July 20, 2016

Princeton Streets Will Be Alive With the Sound of Organ Music


MAJESTIC MUSICAL MACHINERY: Ornate, elaborate organs like this are among the ten or so restored instruments scheduled to be on display at Palmer Square and other Princeton locations the weekend of August 6 and 7. It’s all part of an annual event known as a band organ rally, and it follows a week-long convention of organ enthusiasts at the Nassau Inn.

August tends to be a quiet time in Princeton. The first weekend of the month, however, promises to be anything but peaceful and sleepy. On Palmer Square, Nassau Street, and at other locations through town, 10 elaborate mechanical organs will be put on display, cranking out music ranging from fox-trots to classical, and several styles in between.

Saturday and Sunday, August 6 and 7 culminate a week-long convention at the Nassau Inn by the Automatic Musical Instruments Collectors Association (AMICA), the “International Association of Player-Piano, Roll-Playing, and Automatic Instrument Enthusiasts,” according to its website. That organization and another called the Carousel Organ Association of America are sponsoring the weekend extravaganza, which will bring musical devices as small as hand-held “monkey organs” to the largest trailer-mounted instruments that produce huge sounds.

Staging the event in Princeton was the idea of Glenn Thomas, an organ enthusiast and collector who lives in Belle Mead. “Several hundred people do these band organ rallies in the summer at various interesting places in the United States. Virtually all have been in small towns, resort areas, places that are sort of quiet and rural that lend themselves to tree lined streets and not that many people,” Mr. Thomas said. “I thought Princeton would be absolutely perfect. It’s a cultural, family-oriented town, and very compact.”

Obtaining all of the required permits was a challenge, but Mr. Thomas was persistent. “Regardless of some initial roadblocks that were thrown up, it became apparent that the more people I talked to, the more excited I got about the possibility of doing this,” he said. “There were extensive conversations, and it took a lot of work. But Palmer Square Management and the Arts Council have been great. And now it’s going to happen.”

Merchants throughout town have been enthusiastic about participating. Plans are for instruments of various shapes, periods, and sizes to be placed in Palmer Square and outside the Garden Theater, The Bent Spoon, Jammin’ Crepes, and other locations. Some merchants will be offering promotional tie-ins, according to Mr. Thomas.

“All of these organs will be placed within a general radius of the square. The smaller ones will be at and around the square,” he said. “One or two will be in front of Nassau Presbyterian Church. Another will be down by the Arts Council, and another at Hinds Plaza outside the Library. Our biggest one will be at the Monument Park area. We’ll probably put one at the Princeton Shopping Center and another at the Y. So we’re talking about 10 or so, some of which are very large and power-driven with a good sound.”

Musical selections will vary. “Most of what these instruments play is period music from about 1910 to 1930, but we also have arrangers who make modern and contemporary music to be played,” Mr. Thomas said. “So it’s not unusual to be able to hear music from today or yesterday. There’s a little bit of everything — pop, rag, blues, marches, fox trots, classical — it pretty much depends on the type of organ.”

Anita Fresolone, marketing director of Palmer Square Management, said she was hooked in by Mr. Thomas’s passion for the topic. “When I met him I was so fascinated to learn about this whole other world out there that I didn’t know about,” she said. “I love the idea of spreading these kinds of things around town. It’s like the Pokemon Go of organs — you can find them at different locations. It’s so different. I think it will be a great hit with families.”

Mr. Thomas credits his passion for mechanical instruments to childhood trips to Disneyland and Griffith Park in his native Los Angeles. “Disneyland had some old player pianos and organs, and Griffith Park had a carousel with a very large mechanical organ,” he said. “I was between five and 10 years old. It really stuck with me and as I gradually got into my teen years, with some bucks, I got seriously interested. I would travel around to see them. I got my first player piano, and it sort of grew from there.”

He moved to New Jersey after landing a job in New York City’s financial services industry. Two years ago, Mr. Thomas retired. His focus now is his “full-time hobby,” as he said. In addition to staging the Princeton event, he produces music rolls for band organs and coin pianos, and edits his organization’s bi-monthly publication. His private collection includes more than 20 restored, antique large fairground and carousel mechanical band organs, and coin-operated self-playing mechanical musical instruments. All are about 100 years old. Mr. Thomas’s collection is a major destination, on a field trip, for those attending the convention.

There is no rain date for the organ display, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. “We have tarps and trailers. If it rains, we can deal with it,” Mr. Thomas said. “August showers tend to be short.”

During the convention week, Mr. Thomas hopes members of the public will stop in to the Nassau Inn to visit an exhibit in AMICA’s hospitality room of about five coin-operated player pianos, nickelodeons, and other instruments. The weekend, town-wide display that follows is aimed not only at enthusiasts, but at the public as well.

“We want to do everything we can to expose people and get them interested,” Mr. Thomas said. “Our organizations are either stable or declining in membership. We want to bring in young people and families and spark their enthusiasm.”