Just one of the fun aspects of gathering McMenamins history is when it comes from out of the blue. We recently received an email from a guest at the Kennedy School inquiring about our Draaiorgel het Blauw Frontje. (Great name for a beer, right?)
Have a look…
My family and I visited the Kennedy School during the Christmas holidays and had a great time. We walked the place and had dinner. Near the end of one of the hallways I saw what looked like a puppet theatre front but it turned out to be the façade of a Dutch street organ, Het Blauwe Frontje. I’ve been involved with mechanical music for years and this was quite a surprise.
I didn’t see any mention of it in the history write-ups so I’m hoping you can tell me the story of how it got there and why. The actual organ by that name still exists but I believe it’s in Europe.
Here’s the piece in question, which hangs outside the theater at Kennedy. It is just the front casing of the original street organ, its mechanical innards and wheels long since dismantled or lost.
Draaiorgel het Blauw Frontje is Dutch for “street organ with a blue front.” These large, wheeled street organs “were equipped with multiple ranks of pipes and percussion.” Originally, they were operated by turning a handle to engage the bellows/reservoir and the card feed mechanism that plays songs. Eventually, most of the organs were converted to operate by battery or small motor, thereby allowing the organ grinder to become more of a showman, interacting with the crowd and collecting money.
Street organs, both large (like this façade at Kennedy) and smaller varieties, became popular across Europe in the late 1700s to early 1800s, and in the mid-19th century in the United States. According to a blog called Ephemeral New York, by 1880, nearly one in 20 Italian men in certain areas of New York were organ grinders. Popular songs in Europe included opera themes and fairground music, while in America, people enjoyed tunes including “The Sidewalks of New York” (1894) and “The Organ Ginder’s Serenade” (1897).
But not everyone was a fan. In 1935, New York Mayor Firoello La Guardia banned street organs, citing traffic congestion, the “begging” inherent in the profession and organized crime’s role in renting out the machines. And across the pond in London in 1929, author George Orwell wrote:
“To ask outright for money is a crime, yet it is perfectly legal to annoy one’s fellow citizens by pretending to entertain them. Their dreadful music is the result of a purely mechanical gesture, and is only intended to keep them on the right side of the law. There are in London around a dozen firms specialising in the manufacture of piano organs, which they hire out for 15 shillings a week. The poor devil drags his instrument around from ten in the morning till eight or nine at night [-] the public only tolerates them grudgingly – and this is only possible in working-class districts, for in the richer districts the police will not allow begging at all, even when it is disguised. As a result, the beggars of London live mainly on the poor.”
As to our guest Mr. Osborne’s question of how a Dutch organ façade came to adorn a hallway at Kennedy School, it was acquired by Mike McMenamin most likely from one of his regular antique sources and he then let artist Lyle Hehn have a go at it (note his panel in the middle, which reads “Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders”). But the reason why this Dutch antique may have been available at all is very interesting. Here is an excerpt from Dutch Street Organs: A Brief History (Part 2) (2002) by Hans van Oost:
“In 1942 the German occupational forces in the Netherlands banned all street music, including the street organs. It was very difficult for them to establish what was going on about street organs and their groups of listeners. Besides, street musicians were regarded as “antisocial elements” by the Nazi party.”
“After WWII many organ renting companies were out of business. Many Dutch street organs, in urgent need of repairs after a long standstill, were offered for sale in a market that was asking for either more basic things such as food, or more modern things as Frigidaires. Prices for even reasonably good street organs sank to under scrap value. … The bad state of street organs after WWII, and the lack of public interest, were the main reasons why the KDV (Kring van Draaiorgelvrienden, Circle of Friends of the Mechanical Organ) was founded in May 1954. Another reason was the growing interest in Dutch street organs from abroad. Many old street organs were sold, or even given away (!), to people outside the Netherlands.”
Thanks to Mr. Osborne, we now have a better understanding of what this unusual piece is. You can imagine how it once delighted (or annoyed) passers-by in some major city thousands of miles from here, or perhaps consider how it was banned by the Nazis only to molder away in someone’s barn or basement before finding its way to us. Something to think about…
Here’s a YouTube link to see one in action recently, in Deventer, Holland.