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.