Fairground organ

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Ruth Fairground organ
A Frati Band Organ.
The Frati & Co. Band Organ at the Lakeside Park Carousel in Port Dalhousie, ON.

A fairground organ is a musical organ covering the wind and percussive sections of an orchestra. Originated in Paris, France, it was designed for use in commercial fairground settings to provide loud music to accompany rides and attractions, mostly merry-go-rounds. Unlike organs for indoor use, they are designed to produce a large volume of sound to be heard above the noises of crowds and fairground machinery.


As fairgrounds became more mechanised at the end of the nineteenth century, their musical needs grew. The period of greatest activity of fairground organ manufacture and development was the late 1830s, particularly with the opening of the Limonaire Frères company of Avenue Daumesnil, Paris in 1839.[1][2][3][4] Virtually all ambient fairground music continued to be produced by fairground organs and similar pneumatically operated instruments until the advent of effective electrical sound amplification in the mid-1920s. The organ chassis was typically covered with an ornate and florid decorative case façade designed to attract attention in the tradition of most fairground equipment. Giacomo Gavioli patented the use of book music to play organs, which later became the basis of fairground organs.[5][6] In 1910, Joseph and Antoine Limonaire took over the patents when Gavioli ceased production, leading to limonaire becoming the generic French name for fairground organs.

The ornate case façades frequently had percussion instruments such as a glockenspiel and drums that provided visual entertainment as they played. There were often ornate human figures, such as a conductor whose arm moved in time to the music, or women whose arms struck bells.

The organs were designed to mimic the musical capabilities of a typical human band. For this reason they are known as band organs in the United States.

The motive force for a fairground organ is typically wind under pressure generated from mechanically powered bellows in the instrument's base. Without the need for a human player, the instruments are keyboard-less (except for relatively rare configurations with one or more accordions, whose keys could be seen to move).[citation needed] Early organs were played by a rotating barrel with the sounds triggered by metal pins, as in a music box. Later organs employed strips of cards perforated with the music data and registration (instrument) controls called book music; or interchangeable rolls of perforated paper called music rolls, similar to those used in player pianos.

Since the advent of computer control (from the early 1970s on), some band organs have been built or converted to be played electronically. Victory, pictured above, is a hybrid of these technologies. Its traditional pneumatic instruments can be played either from traditional perforated books, or from its integrated Yamaha MIDI interface. Owner Willem Kelders can also use the interface to link organs (Rhapsody and Locomotion, driven by Victory) to play the same music together.

Fairground organs have been used in many entertainment settings, including fairground rides static sideshows (such as bioscope shows), amusements parks, and skating rinks. Many can be seen exhibitied at steam fairs.

Manufacturers of fairground organs also typically made instruments for indoor use in dance halls, called dance organs; and smaller versions for travelling street use, called street organs.

Like all mechanical instruments, fairground organs have been made by a myriad of manufacturers, in various sizes and to various technical specifications, with various trademark characteristics. Active preservation initiatives and collectors' communities are associated with vintage instruments, and new instruments and music continue to be produced.


A Wurlitzer 146 roll-playing mechanism.
The roll-playing mechanism on the Wurlitzer 146 band organ at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, NY. 150 Scale.
Duplex roll mechanism of a Wurlitzer 153 band organ

Early organs were designed to be compact and operated by an unskilled person or mechanically. These were played via an integral pinned barrel requiring no human input apart from changing the number of the tune being played. These had a fixed repertoire and, if it was desired to change the tunes, a complete new pinned barrel was required. To offer a more flexible choice of repertoire, a system of robust interchangeable perforated cardboard book music was patented first by Parisian manufacturers Gavioli. Their system became widely regarded as commercially advantageous and other manufacturers followed suit. Book music offered a cheaper and more readily updated alternative to barrel music. Also used by many manufacturers including Gavioli was operation via paper music roll. These rolls were more compact and cheaper to manufacture than book music. Technically, they were more susceptible to poor handling but all systems experienced their own types of characteristic wear and tear during repeated playing. Both "book" and "roll" systems were manufactured with different operating actions which read the music via air pressure, under suction, or mechanically. To extend longevity, mechanically read cardboard book music was typically strengthened with an application of shellac. Music rolls were typically fortified via the use of robust moisture-resisting paper stocks.

