Some Peerless History

from THE MUSIC TRADES - November 6, 1914


Connorized Music Co. Produce Wonderful Instrument to Replace Dance Palace Orchestras Invention of James O'Connor......

The Banjorchestra is the product of the Connorized Music Co. and is the brain child of James O'Connor, the president of this concern. The case design on the first instrument shown, and which is pictured herewith, is by Arthur Conrow, Mr. Connor's able assistant. The Banjorchestra is a composite instrument of the banjo, piano, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine and castanets.

The Banjorchestra is 6 feet 9 inches high, 3 feet 5 inches wide and 2 feet 7 inches deep. The first example shown is finished in Mission oak, and this style of finish will prevail unless otherwise specified.

On Monday of this week THE MUSIC TRADES representative was given a demonstration by James O'Connor and Arthur Conrow in the Connorized Music Co.'s factory, at East One Hundred and Forty-fourth street and Austin Place. The demonstration was arranged so as to give such dramatic value as was necessary in order to gain absolutely uninfluenced by visualization, and when THE MUSIC TRADES representative stepped from the elevator to the spacious roll-cutting and experimental rooms of the Connorized company's plant the instrument was in operation. The effect was absolutely bewildering in that heretofore in all his rounds of musical instrument factories (and it may be mentioned, tango parties) a more perfect dance orchestra had not been heard by him. Mr. O'Connor caused ten selections to be played, ranging from the lightest operettas to the heaviest orchestra music, and in every requirement exacted the instrument excelled itself.

The Banjorchestra will prove a handsome addition to the equipments of halls, assembly places and other locations where tangoing is indulged in and orchestra music is required, and a demonstration justifies the prediction that in the Banjorchestra the Connorized Music Co., or, more particularly, James O'Connor and Arthur Conrow, have created a "winner."

Where are they now?

With such a prediction for a bright future, what happened to the Banjorchestra? There are two original Banjorchestras known to exist, or at least remnants of. A complete extant example is yet to be found.

Two companies advertised their own style Banjorchestra, the Connorized Music Company and the Engelhard Piano Company. The Connorized Music Company was established in 1900 from a split of the American Automusic Company, the main manufacturer and sales agent of the "Encore" Automatic Banjo and sole producer of music rolls for it. The Connorized Music Company built the first Banjorchestra in 1914, as stated in the Music Trades article. A later advertisement from a 1915 Music Trade Review features three views of a differently styled mahogany cabinet. The Connorized Music Company was a music roll manufacturer and is not known to have ever manufactured pianos. It is suspected that O'Connor never went into production of the Banjorchestra. The manufacturing rights were given or sold to the Engelhard Piano Company.

The Engelhard Piano Company produced a variety of automatic musical instruments from about 1890 to the late 1920's under various names, Peerless being the best known. The two extant Banjorchestras were made by Engelhard. The most complete was discovered by Rick Crandall, an Encore Automatic Banjo enthusiast, at the California theme park, Knott's Berry Farm. D.C. Ramey Piano Company has restored this historic find. The instrument was serving as a "puppet show" nickelodeon. The banjo and traps had been removed and replaced with dancing puppets. The front soundboard remained where the banjo and traps were mounted and the placement of the banjo and traps could be seen by the shadows left by sun bleaching. The piano and banjo valve chests were left intact.

Although it is known what components comprised a Banjorchestra, since no original rolls or even a tracker bar have been found it is not known how the music was arranged, or how it actually sounded. Perhaps the major stumbling block for the Banjorchestra was the banjo head. Unlike the synthetic-skin heads that are used today, animal-skin heads are very sensitive to humidity, shrinking or expanding with the slightest change. This shrinking and expanding not only affects the tuning of a banjo, but it also affects the picker mechanism. The pickers will pick the strings lighter as the head expands, to the point where they might miss the string altogether. The earlier "Encore" Automatic Banjo constantly had problems like this. A lone banjo going a little flat is one thing, but if it is combined with a stable piano, the skin head banjo will rarely be in tune with the piano and the result could be a little hard to enjoy. Perhaps that is why not a single Banjorchestra has survived intact.

The New Banjo-Orchestra

Some 80 years later, the concept of a Banjorchestra was picked up by the D.C. Ramey Piano Company. Using the two ads, the extant machines and a combined 50 years' experience in pneumatic restoration, Dave Ramey and son, David, Jr., created a unique version of the Banjorchestra. Since it is more of a re-creation than a reproduction, it was named the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra. It is being produced in limited numbers, the first of which was unveiled to rave reviews at the 1994 Musical Box Society International Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas.

The Ramey Banjo-Orchestra has the outward appearance of the late model Connorized Banjorchestra. The cabinet was in fact custom built from the pictures in the 1915 Connorized ad. The cabinet was redesigned with a three-glass-paneled front that can be readily opened to access the banjo and traps as well as offer the option of listening to it with the front opened or closed. Decorative corner filigrees were added to allow the music to penetrate the front with the doors closed and to tie, aesthetically, this new instrument with its ancestor the "Encore" Automatic Banjo. As with the original Banjorchestras, the piano of the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra swings out for easy access and servicing.

The tracker bar of the new Banjo-Orchestra has 100 holes, which by means of a little multiplexing, allows full accompaniment to the banjo. This means that the piano can play the full range of its scale and is able to carry the melody with full treble capability. In contrast, it is believed that the Engelhard Banjorchestra piano could only play accompaniment. By multiplexing certain tracker bar holes, there are effectively enough holes to individually control each trap work device, as well as control the expression of the piano and traps separately from the banjo.

New "Old" Music

The music rolls for the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra, of course, have to be specially arranged. Art Reblitz, noted music-roll arranger, helped create a scale specifically for this new instrument. Original "Encore" Banjo rolls were used as a base for arranging some of the new music. Mr. Reblitz also adapted European orchestrion arrangements for the Banjo-Orchestra's 10-tune music rolls. These historic orchestrion arrangements were inspired by 78 r.p.m phonograph records of American dance band arrangements, played by some of the best 1920's jazz bands, and represents music that would have been available for the original Banjorchestra. This transcribing and adapting allows the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra to play some of the finest music ever arranged for automatic musical instruments.

Unlike most American coin pianos, the music rolls for the Banjo-Orchestra are arranged to be played exclusively by this instrument. The music roll layout perfectly fits the instrument, rather than having to accommodate several models, each being different in its musical capabilities. This singularity of use means that the music arranger does not have to compromise his composition in any way, as to make sure it sounds reasonably good on a differently equipped instrument. The end result is a quality of music unlike anything normally heard from a coin piano.

The obscure Banjorchestra has been re-born 80 years after its inception due to the remarkable interest, enthusiasm, and talents of Dave Ramey, Sr.. Perhaps, someday, a restored complete original Banjorchestra can be seen, heard, and enjoyed next to the instrument it inspired, the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra.


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