Rich Olsen

Shortly after my recent entry on this blog about the late band organ music arranger Ralph Tussing, I learned of the passing of a modern-day master of the craft, Rich Olsen.

Rich had been a drummer for various bands, and his band organ arrangements certainly disproved the stereotype that drummers aren’t real musicians. Wurlitzer 165 music impresario Matthew Caulfield first learned of Rich when he discovered Rich’s website in 2004. It featured some of Rich’s MIDI arrangements of lost Wurlitzer 165 tunes, played through sound samples so they sounded like they were playing on a real band organ. Rich would come to be called a reincarnated Wurlitzer arranger, and he absolutely was that.

Matthew envisioned actual paper rolls of Rich’s work, and after a collaboration between the two, “Richie Poor’s Debut Roll” was released in 2007 (Richie Poor being Rich’s pseudonym; subsequent rolls would carry his actual name). Now, just six years later, there are 22 Wurlitzer 165 rolls arranged by Rich, all produced in quantity and being enjoyed on band organs public and private all over the country. He also arranged several rolls for Style 150 and Style 125 organs, along with custom, MIDI-only work for individuals and arrangements for some other types of mechanical musical instruments as well.

Working completely by ear, never using sheet music, Rich was adept at arranging anything from a 19th-century waltz to a 1960s tune. He was equally gifted whether arranging in the Wurlitzer style or in his own style. The new rolls he arranged were the latter and really got the most out of the organs for which they were created. His arrangements of tunes from lost Style 165 rolls have not been put to paper (though they can be played on MIDI-equipped 165 organs), but those that were reconstructions of lost tunes from existing rolls have been cut and added to those rolls, and they blend in so seamlessly that no one would know the rolls were not entirely the work of period Wurlitzer arrangers.

Rich was described by those who knew him as a good friend who was always humble and self-deprecating. He continued to arrange prolifically even as he battled serious health problems over the last couple of years. Still, his passing was unexpected, and it is quite sad to realize that there will be no more new music from him. The band organ world has lost a tremendous talent, a true “virtuoso,” as Matthew Caulfield aptly called him, but the hugely impressive body of work Rich leaves behind ensures that he will never be forgotten.

One Man Saved Band Organ Music For America

This is my first entry here in two years (hopefully the next interval will be shorter), and while the assertion made by the title may be difficult to prove, I would argue that it’s hard to overstate the importance of the contribution of one Ralph Tussing to the preservation of carousel music in America.

To a lover of American band organ music such as myself, rolls arranged and produced by Ralph Tussing (TRT Manufacturing Co.) seem to be largely overlooked. I happen to think that many tunes Tussing chose for his rolls are quite catchy and that the arrangements are very creative and make good use of the organs for which they were arranged. He came from a musical family, and listening to his work, it’s clear that this man knew what he was doing. (Tussing did continue the practice started by Wurlitzer in 1934 of repeating most or all of a tune to stretch the length of the overall roll, but this repetition was lessened by the recutting of his, and their, six-tune rolls as 12-tune composites.) Whatever one’s opinion about the music, though, the fact is that many of the vintage band organs that survive today are probably still around, in part, due to the work of Ralph Tussing.

The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, king of the American band organ industry, made their last band organ rolls in 1945 in North Tonawanda, New York. The nearby Allan Herschell Co. (the largest producer of carousels and other amusement rides) bought the roll-making equipment but, for reasons unknown, only produced two Style 150 rolls and one Style 165 roll (and no Style 125 rolls). From there, the equipment went to Ralph Tussing, also of North Tonawanda. (He likely arranged the three Herschell rolls, and according to legend, he retrieved the equipment from the dump!) While it discounts the small Herschell contribution, it can be accurately stated that Tussing picked up right where Wurlitzer left off in arranging popular tunes of the day to be enjoyed by carousel riders all over the country. (One of Wurlitzer’s last rolls included the tune “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” from the 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” while one of Tussing’s first rolls included the popular 1946 tune “Seems Like Old Times.”)

Tussing worked alone in his North Tonawanda shop, and while the frequency of his roll output decreased in later years (much like Wurlitzer’s roll production slowed in theirs), Tussing made it possible for fresh music to be played on band organs well into the 1960s. It is not known for certain when his last Style 125 and Style 150 rolls were made, but his final Style 165 roll was released in 1967. Some of his last rolls included such popular 1960s tunes as “We Can Work It Out,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Guantanamera.” (Tussing died in 1974.)

