A primary goal of AMICA as stated in our Bylaws is “to encourage the restoration of automatic musical instruments to a condition consistent with the original intent of their manufacturers.” With this in mind, one of our Founding Members, Richard Reutlinger, proposed an “Adopt-A-Piano” campaign to help finance restoration of one or more automatic pianos that are displayed where the general public may see and hear them play. With greater public exposure, we hope to stimulate more people to become interested in these musical treasures and perhaps become members of AMICA.
The Significance of Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana
Richard Reutlinger originally had the idea for AMICA to restore an instrument for the Bovey Collection in Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana. What is the significance of these towns, and why did Richard and AMICA board members consider this to be a good location for the project?
Virginia City, Montana saw one of the largest discoveries of placer gold the world has ever known—yielding over 100 million dollars in $16 per ounce gold. Organized as a permanent city in 1863, it never suffered a major fire, and the first building still stands today! Virginia City was the second capital of the Montana Territory, from 1865 to 1876.
Charles and Sue Bovey, preservationists originally from Great Falls, Montana, discovered Virginia City in the early 1940s, and began acquiring many of the historic buildings and their original contents, opening them for display at no charge to the public. Inspired by Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, they also began collecting historic buildings from other places in Montana to save them from destruction, first reassembling them in their “Old Town” in the Montana State Fairgrounds in Great Falls, and later moving them to Nevada City, two miles down the highway from Virginia City. Over the years these treasures were joined by dozens of other historic buildings and furnished with tens of thousands of antiques.
When the media called Virginia City “The Colonial Williamsburg of the West,” Bovey quipped “we prefer to think of Williamsburg as the Virginia City of the East.” To this day it remains a unique spot in the western United States. Driving into Virginia City is nothing short of taking a time machine back to the old West gold rush days. Relaxing on the balcony of the Fairweather Inn, one needs very little imagination to become part of the 19th century, if only for a few hours.
One of America’s Largest Public Collections of Automatic Instruments
Virginia City never became a ghost town, so antiques from the 1860s all the way through the 1920s were considered to be authentic furnishings, and Charlie began assembling a major collection of coin pianos, orchestrions and band organs. The Butte Piano Co. of Butte, Montana was a major distributor of Seeburg, Mills and Coinola instruments, so many of Bovey’s finds came from the surrounding area. He later acquired most of the assets of the Molinari company, maker of barrel organs and pianos, and the B.A.B. Organ Co. (both of Brooklyn, New York) including seven band organs, many rolls and tools, which he moved into the Nevada City Music Hall. With this acquisition, the music collection became one of the largest publicly displayed orchestrion and band organ collections in the United States, located in one of the largest groups of preserved buildings in the entire West.
Ozzie Wurdeman and his family spent their summers at the Bovey Restorations maintaining the instruments from the early 1950s through 1972; Art Reblitz continued this work from 1973 through 1979; and the late Curt Baarley spent time there in the 1980s and 1990s.
Charlie Bovey died in 1978, followed by Sue in 1988. Through their son Ford’s and curator John D. Ellingsen’s years of nonstop effort, the state of Montana bought the Bovey Restoration properties in 1997. Although many of the orchestrions were damaged in a terrible fire at the Bale of Hay Saloon in the 1980s, many others and most of the band organs remain on display, although many now are in need of repairs.
Many of today’s enthusiasts and collectors first became interested when they saw music machines in a public display, including one of AMICA’s founding members, Richard Reutlinger. The following is his description of his experience at the Bovey Restoration and why he suggested it as an ideal location for AMICA to “Adopt-A-Piano”:
“I first knew Virginia City in 1956 when I was working in Yellowstone Park for the summer. We would hitchhike the 75 or so miles on weekends to enjoy the musical instruments and see the melodramas at the Opera House. My first experience with a Photoplayer was the large Cremona in the Opera House and I vowed, one day, I would have one.
“As with most states today, Montana faces economic problems and the expense of maintaining the whole collection of buildings and artifacts makes the preventative and ongoing maintenance of the musical collection far down the list.”
80,000 Visitors a Year—Great Publicity for Automatic Instruments!
Richard Reutlinger continues: “I’ve been going to Virginia City every summer for the past ten years enjoying the Montana countryside, the friendly people, the theater, and musical instrument collection. The Music Hall in Nevada City still attracts a large number of tourists—estimated at 80,000 per year from all over the country—and I watch their initial enthusiasm for the instruments fade as many barely wheeze out a tune. I began to think some help in restoration of this very public collection would be a good way for AMICA to fulfill one of its major goals of restoring mechanical instruments and help educate the public to the joys of these wonderful instruments.”
Why the Wurlitzer DX Orchestrion?
During the 1920s there were at least five roadhouses on the highway from Butte toward Virginia City, originally named the “One Mile Inn,” “Two Mile Inn,” etc. The “Five Mile Inn” was a Wurlitzer distributor, and the building is still there today.
An old story said it still contained two “new old stock” Wurlitzer Automatic Harps, two Wurlitzer DX orchestrions and many parts and music rolls in the 1950s. Charlie Bovey tried to buy them but the owner thought the offer was too low, so Ozzie Wurdeman later went there to buy them as Charlie’s agent.
