Original Location: Los Angeles, California
It is unknown who received the PianOrchestra in Los Angeles. Two possible candidates are:
Little is known about the instrument during its stay at the Banner Theater, other than it sat on the second floor mezzanine and entertained patrons.
According to the book, "Music Boxes, Their Lore and Lure," by Helen and John Hoke, "Years went by while collectors ran down every lead for the vanished machine. In 1952, during the remodeling of the [Banner] theater, workmen were astonished to uncover the long-lost, walled-up Orchestrion – and Robert Huish spent eighteen months painstakingly restoring it."
Durrell Armstrong, Wichita, Kansas, relates some interesting details regarding the discovery of the style 29-C PianOrchestra, one that corroborates some tidbits of information that I had heard myself from Mrs. A.C. Raney (Raney collection, Whittier, California) in 1954. In fact, when I had expressed an interest in the 29-C PianOrchestra to Mrs. Raney, I was literally warned by her, "to stay away from that machine, as it was trouble." I did not understand what she meant by trouble, but she was so forceful in her admonition, that I did not ask anything more. It was not until much later, when I learned about the serious problem between Huish and Knott's Berry Farm, his employer, that her remark made sense.
As the story goes: It was known to several collectors, including Bob Huish, that a Wurlitzer PianOrchestra had once been located in the old Banner Theater, an early nickelodeon theater located at the corner of 4th and Main Streets in downtown Los Angeles. No one, however, could remember what had happened to the machine. It had simply vanished without a trace. Huish, sniffing around the old theater for any hint as to what had happened to it, was tapping on a wall on the mezzanine, where the PianOrchestra had supposedly been located. Detecting a dead space in the wall, Huish was certain that the machine was secreted away behind it. After some fancy talking, Bob Huish got permission to poke a small hole in the wall. His suspicion was correct, through the little hole he could clearly see the long forgotten orchestrion. When the bricked-up wall was torn down, the derelict orchestrion was revealed, and beside it was a pile of music rolls. It was such an unusual discovery that a news story about the fantastic PianOrchestra long lost behind a brick wall appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Why anyone went to the trouble to wall-in the PianOrchestra, instead of just hauling it away as junk, as was the case with so many other similar instruments, is not known. A possible answer comes from another passage in Hoke’s book: "When talking pictures came in, the owner [of the Banner theater] was faced with a giant music-maker he could not use, and it was an unbelievably formidable task either to move or dismantle it. He decided to wall it in, and did so!"
Durrell Armstrong remembers visiting Bob Huish in December of 1954, and hearing the 29-C PianOrchestra play. It was the centerpiece of the house, Bob Huish remarking that he had built his house "around" it. Durrell thought so, too, since "the top of the instrument disappeared into the ceiling, and seemed to be holding up the house."
The following excerpts, which have been edited for conciseness and clarity, are taken from an article in The [Orange County] REGISTER, dated October 20, 1954. They help to provide some sense of Bob Huish:
History Pages Relived In County Residence Of Antique Collector
There's an old axiom, lost somewhere in the antiquity of folklore. It says there are not secrets about any man. Just visit his home and you've held a mirror to his personality. If that age-old sociological ruling is true, the personality of Robert Huish, 40-year old World War II veteran, is a kaleidoscope of unusual incongruities.
Huish is a husky, sophisticated outdoorsman, whose life experience has reflected a sobriety for the present and an intense interest in the future. His Ocean View home is a page ripped from some photo album long past. Scattered about the neat six-room home at 16561 Graham St., Ocean View, is one of the nation's finest private collections of antique music boxes. They stand in every room and line the walls, pushing the home's modern appliances back into "deserved" obscurity.
Self-described as a "cynic," Huish explains, "I like mechanical things of beauty because they're predictive -- they aren't like people. The ex-military cop is one of Southern California's two men capable of maintenance and reconstruction of mechanical museum pieces. He is employed by the Knott's Berry Farm to keep in repair the "Ghost Town's" hundreds of items of antiquity.