Had Tussing not done the work he did, many carousel organs that played his then-new rolls may very well have otherwise gone silent due to a lack of any rolls that could be played. Fragile paper music rolls subjected to heavy commercial use would tear easily, and many were discarded. When Tussing started producing rolls, many of the old Wurlitzer originals had been played until they couldn’t be played any more, and the idea of recutting Wurlitzer rolls was only in its infancy around the time that Tussing ceased his own roll operation. A band organ with no music to play would have had little value to a carousel owner or carnival operator, and without the continuing supply of music furnished by Ralph Tussing, many organs that are beloved today (whether Wurlitzers or ones converted to Wurlitzer rolls) would probably have gone to the trash heap. While opinions may differ on the music contained in his rolls, that’s the true value of his work.

One City, Nine-Plus Carousels

The City of New York is home to more hand-carved wooden carousels than any other city in the United States. This is not necessarily because New York is the most populous city in the country. It is due more to the fact that many of the merry-go-rounds in the city limits were built there and never left, though some moved within the city.

During the Golden Age of carousels, three distinct styles emerged. Coney Island Style carousels are so named because the firms that produced them were in, or near, Coney Island, Brooklyn. (This is also how the Philadelphia Style got its name. The Country Fair Style created mostly traveling machines built by the various incarnations of the Herschell and Spillman companies in North Tonawanda, New York, and by C. W. Parker in Abilene and then Leavenworth, Kansas.) In the early part of the 20th century, Brooklyn was home to carousel builders Charles Looff, Charles Carmel, Marcus Illions, and Stein & Goldstein. Today, carousels produced by these firms are quite rare — and works by Carmel, Illions, and Stein & Goldstein still spin within the City of New York. There are also machines by Philadelphia builders Daniel Muller and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (the third major builder in that city was Gustav Dentzel, succeeded by his son William), and there are three modern-built wooden carousels in the city, as well.

Central Park Carousel

Probably the most-ridden carousel in the city (and still the only one I have seen myself) is the one in Manhattan’s Central Park. The recently restored machine was built by Stein & Goldstein and originally ran in Coney Island, where as many as two dozen carousels once spun. It came to Central Park in the early 1950s to replace an earlier machine lost in a fire. Its outside-row horses are the largest on any carousel in America. Musical accompaniment is provided by a German Ruth band organ converted to Wurlitzer style 150 rolls. (Look up “central park carousel” on YouTube and there are several videos with the organ playing the ’60s-and-’70s roll featuring “Do You Know The Way To San Jose,” “Downtown,” “Georgy Girl,” et al.)

Prospect Park in Brooklyn is home to a carousel carved by Charles Carmel. This machine, which also came from Coney Island, is in a building that is a twin to the one in Central Park. The Prospect Park carousel was shuttered for years; during this time it was featured in the Woody Allen movie “The Purple Rose Of Cairo.” It reopened in 1990 after being completely restored, and was later featured in the movie “I’m Not Rappaport.” Music is provided by a classic Wurlitzer 153 band organ.

Not currently operating is the last remaining classic carousel in Coney Island. The B&B Carousell came back to its borough of origin in 1932. Built by Charles Carmel, it was accompanied by an equally rare Gebruder Brüder “Elite Orchestra Apollo” band organ converted to 66-key B.A.B. rolls. The carousel was headed for the auction block in 2005 and could have been broken up, but the City Of New York stepped in and bought it. (There was speculation that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, quite the philanthropist, gave some of the funds.) Had the carousel been sold piecemeal or even just to another location, it would have been a tremendous loss to the carousel world, and to lovers of Americana in general (as Coney Island would have lost its last wooden carousel). The machine is being restored and hopefully will be spinning again at Coney in the near future.

Two carousels from Coney Island were combined to create one for the 1964 World’s Fair, and that machine still turns at the fair site in Flushing Meadows / Corona Park, Queens, though it has been in serious need of restoration for some time. Its horses were carved by Marcus Illions. The band organ in the center, which has not been operable for years, is an exceptionally rare 80-key Gebruder Brüder “Elite Orchestra Apollo” converted to rolls (87-key B.A.B. on one roll frame, Wurlitzer 165 on the other).