Ozzie succeeded in buying the harps and DX pianos, and removed them with the help of AMICAN Doug Mussell’s father and his pickup truck. Charlie gave one DX and one Harp to Ozzie as a commission and kept the others, installing the DX in the Nevada City Music Hall and the Automatic Harp first in the Bale of Hay Saloon, and later in the Wells Fargo Coffee House where it remains today. The harp indeed appeared to be new and played quite well, but the DX no longer played. It sat on display but unplayable in the Music Hall until 2006. (Ozzie sold his DX to Mussell, and when the Mussell Collection was recently acquired by AMICAN Ed Kraus, the DX was still there and still playing reasonably well. Ozzie sold the second Wurlitzer Automatic Harp to Steve Radjenovitch of Minneapolis; its whereabouts today are unknown. In the 1980s, the late George Baker was able to purchase the remaining Wurlitzer parts and music rolls from the Five Mile Inn, selling some large PianOrchestra lamps and other misc. parts to collectors in the Chicago area.)
While I worked for the collection in the 1970s I never heard the DX play and always thought it would be worthy of restoration. With other orchestrions lost in the Bale of Hay fire, it is even more important now as one of the few orchestrions with pipes—and the only one with a roll changer—in the collection. I thought it was still in pristine unrestored collection inside, and that it probably needed only recovering of the pneumatics and bellows and replacing of tubing and hoses, compared to some of the band organs, which needed substantially more work. Because it has pretty stained glass and hanging lamps, pipes and a cast iron roll changer with no pot metal parts, I suggested that it would be an ideal candidate for the first Adopt-A-Piano project.
The DX was delivered to our shop in Colorado Springs on January 17th, 2006, by Jack Frost, the Montana Heritage Commission’s Chief of Maintenance at Virginia City and Nevada City. When I removed the fronts from the cabinet, two things took me by surprise: the amount of mouse damage, and the amount of wear to the piano. Unfortunately, since I had last seen it in 2001, it had become the habitat for a large family of mice, and now housed an accumulation of nest material, skeletons, droppings, and rat poison that filled two large trash bags. Also, the piano had been played so much before Charlie Bovey acquired it that the hammers were worn out, the stack valves were caked with coal dust, and the pump leather had holes in the folds. The tuning pins were also loose. The job would take longer than anticipated.
The accompanying restoration photos includes those showing the various phases of the restoration, including a few “before” pictures of the piano, mouse damage, restringing the piano, installing the new hammers, restoring the pneumatic stack, pump, pipe chest and gear standard, reassembling the piano, and the completed job. To see the caption for each picture, hover over it with your mouse.
The decision was made to operate the DX on
50 cents per play instead of the original nickel, so a new Monarch coin
mechanism was purchased and installed on a pedestal next to the piano. This
has a push-pull coin chute that can be adjusted to take from one to eight
quarters, allowing the cost to be adjusted in future years if warranted by
inflation. As a side benefit, in the unlikely event that anyone tries to steal
the money, they won’t break into the piano. The Monarch mechanism was made by
Monarch Tool and Die, the same company that supplied coin accumulator
mechanisms to many of the coin piano companies in the old days.
Dave Ramey Memorial
Dave Ramey—a fine restorer of orchestrions for fifty years, builder of numerous Encore Banjo replicas and new Ramey Banjo-Orchestras, and friend to many collectors all over the country—passed away on July 21, 2006. Several of his close friends in Chicago suggested that an additional contribution be made to the Adopt-A-Piano project in Dave’s memory as a lasting tribute to his work. We are proud to dedicate the completed restoration to his memory.
Larry Emmons and Tom Zook, members of the AMICA Rocky Mountain Chapter from Wyoming, picked up the completed piano on October 20, 2006, and Larry returned it to the Nevada City Music Hall on October 23. Larry and Nevada City staff members unloaded it and set it up immediately inside the front door of the Music Hall, next to a Mills Single Violano. The stained glass windows, which had been removed from the piano for safekeeping in Montana, were installed, and the coin box was placed on its pedestal next to the piano.
Our current President, John Motto-Ros, contributed a beautiful new display rack mounted on a pedestal with a fancy cast iron base, to hold AMICA brochures for the public. The brochures are stamped with Nevada City identification to help the Membership Secretary know when a new member has joined after seeing the display.
The following individuals and groups have contributed materials or money to the Adopt-A-Piano project. If we have left any names out, please contact the webmaster and we will be happy to add yours.
The following chapters and individual members made cash contributions to the project: Founding Chapter, Chicago Chapter, Midwest Chapter, Richard Reutlinger, Lady Liberty Chapter, Rocky Mountain Chapter, Tim & Lynn Baxter, Sierra Nevada Chapter, and Richard & Antonia Kloian. Joe Hilferty supplied an original tracker bar at a discounted cost; Don Teach supplied six new roll changer spools and rolls at a discounted cost; and Reblitz Restorations supplied all other restoration materials at cost, and labor at a discounted cost. Larry Emmons and Tom Zook picked up the piano and took it back to Montana. We also thank John Ellingsen, Jack Frost, Janna Norby and Jeff Tiberi of the Montana Heritage Commission, Amy Sullivan of the Montana History Foundation, Mike Edwards and Dave Calendine for their help.
The restoration work was performed by Reblitz Restorations (Art Reblitz, Bob Grunow, Don Hein and Rex Kennedy) and Dick Kroeckel.
Historical facts, proofreading and photographs for this web page were supplied by John Ellingsen, Judy and Larry Emmons, Don Hein, Janna Norby, Art Reblitz, Richard Reutlinger and Tom Wurdeman.
(1) From the "Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments", Vestal Press, Thirteenth printing, pg. 674
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