All the functions of the organ are (apart from the smallest organs) operated automatically from the music media. Larger instruments contain automatic organ stop register control and additional control tracks for operating percussion instruments, lighting effect and automaton figures.


NOTE: non-exhaustive list of builders, past and present
List of mechanical organ builders
Name Country Location Fairground Dance Street Notes Website
Artizan Factories, Inc United States United States North Tonawanda, NY Yes
B.A.B. Organ Company United States United States Brooklyn, NY Yes Converted European organs to the B.A.B. roll system
Alfred Bruder Germany Germany Waldkirch Yes
Gebrüder Bruder Germany Germany Waldkirch Yes
Ignaz Bruder Söhne Germany Germany Waldkirch Yes
Wilhelm Bruder Söhne Germany Germany Waldkirch Yes
Chiappa & Sons England England London Yes
Cocchi, Bacigalupo & Graffigna Germany Germany Berlin Yes
Eugene de Kleist United States United States North Tonawanda, NY Yes Expatriate German who trained at Limonaire Frères in Waldkirch. While running his own business in London, was persuaded by American fairground ride maker Allan Herschell to start production in North Tonawanda, New York. Founding the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory in 1892, he created the American Band organ sound. Business partner Rudolph Wurlitzer bought his interest in the business in 1909 after he was elected mayor of North Tonawanda
Dean Organ Builders England England Whitchurch, Bristol Yes Yes John Dean established himself as wheelwright and cabinet maker circa 1818 in Bridport, but it was his grandson, Thomas Walter Dean who moved the family and their business to Bedminster in Bristol, following his marriage in 1899 to the daughter of a local dealer, William Wyatt. Walter Dean's son, Edwin, moved his business to Whitchurch in 1939 and so established the present site where the retail shop and workshop are today. Under the direction of Edwin Dean's son, Michael, the family turned its attention to the building of new traditional fairground and street organs. It was at this time that the company became known as Dean Organ Builders. The company introduced the 20 keyless book playing organ. The business continues in the hands of Richard and Sue Dean. [1]
Fr. Decap Belgium Belgium Herentals Yes Yes [2]
Decap, Gebroeders (Decap Brothers) Belgium Belgium Antwerp Yes Yes Founded in 1902 by Aloïs Decap, the name was changed when taken over by the four sons: Livien, Frans, Léon, Camille. Maker of dance organs (early years), mechanical pianos (limited production, early years), street and fairground organs (1920s-1930s). Leading maker of dance organs, 1930s-present. Business now runs by Camille's daughter Martha, her husband Louis Mostmans and son Roger under the name Decap Brothers of Antwerp. [3]
Pierre Eich Belgium Belgium Ghent Yes
Marc Fournier France France Seyssuel Yes [4]
Frati & Co. Germany Germany Berlin Yes
Carl Frei Germany Germany
Netherlands Netherlands
Yes Started in Waldkirch, moved to Breda via Belgium. Returned to Waldkirch after World War II
Gaudin Freres & Cie. France France Paris Yes Yes Successors to Marenghi
Foucher-Gasparini France France Paris Yes
Gavioli & Cie. France France Paris Yes Yes At one point, the largest organ builder in the world. Ceased trading in 1910, with patents, designs and brand sold to rival Limonaire Frères
Theo Heesbeen Netherlands Netherlands Tilburg Yes [5]
Louis Hooghuys Belgium Belgium Geraardsbergen Yes Yes [6]
Jäger und Brommer Germany Germany Waldkirch Yes Yes [7]
Johnson Organ Company United States United States Fargo, ND Yes [8]
La Salvia Argentina Argentina Buenos Aires Yes Since 1870
Le Ludion France France Toulouse Yes [9]
Lemoine-Dussaux France France Paris Yes Yes
Limonaire Frères France France Paris Yes Founded in Paris in the 1830s by a group of brothers, the company went through various iterations before becoming the second largest producer of organs behind Gavioli. At their height from 1900 to 1914, they had factories in both Paris and Waldkirch, Germany. Bought the patents and what remained of rival Gavioli from administrators in 1910. German factory was confiscated during World War I, and after return in 1921 sold to Alfred Bruder in 1924. Company ceased trading in 1936.
