Fairground Organs

For a fairground show to attract an audience it offered a short performance infront of the booth, hence the expression “front of house”, still used in theatres today to describe the areas outside the auditorium.

As the public became more sophisticated, increases in the presentation of the front of house show became apparent. Drums began to be used to attract attention along with bells, loud hailers and other devices.

At the same time, the rise of non-conformist churches, such as the Methodists and Baptists created a large demand for church organs, and for the rural areas where talent was limited, some of these were designed to be self playing, from barrels.

Punched cards and the keys to success

It was almost inevitable that some of these organs, playing hymn tunes and turned by hand, found their way onto early shows and roundabouts. Small organs were also common on the streets of Britain’s larger towns and some of these too found their way onto the fairgrounds.

Soon, barrel organs made in Germany and later in France were appearing on the fairgrounds, where they were supplied with secular music especially for showland use. These early organs had many trumpets as a main feature and thus were called trumpet barrel organs.

The fairground organ really came into its own in 1895 with the patenting by the Gavioli company of the music book. Academics have spent many hours arguing over whether the use of punched cards in a Jacquard loom was the first application of the system, as popular legend states, or whether in fact, it had been used in church organs earlier. Whatever the origins, the organ as we know it today, in all its forms, owes its existence to the Gavioli family. How long organs would have survived with ten-tune repertoires is open to question.

The music book gave the organ an effectively unlimited repertoire and much effort went into music book production. Showfolk wanted the best attractions, so a new organ playing the latest tunes was a must. The main manufacturers, whose instuments were seen in England prior to 1901, included Gavioli and Limonaire (of Paris), Varettos (Manchester) and Wright and Holmes (Manchester).

In 1902 a new company appeared, by the name of Charles Marenghi and Companie. Marenghi had been Gavioli and Companie’s foreman, but left after a dispute to set up business on his own account. Between 1901 and 1909, competition was very fierce between Marenghi and Gavioli, and appears to have been so particularly for British custom. By 1909 this rivalry had resulted in some of the largest and finest fairground organs ever made travelling under the banners of British Show families.

The first book organs to be introduced were a reworked variant of a very popular Gavioli model – the 87-key Gavioli barrel organ. These organs were mass produced, well engineered and were well able to be bumped along poor English roads, on wooden wheels with unsprung trailers. In addition, the large compass, running from piccolo thorough clarinet, into a saxophone/ trombone counter melody section and tubas on the bass department made a very passable impression of a military band and played a large range of music into the bargain. For all these reasons they were, and remain, popular with the showfolk.

The introduction of book music meant that register control could be introduced and small and large organs alike benefitted from the additions of pipework that could be switched on and off to make the organs louder and quieter.

The 87-key organs gained violins and clarinets which switched on and off, and the now almost universal 89-key Gavioli was born. 89-key Gavioli’s were built in Paris and Waldkirch and exported throughout Western Europe and to the USA.

Smaller organs were not forgotten either. It was possible to buy an organ from one of several makers from about 35-key, with or without registers, suitable for smaller rides and shows, 43,57 and 65-key organs, with anything up to six registers suitable for mid-rides and the new 89-key organs which were made in three and five case variants and were used in larger roundabouts and gained pride of place in many shows.

The rise of organs coincided with the discovery of moving pictures and showfolk were the first to capitalise on this market. The Bioscope Shows as they were known were a source of pride, and many names now associated with theatres were first coined on the fairgrounds: For example, Alf Ball’s New Lyceum, Pat Collins’s Wonderland, Annie Holland’s Palace of Light and many many more.

Charles Marenghi, who to get around Gavioli’s patents developed his own version of the 89-key scale, produced a series of organs which became very popular very quickly. His 94-key Military Band organs were closely followed by his 104-key chromatic organs.

These 104-key organs played a full compass of notes from the bottom tubas to the top piccolos and were the first organs to do so. These were followed by Gavioli’s answer, the 110-key instruments. In 1909, Gavioli produced their largest instruments, which were 112-keyless. Marenghi retalitated with an organ for William Taylor’s Bioscope Show, reputed to be 120-key.

