, still on the revolving paper cylinder principle. Then the cylinder was replaced by a disk, changing the function of the machine from the mechanical production of sounds through triggered pipes and cymbals to one of reproduction of sounds originally made by instruments having no connection whatsoever with the machine doing the reproducing. People have plopped nickels into jukeboxes for the Charleston, Cake-walk, Turkeytrot, Shimmy, Rhumba, Jitterbug, Bop, Twist, and now, their quarters (economic inflation along with mechanical evolution) go into the Scopitone for the Fish and the Watusi. At the moment all of the songs are in French, since it was the Gauls who invented and manufacture the machine, but the “listeners” hardly feel cheated since in addition to hearing the song, they get to see it performed in color on a screen attached to the top of the “jukebox.” What next?

In the meantime, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Moonlight and Roses, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Marching Through Georgia, Whistling Rag, and How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm will regress you back to the good old days of bare feet, faded jeans and freckles, when your idea of adventure was playing hooky to see the circus—and for much less than the cost of an analyst!

THIS RECORDING was made at Paul Eakins’ Gay Nineties Village, one of the most unique amusement areas in the United States, in Sikeston, Missouri. The Village was built by Paul Eakins, a mechanical engineer who “retired” from the plumbing and heating business to devote himself to his hobby of collecting and repairing nickelodeons. The hobby grew from a preoccupation into a full-time occupation. The Village now houses the world’s largest collection of nickelodeons from all parts of the United States and twenty foreign countries. The smallest instrument stands three feet wide and five feet high. The largest is eight feet high, weighs 1,800 pounds and contains a piano; mandolin; 17 viola pipes; 21 violin pipes; 38 flute pipes; xylophone, drums—kettle, bass, and snare; triangle, castanets, and cymbals.

[More information on Paul Eakins and the Gay 90s Village can be found here, at the site of his gradson Chris Carlisle. (Warning: javascript intense). My first Eakins album that I found whilst thrifting, is located here and is recommended.]


About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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