Museums: Visitors at the shrine of the Mighty Wurlitzer: Joanna Gibbon spends an engrossing afternoon among a collection of rare automatic musical instruments

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The Independent Culture
DEREK WEBBER, during the week a reluctant bricklayer, stood in front of the huge Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Musical Museum in Brentford, west London, sporting a black and white striped shirt. One of four demonstrators who at weekends work among a rare collection of automatic musical instruments, Mr Webber was in his element. Conducting a keen mixed-age group of 50 visitors, including a baby, Mr Webber's music-hall voice rang out, crisp and clear, despite his clip-on microphone having broken down that afternoon.

'Ladies and gentlemen, step this way and you won't be disappointed. Now, does anyone here play the organ? No? Well, then I hope you won't mind my attempts,' he says, beaming and flourishing his arms before settling at the Wurlitzer's formidable three-tiered keyboard and showing a remarkable command of the ivories.

We all sighed as the Wurlitzer's casement alternately glowed pink and green and Mr Webber pressed the special-effects keys - crucial accompaniments to silent movies. Hooters, sirens, military drums, sleigh bells, a telephone, surf and even a Mississippi steamboat hooter sounded out. Through a glass window, showing some of the organ's 45ft-long innards, we peeked at tubular bells and a giant xylophone. Children gazed, entranced.

Then Mr Webber turned a switch and the Wurlitzer took off on its own; it is the only one with a self-playing mechanism on this side of the Atlantic, he assured us. As it zipped through 'Water Nymph' by Ethelbert Nevin, two older citizens smiled and tapped their feet.

A couple of elderly gentlemen squabbled loudly about whether their local flea-pit had actually possessed a Wurlitzer. Made in 1932, this one came from the Regal, Kingston upon Thames; it was one of the few to be installed in a British cinema before talking pictures.

The demonstration enthralled everyone except a middle-aged woman who sat powdering her nose and applying eyeliner, apparently bored by the proceedings. But 15 minutes later the Clarabella orchestrion galvanised her into action with some 'oompah' music. Suddenly the woman jumped up, toilette forgotten, and stood on her seat to watch, entranced.

The German instrument, a handsome mahogany cupboard made in 1910, was intended to imitate a complete orchestra and what its sound lacked in delicacy it made up for in volume. Inside, a piano keyboard, drums and other percussion instruments are housed; the exterior has a decorative glass plate depicting a Bavarian scene with a windmill and waterfall, both appearing to move by a trick of light.

A ten-pfennig coin was used to operate the machine when it was installed in the corner of a German bierkeller, although the museum now resorts to the short cut of a piece of wire. 'I held my breath when three weeks ago, for the very first time, a German visitor offered me a pfennig to try,' says Mr Webber. It worked.

Mr Webber says he loves the museum so much that he lived in it for three years after his career as a speed skater finished. He says his time in a Portakabin behind the redundant church, where the museum has been housed for 30 years, was the best of his life.

'I used to creep in at night and play one of the pianos, imitating the piano rolls,' he explains. All the pianos work both normally and automatically; the museum's huge collection of paper rolls includes recordings by Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Paderewksi, Grieg and Rachmaninov.

One of the aims of the museum's late founder, Frank Holland, was that his instruments, which form a large proportion of the collection, were to be heard. 'Some conservationists are aghast that we play them as much as we do. The paper rolls do deteriorate but you can find re-cuts and there is no shortage of 78 rpm records,' explains Mr Webber.

Since Mr Holland's death four years ago the museum has ironed out one of his intolerances: 'He couldn't stand kids and often threw them out in the most brusque way. He was difficult,' says Mr Webber.

The museum's earlier instruments include a fine collection of cylinder musical boxes and a Violano-Virtuoso, made by the Mills Novelty Company in the United States, at the turn of the century. Mr Webber is upfront about mentioning that one of the other violin players, the gleaming mahogany Hupfeld Phonoliszt-Violiona, which plays a piano and three upright violins, has been damaged whilst at the museum.

'Unfortunately, it stood in a leaking corner of the church for many years. It was soaking wet and we had to strip it down and rebuild it. It should be working next year.'

Mr Webber switches on the violano. The horizontal violin is played without human help, and the harsh sound is distracting enough to prevent anyone asking churlishly whether a large and draughty church is the best place for such fine mahogany pieces.

But the Musical Museum is not wealthy and the church, while not ideal, is affordable. The museum's enthusiastic trust and voluntary helpers have made herculean efforts to mend the roof, improve security and make the surroundings comfortable; the damp has been been tamed, but the heating costs are prohibitive during the winter. An afternoon spent there is engrossing.

The Musical Museum, 368 High Street, Brentford, London TW8 OBD, telephone 081 560 8108. Open Sat and Sun, 2-5pm; April until end of October. Concert: Pianola Pyrotechnics by Michael Broadway, Sat 16 October, 7.45pm, tickets pounds 3.50.

Curator's Choice, page 28

(Photograph omitted)

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