Orchestrion, Greek Confectionaires and the Introduction of Mechanical Music

July 20, 2020

Even the most superficial of historical reviews clearly documents the role of Greek immigrants in the establishment and spread of popular entertainment forms across the Western Hemisphere. Public entertainment venues owned and operated by Greeks span just about every entertainment form in the history of the United States ranging across midways, carnivals, circuses, nickelodeons, vaudeville theaters, movie theaters, dance halls, dime-a-dance halls, hay rides, ice skate/roller skate rinks, jazz dance clubs like the Green Mill – said to be the oldest continuously open jazz club in America – bars/saloons/lounges in remote areas of the country that furnished weekend dance bands, the grand Aragon and Trianon ballrooms who aside from other singular distinctions in must be noted that the first time live music was heard on American radio it was broadcast from atop the Aragon Ballroom.

Literally the very definitions of what we see and understand today as distinctly American entertainment forms developed over the decades when the 1880 to 1920 waves of Greek immigrants arrived and established themselves. Questions of American entertainment forms aside, the prevailing stereotypical portrayal of all immigrants not just Greeks – is that these new arrivals owe/d everything to their new homeland.

To be sure, on occasion, and in individual accounts of very specific entertainment forms any number of immigrants are identified as leading figures. Nevertheless, at the end of such accounts the individual's adaption to America is stressed over any other considerations.

Let us rethink this entire issue of who, when, and under what circumstances popular entertainment forms were introduced to American audiences at large. Given that our survey reaches into the past we must also understand where and under what circumstances the average American might meet a Greek immigrant entrepreneur. In the 1920, American classic novel Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, the author cites the Greek confectionery store always found on any American town's main square.

Main Street is not the only source we have for the presence of the literally hundreds of Greek-owned and operated candy kitchens, ice cream stores, or confectionaires all across the nation. In point of fact many of the locations (but regrettably now few in overall number) of these Greek-owned sweet shops can still be visited. It is while visiting one of these locations that the current generation of owner will proudly tell you of the family's long tradition of providing public music. Supporting live musical performances – in some venues, in many or all of its various forms – by the Greek immigrant generation in their stores is a story for another day.

What is missing from all contemporary Greek-American histories is the immigrant Greek's keen awareness of changing cultural and historical tastes all across the American cultural landscape. Greek promoters were not simply following trends but were frequently well ahead culturally of the majority of the nation. The fact that they were, as readily available historical evidence documents, more often than not innovators in their chosen professions escapes contemporary academic accounts. The boring, largely false, and frankly fairy tale-written accounts that constitute the present crop of Greek-American histories are following a pre-approved dominant culture outline rather where than what is readily available in public documents.

These new forms of public entertainment were entering a period perhaps more easily understood today than it times gone past. Music became mechanized in a variety of forms that was, for its day, compact and so effortlessly transportable. Q. David Bowers, compiler/author of Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, attests that “at the turn of the century, automated music machines had reached a stage of sophistication that was hard to imagine. Most saloons, ice cream parlors, and other meeting places had a coin operated player piano, music box, orchestrion, or some other such instrument. Since it required a nickel to operate the machine they were dubbed nickelodeons, a misnomer since odeon is the Greek word for theatre, thus nickelodeon was properly applied to the early flicker houses where you could view the first 'movies' for a nickel (Daily Record (Morristown NJ) July 27, 1975).” At this very same moment, half of all American homes had a piano or player piano.

Today, an Orchestrion is a generic name for a machine that plays music and is designed to sound like a full orchestra or band. Orchestrions may be operated by means of a large pinned cylinder or by a music roll and less commonly, by what was then called a music book. These mechanical musical instruments, automatically played by means of revolving cylinders. First invented in 1851, by F. T. Kaufmann, the orchestrions were intended to possess the combined power and variety of a full orchestra with a complete wind orchestra, the addition of kettle-drums, side drums, cymbals, tambourine, and triangle. These machines were meant to be seen as well as heard. A wide variety of Orchestrions can be seen and heard on YouTube. Another point, not usually discussed in the historical accounts is that the orchestrions – of whatever variety – are incredibly loud!

This 'new musical technology' and the role Greek immigrants played in their presence all across the nation even into the most remote of hamlets can be effortlessly documented in public advertisements. Let's survey just a few local newspaper advertisements. During the summer of 1898, the Richmond, Indiana Greek Candy store was first opened and became an instant sensation. Stopping at “'The Greeks' after the theater, or while downtown for other purposes, was a popular pastime (Palladium-Item January 5, 1956).” And for our concerns here, “The Greek Candy Store has just received seventeen new pieces of music for the Orchestrion. Most of them are from the masters of musical composition, while there is variety enough to please all (Palladium-Item (Richmond (IN) June 14, 1904).”

And now three additional short entries, this time from Rushville, Indiana: “the Greek Candy Store is an attractive place to go for delicious ice cream, fine candies and sweet music (Palladium-Item (Richmond IN) October 1, 1905).” “The Greek Candy Store has a set of new records for its Orchestron (Richmond Item (Richmond IN) November 28, 1906).” “Hot Chocolate and ice cream are delicious. The Orchestrion plays the latest music continuously at the Greek Candy Store (Palladium-Item (Richmond IN) November 29, 1906).”

The presence of Greeks in the confectionery trade across the nation began in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1905, Greek piano rolls for sale as well as music rolls for a Self-Playing Orchestrion were also readily available. As time went on many Greek confectioneries sought piano rolls and belt-organ musical selections that were based on traditional Greek music. The noted Greek musician L. (Lucian) Cavadias performed many of these 'traditional' Greek musical selections. But, numerous as these news accounts and advertisements are, they are not the only historical source material we have on Greek confectioners and orchestrions.

Aside from the daily press we need cite from just one promotional industry publication used by Orchestration salesmen, during the late 1900s to mid-1920s, known as 'Evidence of Music Profits', a thick binder the salesmen offered prospective buyers. It contained a series of letters, not all written in English, from satisfied customers stating in their own words how effective the new music machines (they offered a wide variety) proved in their places of business. As this early form of public music reports indicates, none of the new music technology was produced for mere pleasure but rather clear profit. Orchestration salesmen did not just visit Greek immigrant confectioners. Numerous and various public venue outlets also sought the latest in public music technology.

Along with typed and signed letters in English handwritten letters in Greek, Japanese and other languages also appear in 'Evidence of Music Profits.' To emphasize the typical nature of the businesses that purchased an Orchestration model, photographs of the specific model owned by these various establishments are scattered throughout.

Various letters detail the Orchestration model in the store as well as the profits incurred. Three Greek examples (and many others are present) includes the Gotsopolus brothers in Keokuk Iowa (population 15,239) six months profit $528.62; Alex Grizanes of Peoria Illinois (106,000) total for 5 months $361.00 or $72.20 per month and then as Nick Leezos and Peter Kutrumanes owners of the Maywood Confectionery in Illinois report in their September 1, 1926 letter: 'Competition is keen in our neighborhood and we cater to a good class of trade. We get fully 25% more patronage than we would without the Violano as the young people and those with money to spend come several blocks further to our store in order to have the music.”

As even this all too brief report conveys Greek-Americans directly influenced as well as introduced new entertainment forms to the American public. It is a complex tale with many unique venues, that wait to be fully told.


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