When questioned about his "collecting obsession" he explains, "I don't have any monetary values - -I wouldn't sell an item for any price. I have no more than a normal interest in history. It could be the challenge of searching out lost antiques, but it isn't. I think it must be the satisfaction of rebuilding something that appears to be junk into something that is valuable and beautiful." Probably independent financially he ruefully added, "It is smart business though. Its like an investment and one that matures at a higher rate of interest each year." Then turning to a 21-inch television set in his living room he made a point, "Look at that contraption. $400 and it loses value each year."
Conversationally speaking, the father of two boys is well-informed on current. topics from United Nations to the Republican farm program. Although he doesn't subscribe to any newspapers or national magazines and his reading is limited to technical manuals and an array of collectors and dealers' magazines. In addition to the Horseless Carriage he is an active member of the American Society of Watch and Clock Collectors and plans to make a trip to the convention of the National Assn. of Music Box Collectors in the near future.
It all started about seven years ago when Huish was surveying his life as a master jeweler, chemist, motorcycle shop owner, soldier, and laborer. "I wanted something that I could do to spend my free time. I bought an old music box and repaired it. From there the hobby grew into a collection." But collecting isn't easy, Huish suggested. In acquisition of his prize possession, "a 20 ft. Wurlitzer theater organ and music box," he told of. years of search. Finally he located the machine walled up in the old Banner Theater building in Los Angeles. "Just to get it on the main floor from the balcony cost $135. When I got it home it was completely torn apart. It took several months to get it back together."
The machine now stands in the younger Huish's bedroom: In a flecked black hard-wood finish, it looks like an overgrown record player. Along the top runs a string of multi-colored lights. It produces full orchestration and was used extensively as musical background to silent films and in skating rinks. When playing it has a deep melodic texture and produces the sounds of a full 115 pipe organ, drums, piano, triangle, "xylaphone," "tamperine" and some string instruments. It plays six long rolls and changes automatically.
Although he doesn't know the value of the collection or, won't tell, he carries thousands of dollars of insurance on his prizes. "If I knew how much they were worth it might scare me," he joked. A full-sized description of all the works in his collection would frighten the pencil end off a writer for the American Society of Antique Musical Instruments and Care Of manual.
Warned that publicity might bring throngs of sightseers to his home he shrugged, "So what? They're just people and that's what they build houses for." Expansively he added, "besides I like people as well as I do music boxes and they're welcome here anytime." And that's a compliment coming from the unusual Mr. Huish!
Some of the comments in the above newspaper excerpt take on a new meaning in light of the tragic story that follows next.
The events that led up to Knott’s Berry Farm owning the PianOrchestra were both unfortunate and tragic. What allegedly happened between Huish and Knott’s was no secret to many Southern California collectors. Although I had heard parts of the story from both Mrs. A.C. Raney and Herbert N. Vincent (who was in the business of rebuilding coin-pianos and band organs) in 1954-55, it is Durrell Armstrong’s recounting, as told by Orval Cooper, that I am using here. Durrell had been in contact with Huish, and had actually visited him in his home in December of 1954, not too long before Huish’s growing legal problem with Knott's Berry Farm came to a head.
According to the late Orval Cooper, who was a close friend of Huish, and who had apparently helped him remove the 29-C PianOrchestra from the Banner Theater, Bob Huish had been the caretaker of the coin operated pianos at Knott’s Berry Farm. When Huish went on vacation for two weeks, someone else collected the money from the coin-pianos. The trouble began when Walter Knott realized that the receipts for the two weeks Huish was absent were double that normally collected. Suspecting foul play, Walter Knott confronted Bob Huish upon his return to work, and not wanting to prosecute, he offered to let Huish repay the money allegedly taken.
Another, and rather different, story about how Mr. Huish allegedly got into legal trouble is recalled by Q. David Bowers. The firm of Hathaway & Bowers, Inc. (1967 - 1972) had limited business dealings with Knott's Berry Farm, but during the course of this interaction came the story that Bob Huish had been caught swiping gold nuggets that Knott's Berry Farm used to "plant" for paying tourists who "panned for gold" at the popular gold-panning amusement attraction. But whether this story is true, or not, or whether both this and the above version have some validity, cannot be confirmed. What is known for certain is that the outcome of the dispute between Huish and Knott's Berry Farm resulted in a tragic ending for Mr. Huish.
