The Wild West of Yester-Year


By Rachel Kovaciny

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), you’ll probably remember a sequence where three children roll down a mountain in a mining cart. The runaway cart eventually crashes into a contraption that appears to be a mechanical band. I grew up watching The Apple Dumpling Gang, and now I watch it with my kids. Every time, I wondered, “What in the world is that musical thingamajig?” Did such things exist or did Disney make it up to add a touch of humor and whimsy to the movie?

My mom said a mechanical band like that was called a calliope. I saw something similar at a museum once labeled a melodeon. Someone called it a harmonium on the internet. But when I researched those terms, none of them fit. All of those refer to unique and interesting musical instruments—a calliope is a steam-powered organ or piano, a melodeon is a bellows-powered reed organ, and a harmonium is a pump organ. None of them have cymbals and trombones and trumpets and drums like the contraption in The Apple Dumpling Gang.

I kept searching. This year, I finally found out what such a conglomeration of musical instruments that play themselves is actually called… an orchestrion. Once I figured out the correct term, it was easy to learn all about orchestrions! Yes, they really existed. Not only that, they were very popular and would have been available (at a hefty price) during the late 1870s, when The Apple Dumpling Gang takes place.

German inventor Johann Mälzel built the first fully automated orchestrion in 1805 and called it a “panharmonicon.” Ludwig von Beethoven composed his Battle Symphony in 1813 specifically to be played on Mälzel’s panharmonicon. Soon, inventors in Great Britain and the United States were creating their own variations.

The simplest orchestrion is what we usually call a “player piano.” Such pianos use rolls of paper with holes punched in the paper in specific designs to tell the piano what to play. Finger-like spokes attached to the keys inside the player piano fit into those holes. The pattern of the holes in the paper roll makes the keys play a melody. My grandparents had a player piano, but the automated part had broken before I was born. You could still play the keys like a regular piano, though, and that made player pianos different from many orchestrions—a human could play the piano themselves, or the piano could play automated tunes.

Many orchestrions use paper rolls or metal spools to guide what music will play, so one orchestrion can play many tunes. You just need to switch out the music roll or spool. Many orchestrions include a piano or organ, but combine that with things like cymbals, a xylophone, violins, drums, and even wind instruments like a trumpet or trombone. Orchestrions were prevalent in European and American dance halls, ballrooms, and even restaurants from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. Their popularity waned, however, when radio became popular. By the 1940s, most large orchestrions landed in the junkyard or a museum.

Today, two of the best places to view extensive collections of restored and functional orchestrions are the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum in Rüdesheim, Germany. You can occasionally find them other places too—we saw a small orchestrion at the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum in Wheeling, West Virginia, a couple of years ago. In fact, that was what made me realize the musical contraption in The Apple Dumpling Gang was probably a real thing, not something Disney made up. And that’s what eventually led to my finally learning that ‘orchestrion’ is the correct term for these fascinating inventions. ♦