Shortly after Gavioli built their last and largest 112-key organ, the firm went into liquidation. The era of grand organs with factory built showfronts was over, and organ development all but stopped. A few echoes of this grand era survives. The largest and last of the Gavioli 112-keyless organs survives, although much altered and on a different playing scale.

Shows with evocative names such as “Coliseum”, “Wonderland” and “Palace of Light” were no more and never to be seen again. At the same time, the rise of cinema was making the moving picture shows obsolete, and organs were needed for rides, not shows.

Marenghi countered the potential decline in the organ industry by reworking his 94-key Military band organ as an orchestral scale with more woodwind and string, replacing batteries of brass trumpets and trombones and in its final form it became 98-key.

The replacement for the Bioscope Shows for many showfolk were huge roundabouts with elaborate decoration and plenty of space for large organs. Thus “Palace of Light” had been replaced by “Golden Dragons”, “Diving Dolphins”, “Racing Motors” and other fantastic rides involving Sea Serpents, Father Neptune and many more beasts. Termed Scenic Railways, owing to their fantastic decoration, they were the largest and most elaborate roundabouts ever to travel in Britain.

Smaller rides demanded smaller organs and Chair-o-Planes, newly imported from Germany after the first world war, came complete with small Bruder organs. By now, competition from the gramophone record was being felt, and as organ builders round the world started to close down, organ builders in England started to try and find ways of making the organs more economical. A myriad of sizes were brought together by Chiappa Ltd into three main groups. Small organs were converted to play from a Gavioli 48-key scale, medium sized organs were converted to a Gavioli 65-key scale and the remaining 87-key Gavioli organs were modernised, gaining violins and baritone clarinets and converted to their rival Marenghi 89-key scale. The larger organs were converted to the Marenghi 98-key scale, which has the same playing notes as the 89, meaning a considerable saving in the production of music, which was arranged and cut by hand.

By the mid 1930s, increasing competition from amplified music, the increasing cost of transport and the rising cost of labour meant that organs became uneconomcial to travel, and many were laid aside. An 89-key Gavioli can weigh up to four tons, needed to be on its own trailer and needed a full time operator to look after it. In addition, an organ would have needed at least half a ton of music to have a repertoire of any reasonable size, and music, as it was hand made, was expensive. By the outbreak of the second world war, organ music on our fairgrounds was becoming rarer, and the Scenic Railways which had begun the swansong of the larger organs were themselves being retired.

During and immediately after the war, a lot of organs were damaged, some by bombing where they were stored, some for the scrap metal drives that went on. Others were simply burned to recover the gold leaf decoration. Some were left to rot, and a few, a very few, played on in their rides. The organ on the showfront was by now a distant memory.

In 1947 three remarkable events occurred that were to rekindle interest in organs. Chiappa Ltd, which by now were the sole surviving organ builders, restored three very large 98-key organs. One was restored for Anderton and Rowland, then of Bristol and Plymouth (now based in Cullompton, Devon). Their Marenghi Grand Organ had been in store in Cornwall during the war, and was repaired and installed on their dodgem track. Clara and John Collins from Walsall, Staffordshire, who had taken over the Pat Collins Empire, recommissioned their Scenic Railway and had a brand new 98-key organ from Chiappa’s works. The third was for showman Tom Norman, who had a Marenghi organ overhauled by Chiappa and installed it on his Royal Palladium show. In addition, several sets of Gallopers retained their organs and more were brought out of store. People interested in such things began to realise that much of the fairground heritage was being destroyed and many organs were acquired by enthusiasts, who had time and energy to put into restoring these old instruments for their own and other people’s pleasure.

Today, many organs of all shapes and sizes are preserved and can be heard at various outdoor events. There have also been several new organs built for fairground rides, notably Gallopers, some to traditional construction methods and some using electric actions with MIDI controlled music. This latter system has a considerable saving for the machine owner, requiring neither book music nor an organ operator.

This feature was originally written by Craig T. Bennett and appeared, with permission, on the now defunct thegalloper.com in 2002.