Also in Queens is the hidden gem that is the Forest Park carousel, a restored beauty with horses carved by Daniel Muller. This machine, which came from a park in Massachusetts in 1971, is one of the few with a two-level platform (the jumping horses being elevated slightly from the stationary outside row). There is a Ruth band organ (I do not believe it is operable) which is smaller than the one at Central Park, but also was converted to Wurlitzer 150 rolls.

Last but certainly not least of the city’s historic carousels is one that just returned to operation recently. After a gradual, painstaking restoration, Philadelphia Toboggan Co. carousel #61 now spins at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Its new building, an acrylic box, is anything but traditional. The carousel last carried riders at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio, which closed in 1984. Recorded music is now used; the carousel’s original Wurlitzer 153 band organ now plays for visitors at DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, Pennsylvania.

There are three recently-built wooden carousels in the city, all of them created by the Carousel Works of Mansfield, Ohio. The traditionally-styled carousel at Willowbrook Park in Staten Island opened in 1997 and is accompanied by a Stinson band organ that plays by MIDI. There is a nautical-themed carousel at Pier 62 in Manhattan, and on the Bug Carousel at the Bronx Zoo, built in 2005, all of the figures are insects! Also worth mentioning is a nice, small fiberglass carousel that has been turning since 2002 in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. (Go to Coney Island at any given time and you will probably find a not-particularly-noteworthy fiberglass carousel running among some other amusement rides there.)

It would probably be safe to say that the City of New York has something for every taste. With six historic carousels and three modern ones, all hand-carved, it certainly has a lot to offer the merry-go-round lover!

Carousels And Recorded Music

There’s an ad in a carousel magazine (actually the carousel magazine) for “merry-go-round music the way it should be.” It’s not an ad for band organs, though, and it’s not for music rolls or MIDI files to play on them, either. It is, in fact, advertising a sound system. It’s kind of a sad commentary on the state of music for carousels today, since for a majority of carousels, that’s where the music comes from — speakers. Some carousels have organs that aren’t playable. Others have ones that are in good playing condition but just aren’t played. Add the two up and, well, that’s most of the carousel organs out there.

Seriously?

Hearing recorded music at a carousel is nothing new. In the late 1940s, the Allan Herschell Company, then the world’s largest builder of carousels, marketed the “Merri-Org,” which they touted as the “successor to the band organ.” This was a 78-rpm record player with an amplifier and speakers, housed in an Art Deco-styled cabinet. They sold their own records for it, made from a band organ of unknown origin playing Wurlitzer 165 rolls. (Later, Baptist Sound and Manufacturing Co. marketed a similar setup using a reel-to-reel tape player. They also sold their own recordings.)

The difference between then and now, though, is that when recorded music first started to take the place of real band organs, there was actually a need for it. Many carousel organs were on their last legs because no one was around who could repair them, and replacement parts were not available. That is not the case now. There are highly qualified companies and individuals who can get an organ playing like new again. Today, the only legitimate reason a for carousel organ to sit silent is money, and even that reason is not always legitimate. Some carousels are run solely by volunteers, and the money to get an organ playing again might just not be there. A carousel in a corporate-owned theme park might have an organ that’s not playable because getting it playing again won’t make the company any more money, plain and simple, so they won’t allocate any funds for it at all.

Then there is the reason an organ sits silent that is not at all legitimate — choice. I’m referring, of course, to organs that are perfectly playable but don’t get used because carousel employees don’t like them or think they are “too loud.” I have written at length about this subject over the past several years, mainly to the local parks department about their very spotty record of playing the restored band organ at Ontario Beach Park. To quote myself, “Without the real organ music, a crucial element of the carousel is missing and the experience is lacking.” I also wrote, “I have seen firsthand how a carousel and a band organ can, in concert, lift people’s spirits and provide an escape from the worries of everyday life, but for this to be accomplished, both elements must be present.” A CD of the Ontario Beach organ was produced for the carousel’s 100th anniversary in 2005, and the liner notes read, in part, “What would this treasured carousel be without bold music to accompany the ride?”

While I believe that employee selfishness is the main reason many playable organs do not get played, I realize that some of the complaints about the volume of band organs have, in fact, come from the public. It baffles me that anyone would consider a playing carousel organ to be an assault on their hearing. There is simply no way these kinds of complaints were lodged in the 1910s-1920s. The organs are no different now, so it must be the people who are different. Is it because people back then recognized the tunes the organs played? Would it improve the situation today if they played more modern music (of which there must be some that could translate fairly well to carousel organs)?

