Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Elbers Music Box Collection

Kurt Elbers of Mandeville collected music boxes. When I say "music box" most people think small wooden boxes with the lid that opens and the wind up key in the bottom. Well, think bigger. Say like the size of a closet. 

The Elbers collection had several of what was used as early "juke boxes," put a coin in and a huge array of mechanically played musical instruments springs to life, sort of like a player piano but with violins, drums and horns.

Those kinds of music boxes of course came from the mechanical genius of the late 19th century, filling music halls and beer gardens with music that rivaled small bands. But, as the Elbers found out, keeping those boxes maintained and finely-tuned required a serious set of mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic skills, not to mention environmental controls to provide humidity and temperatures for which they were designed. 

Here's the article below. 

Elbers music box collection
April 28, 1974 by Ron Barthet

 MANDEVILLE — Mr. and Mrs. Kurt Elbers of Mandeville collect music boxes, but not the kind most people think of when they think of music boxes. The Elbers have, for the past six years, been collecting large, extremely intricate, and ex­tremely heavy music boxes, some reaching 12 feet or more in height. 

The boxes they collect play a wide variety of music using long strips of paper rolled on a cylinder punch with holes. Through an elaborate arrangement of electric motors, bellows, hundreds of feet of plastic tubing plus thousands of levers and valves, the Elbers' music boxes produce music which is not only loud, but beautiful.

They belong to an organization of automated musical instrument collectors, and through specialty publications they are able to keep pace with what is available at what price in the music box field. When they acquire a piece which does not play, or does not play as well as it should, their sons, Buddy and Don, set to work restoring the instrument.  The music boxes owned by the Elbers date from 1860 to 1926, with many of them built around the turn of the century. They are actually forerunners of the modern computer, since the music is produced from holes punched in paper which are translated into pulses of com­pressed air.

Much variety

The music produced by two of their largest music boxes is fast paced, rollicking music, polkas and the like which makes one think there is a small orchestra in the same room. Indeed, the music boxes contain drums. pianos, flutes, violins, castanets, triangles, each lending its part to the feel of an actual orchestra. Of course the actual music is more precise than any produced by an orchestra, since the whole piece is being produced mechanically.

Across the world there's over 1000 music box collections, Elbers said, and members of the music box organization often stop by for a visit to hear the in­struments. When he travels, Elbers also visits other collec­tions when he can, keeping his  eyes open for one he may wish to purchase. Transporting a music box weighing well over several hundred pounds may deter some people, but the Elbers have a specially built trailer to transport their purchases. In their back yard they have a workshop where the boxes are fully restored, and they have a workshed complete with flourescent lighting and a half ton hoist. They even went so far as to obtain a post office Cushman to convert it to a small crane and motor cart to maneuver the trailer.

Make own replacement parts

Buddy and Don Elbers have done most of the restoration work, just by getting into the boxes, figuring out how things worked and repairing what needed to be repaired. The original manufacturers have long since gone out of business, so restoration is a matter of doing what one can, even if it means recreating vital pieces in a blacksmith's forge. They keep a good supply of spare belts and pulleys in case of emergencies. The house is even equipped with a diesel electric generator  so dehumidifiers can be kept on if the power goes off. Once a group of ladies from the Tchefuncte Garden Club was visiting the collection when the power went off. It was then that the generator came into use and prevented the cancellation of the visit.

The house is serviced by two dehumidifiers which keep the humidity at 55 percent. It is at this level that the music boxes perform best. If the humidity gets too low, say at 39 percent, or if it gets too high, say at 68 percent, the workings of the music boxes begin to stick or jam, and they can no longer be played. One room in which the majority of music boxes are located is out­fitted with special indoor-outdoor carpeting so the Elbers can keep the rug drenched with water if the humidity is too low. In fact, this winter they had to keep pouring pitchers of water on the rug to keep the room moist enough.

The music boxes themselves include instrument combinations such as violins and pianos to pipe organs and drums. There are a couple nickelodeons as well as a few Edison cylinder  phonographs. Elbers even has a heavy hand crank organ used by Mexican organ grinders.

Up to date

The music played by these music boxes ranges from classical "long hair" music to popular tunes. There are still a few men in Europe who can arrange and punch a roll of paper, so Elbers has on file in his music collection songs ranging from Vienna waltzes to "Spanish Flea." There are paper rolls for "California, Here I come" and "Cabaret." And as soon as the European who arranges the punching of the tape can find a Three Dog Night score Elbers will be receiving "Joy to The World." Even though the in­struments themselves are old, the music they can play is as up to date and spirited as anyone could wish for.

The Elbers have their in­struments tuned once each six months using electronic equip­ment to tune the organs and a professional piano tuner from New Orleans for the piano strings. For the past six years, the Ethers have been enjoying the music and beauty of craft­smanship which reached per­fection around the turn of the century and which has been recreated by the skills and determination of their sons. 

Mrs. Elbers commented that there is something special about sitting down to dinner in the Music Room with one of the instruments softly playing a relaxing piece of music. The magic of the Elbers music box collection is one which is shared by each visitor to the Elbers home, many of which who return again and again to listen to the mechanical musical genius of men long ago.

Elbers explained that when Edison came out with his phonographic reproduction of the human voice, the music box business fell abruptly. Record players could not match the music box for tone quality and beauty, but they were easier to obtain and maintain. So the manufacturers of music boxes had to turn to more profitable ventures, such as making slot machines and household ap­pliances.

But with collections such as the one in the Elbers home, the magic and beauty of music boxes will live on.

Just click on the the images below to enlarge the view to make it more readable.