Charles Marenghi & Cie France France Paris Yes Yes
Usines Theofiel Mortier Belgium Belgium Antwerp Yes [10]
Nederlands Boekorgel Centrum Netherlands Netherlands Tilburg Yes Yes Yes [11]
Niagara Musical Instrument Mfg. Co. United States United States North Tonawanda, NY Yes
Emmanuel Odin France France Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert Yes [12]
John Page England England Milton Keynes Yes Formerly Page & Howard
G. Perlee Draaiorgels Netherlands Netherlands Amsterdam Yes [13]
Elbert Pluer Netherlands Netherlands Bussum Yes Son of Anton Pluer [14]
Pooker Organ Works United States United States Hawthorne, CA Yes [15]
Gebrüder Richter Germany Germany Düsseldorf Yes
Andreas Ruth & Sohn Germany Germany Waldkirch Yes Makers of the organ formerly at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion amusement park, now located at a smaller park in the city.[7]: 93 
Stinson Organ Company United States United States Bellefontaine, OH Yes [16]
Sturm Olivier France France Saint-Jean-du-Pin Yes [17]
van Steenput Frères Belgium Belgium Puurs Yes Yes Built and converted fairground and street organs circa 1890-1930
Verbeeck Belgium Belgium
England England
Yes Yes Yes Five generations of family members have built and repaired portable hand-cranked organs, street organs (including the world-famous Dutch street organ "The Arab"), fairground organs, and dance organs since 1884. Business names have included:
  • Jan Verbeeck (1884–1914, Antwerp, Belgium)
  • J. Verbeeck & Sons (Birmingham, then London, England, 1914–1949)
  • Pierre Verbeeck (Antwerp, Belgium, 1918–1938)
  • Verbekson (Deurne, Belgium, 1944–1947)
  • Verbeeck Zoon (St. Job-in-'t-Goor, Belgium, 1965–1979)
  • J. Verbeeck: since 1979, Johnny Verbeeck and his wife Marijke have operated the business in St. Job-in-'t-Goor. Since 2015, Jeffrey Verbeeck continued the business
Heinrich Voigt Orgelbau Germany Germany Höchst, Frankfurt am Main Yes
Gebrüder Wellershaus Germany Germany Mülheim Yes
Fritz Wrede Germany Germany Hanover Yes Yes Yes
Rudolph Wurlitzer Company United States United States North Tonawanda, NY Yes Yes Yes After collaborating with Eugene de Kleist on the Wurlitzer Tonophone, bought into the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory business from 1897, and then bought De Kleist's interest in 1908. Moved all production of organs to the site, and began heavily investing. Organ production ceased in 1942, with the factory turned over to producing proximity fuzes. Post war, the factory produced various Wurlitzer lines, including radios and jukeboxes. The factory closed in 1973.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stadler, Andrea (January 2006). "Limonaire Part 1". Carousel Organ. USA.
  2. ^ "La passionnante histoire de la famille Limonaire". limonaire.be. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  3. ^ "Les frères LIMONAIRE".
  4. ^ "La petite musique des orgues Odin". 13 May 2015.
  5. ^ "Life of Guangzhou - Brief Introduction of Automatic Musical Instruments". www.lifeofguangzhou.com. Retrieved 2019-02-09.
  6. ^ "The Rise, Blossom and Fall of the Gavioli Factory Part 1. The rise: Ludovico Gavioli 1807-1860 from inventor to organ builder" (PDF). www.coaa.us. Retrieved 2006-06-01.
  7. ^ Stokes, Barbara F. (2007). Myrtle Beach: A History, 1900-1980. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-57003-697-2.
  • Bopp, Ron: The American Carousel Organ: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Grove, OK: Ron Bopp, 1998.
  • Bowers, Q. David: The Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1972.
  • Jüttemann, Herbert: Waldkircher Dreh- und Jahrmarkt-Orgeln. Waldkirch: Waldkircher Verlag, 1993.
  • Jüttemann, Herbert: Waldkirch Street and Fairground Organs. Rufforth, York: A.C. Pilmer, 2002. (Revised translation of above)
  • Reblitz, Arthur A.: The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. Woodsville, NH: Mechanical Music Press, 2001.
  • Reblitz, Arthur A. and Bowers, Q. David: Treasures of Mechanical Music. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1981.
  • Cockayne, Eric V. The Fair Organ — How It Works. UK, published by The Fair Organ Preservation Society

External links[edit]