If there’s an optimistic note on which to end this post, it’s that there are certain carousels we can be assured will always have real organ music, whose owners would not have it any other way. Seabreeze and Knoebels, both family-owned amusement parks, come to mind. (Knoebels even keeps a stable of back-up organs.) But the fact is that it’s kind of a rarity to hear real band organ music at carousels these days, and I worry that it will be an experience which fewer and fewer people have, as we get farther and farther from the time when the tunes that band organs play, and mechanical music in general, were popular.

merry-go-round music the way it should be (Ontario Beach Park)

Two Carousels, Six Band Organs

Playland Carousel (San Francisco), three organs visible, 1949

During the heyday of carousels in America, it was not uncommon for a carousel to have more than one band organ. Some of the grandest carousels had three, even four, organs. These days, you’re lucky if you’re riding a carousel that has an organ at all (that gets played). Unlikely as it may seem, there are two carousels in the U.S. that each have three band organs. And, in both cases, all three actually get played! (One at a time, of course.) Additionally, the two carousels are among the few where you can still reach for the brass ring.

Knoebels (“where the K isn’t silent”) is a historic, family-owned amusement park in central Pennsylvania. The Knoebel family knows the importance of the carousel and of real band organ music. In fact, the park has two carousels, and on a regular day there you can hear up to five band organs, three of which are on one carousel! The Grand Carousel features horses hand-carved by Charles Carmel, one of the most celebrated carousel carvers. Carmel’s horses have been said to have the perfect blend of fantasy and realism.

The three band organs are played on a rotating basis. Two of them face the carousel. The Frati organ was made in Germany in 1888 and originally played pinned cylinders, like a music box plays, only much larger. In the 1920s it was converted to play 61-key paper rolls by the Artizan Factories. Today it is the only carousel organ anywhere that plays this particular roll scale (and the arrangements unique to the scale). This organ is very large; one wonders why it was not converted to a larger roll scale such as the 87-key scale (also rarely heard).

The Berni organ, also German, was built by Gebrüder Bruder in 1907. (Louis Berni, the “Band Organ King,” sold organs, mostly imported ones, with his name on them.) Until recent years this was one of the very last carousel organs in the country that still played by the old European system of folding cardboard books (which unfold before going through the keyframe, then fold back up again). The same music is now played on the organ via a MIDI system.

Finally, in the center of the carousel is a third organ, a Wilhelm Bruder Söhne model 79 (also German) which was converted to play Wurlitzer style 125 rolls. This is the only 125 roll-playing organ I know of that has two roll frames rather than one. Amazingly, this organ was only added to the carousel around 2000 or so. It is virtually unprecedented in modern times for an organ to be added to a carousel that already had one — and this carousel already had two!

Also at Knoebels is the Kiddieland Carousel (though it’s not just for kids), which has horses carved by Stein & Goldstein and is accompanied by a Gebrüder Bruder organ that Wurlitzer converted from cardboard books to pinned cylinders (barrels), then several years later to style 150 rolls. This organ sat silent in storage for decades before being totally rebuilt in the 1980s. It is a very sweet-sounding band organ!

Across from the Phoenix roller coaster at Knoebels is the only American-built organ of the five that play for the public. (The park also owns at least four other organs.) This organ was built by the firm of Eugene DeKleist, Wurlitzer’s predecessor, in 1907 as a barrel organ before being converted at the Wurlitzer factory to style 165 rolls (my favorite band organ music). This organ is a stand-alone attraction and plays all day, every day the park is open. Knoebels is also home to a very nice carousel museum.

The other carousel with three band organs is clear across the country. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California is a historic amusement park that features a carousel hand-carved in 1911 by Charles Looff. Some of its horses were added from a Looff carousel that spun at Belmont Park, San Diego, before being broken up. The carousel’s original organ is an A. Ruth & Sohn (German) which originally played book music before being converted to Wurlitzer style 165 rolls. It now plays 96-key, Ruth 38-scale music via a MIDI system, having been recently restored by the Stinson Band Organ Company, who fitted it with a Stinson 2000-series façade (the original front was supposedly lost long ago).