The exact chain of events that followed is unknown, but during this period of accusation and growing tension, Durrell Armstrong had agreed to buy a group of Wurlitzer Concert PianOrchestra rolls from Huish. Before the rolls were shipped, however, Durrell thinks this was in 1956, Bob Huish shot himself in the head, ending the life of an apparently very talented but disillusioned man. When Durrell Armstrong contacted Huish's wife, she remembered the sale of the rolls to Durrell and shipped them off to him without delay. The 29-C PianOrchestra, as part of a negotiated settlement with the Huish estate, became the property of Knott’s Berry Farm.
In May of 1965 I had my uncle, Richard F. Hathaway, telephone Walter Knott regarding the 29-C PianOrchestra. My Grandfather, Jesse E. Hathaway, first met Walter Knott during one of his circa 1900 bicycle trips from Los Angeles to Julian, California, to supervise and assist in the de-flooding of gold/silver mines in the area. Walter was a bellboy in a small hotel in Pomona, California, where my Grandfather stayed overnight on his way to and from Julian. Walter Knott began his farming career in Santa Fe Springs, under the name of Preston & Knott, on property that belonged to my Grandfather. Then, when the partnership fell apart, Walter moved to Buena Park, starting a Boysenberry farm. Thus, my grandparents and parents had intimately known the Knott family. That is why I had my "Uncle Dick" telephone Walter Knott.
Agreeing to look into the matter, Walter Knott responded to my uncle in writing, with a long and friendly letter, reminiscing about old, mutual acquaintances. Only the first paragraph refers to the orchestrion, and is as follows: "It is true, I find that we do have the machine that you refer to and due to its size and height, we have never put it out although our man has nearly completed the overhaul. When I saw the room it is taking up in his shop, I thought he would be delighted to get rid of it, but he was not. For one thing, the one Terry has is pretty big too, and almost as high. He has the idea that it is worth a minimum of $3500.00--money must be getting awfully cheap."
Since that time, the PianOrchestra has been displayed intermittently at Knott’s, for certain during the years 1982 through 1985, when it was on display in a museum building, but mostly it remained stored in a damp and cluttered warehouse.
The instrument was removed from the Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, California, warehouse area immediately after purchase and then shipped to Ron Cappel, Atascadero, California, for a complete cosmetic and mechanical restoration. As of the year 2007, work on the casework has been completed, as well as the meticulous and very time consuming work on many of the interior components.
In January, of 2008, the spectacularly restored Style 29C Mandolin PianOrchestra was once again back to beautiful playing condition, and its quality and appearance rivaled that of a brand new orchestrion. Then, after partial disassembly and careful packing the grand machine was ready for shipment to its eagerly awaiting owner in Florida.
Anyone familiar with the PianOrchestra prior to its total restoration can attest to its thoroughly worn out condition due to many decades of commercial use and abuse. numerous original parts were missing, all of which were painstakingly recreated right down to the smallest detail. For instance, all lead tubing and the special Philipps wide-radius brass fittings were carefully re-manufactured, with the large cardboard wind and vacuum trunks re-created in the same style as the original. The piano was so worn out that it required many new parts, and the main valve chest/stack assembly below it had to be re-constructed, using newly stamped valve plates replicating the original ones. Additionally, the animated scene had to be re-created, since the original scene and all related components were missing without a trace. All in all, the meticulous cosmetic and mechanical restoration was a monumental undertaking, but one that fortuitously came together easily and magnificently. Without a doubt, the PianOrchestra is once again as perfectly beautiful as it was when it originally shipped from the Wurlitzer factory.
Written by Terry Hathaway, with information provided by Durrell Armstrong, Terry Hathaway, Art Reblitz and Brian Smith.
Circa 1912 Wurlitzer catalogue; Art Reblitz; and Brian Smith.
"Music Boxes, Their Lore and Lure," by Helen and John Hoke, 1957, Hawthorne Books Inc., New York.