In 2007, one of the eleven surviving Wurlitzer 165 band organs was added to the carousel. (The only other one that plays for a carousel is near Washington, D.C., in Glen Echo, Maryland.) This one was built in 1918 and originally accompanied another Looff carousel, at San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach, until that park closed in 1972. It’s the only Wurlitzer 165 that has ever gone back to playing for a carousel after being in private hands. (The former Playland carousel is now spinning again in San Francisco, but with no band organ. When it was at Playland, it reportedly had at least five organs at one time!) Like the Ruth organ, the 165 was restored by the Stinson Band Organ Co., who added a MIDI system. Reportedly, some time after the organ was installed at the Boardwalk, the original roll frames were removed and put in storage. (I strongly disapprove of this action. It is one thing for roll frames to go unused in favor of a MIDI system, but they should not be removed, particularly from an original 165!)

Just recently, a Wurlitzer 146-A band organ was also added to the carousel. This organ has reportedly been in the park’s possession for years as a backup organ, but it now has a place of honor facing the carousel along with the larger 165 and even larger Ruth. The 146-A is freshly restored, also by Stinson, I believe, who added MIDI to it as well, I assume. (I should note that all three organs, unfortunately, play behind glass due to an absurd California law over-regulating decibel levels at amusement parks.) Just as it was pretty unprecedented for a third organ to be added to a carousel, in the case of Knoebels, it is quite unprecedented for two to be added, in the case of Santa Cruz.

So, if you find yourself at Knoebels or in Santa Cruz, take a few spins on one of these carousels, hear up to three band organs, and try to catch a brass ring. Riding on one of these magical machines is like stepping back in time.

http://www.knoebels.com

http://www.beachboardwalk.com

American Treasure Tour

Just outside of Philadelphia, there is a large collection of band organs now accessible to the public as the “American Treasure Tour.” After wanting for years to see this collection in-person, I had the opportunity to do so this July, a friend and I having been invited for a private tour along with several other band organ buffs.

There are at least 30 band organs in this collection, all of them owned by one person. I’m not very clear on how the man made his money, but I do like how he spends it. The organs are kept on the second floor of a nondescript, unmarked building in a sort of industrial park. Incidentally, I’ve never had more trouble finding a place than we had finding this building. Conversely, no other place that’s been hard to find has been so worth the trouble.

Experiencing this collection is overwhelming, in a good way. The building itself is nothing fancy, as it was originally some sort of factory, I believe, but it is filled with thousands of fascinating objects. If you’ve ever been to the Artisan Works in Rochester, it’s a bit like that — only in this case, many of the objects are band organs! In addition to the main attractions (the organs), the space is filled with hundreds of old animated store displays (automatons) and vintage advertising signs. The collection also includes dozens of old cars, many of which we saw in a separate building that is not part of the regular tour, and all in “as-found” condition (my favorites were two Cadillacs, a circa 1956 and a 1960). There is also the “Nickelodeon Room,” containing over 100 automatic instruments, mostly player pianos and nickelodeons, including several rare examples.

The organ collection is quite varied, from the smallest Wurlitzer (a style 50) to a Mortier dance hall organ that dwarfs the quite large Wurlitzer next to it (a style 165 with a 157 front). If it’s rare, there’s probably an example of it in this collection. The only surviving Wurlitzer style 164 band organ is here. Any band organ made by the Artizan Factories is pretty rare, and there are several of them here, including the large Style D, of which only 5 or 6 exist. The one here came from the carousel at Ontario Beach Park in Rochester, having been sold to an early collector by the carousel concessionaire — without permission!

Most fans of American carousel organs, myself included, would say that the Wurlitzer style 165 is the holy grail. The organ that was lost in the Seabreeze carousel fire in 1994 was a style 165. Only eleven of them now exist. Two play at carousels and one is in a museum. The other eight are in collections — and three of those are here! The one with the 157 front (it came that way from the factory) used to play for the carousel at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The other two were brought back to life from piles of parts, one completed in 1994, the other just recently. Now they are next to each other — truly a sight to behold. And their sound is like no other.

Spending time with this collection was like spending a few hours in band organ heaven — and the private tour we got was far superior to the regular public tram tour. Whereas visitors on a tram tour hear each organ for maybe 30 seconds or so, we were able to hear several tunes from our favorite ones, and we were even trusted to go up to and behind the organs and snap whatever pictures we wanted; I took about 150. (And although usually there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we got one here.)  For a lover of band organs, especially the Wurlitzer 165, seeing this collection was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Here is the web site for the collection: http://americantreasuretour.com

Most of the videos on this YouTube channel are of instruments in the collection: http://www.youtube.com/wurly164

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