Musically MarvellousJanuary 6, 2018
Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
Walking into Dr. Ted’s Musical Marvels in Dale is a bit like walking into a carnival of yesteryear.
The museum’s walls are covered with antique circus posters and advertisements, and a set of fun house mirrors sits in the center of the room, forcing passersby to look at how the waves in the glass squish and stretch their reflections.
But the main attractions are the towering, brightly-colored and ornately-decorated mechanical instruments — some standing 12 feet tall — that mimic the sound of a full orchestra and fill the pole barn-type building with music not heard publicly for decades. Most are made of wood and feature ornate carvings and figures that move on tracks as the music plays.
In the middle of it all stands Louisville native turned Dubois County doctor Ted Waflart, 76. He began his 30-instrument collection — 12 of them machines about as tall or taller than himself — in 1973 while attending a medical school program in Appalachia. He came across a pump organ, an instrument similar to a player piano that would have been in 19th century homes, and decided he had to have it.
“It just intrigued me,” he said. “It looked like it would be fun to restore and clean up.”
Ted made a career out of family practice and retired from Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center three months ago. Before attending medical school, however, he’d studied mechanical engineering. That background made fixing up a musical machine the perfect hobby. While researching the pump organ to ensure his restoration would be accurate, Ted discovered that people collected the unique instruments. He caught the collector bug and never looked back.
In the years since acquiring that first pump organ, Ted and his wife, Mary K, 67, who live in Huntingburg, have traveled the country and Europe looking for pieces to add to their collection. He has instruments from Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where the giant, yet portable, instruments are still played on the streets for tourists.
Inside, the Dale museum is split into sections set up to show instruments that would have been found in homes, taverns, dance halls and on the street. In the home section, Ted has a player piano, a phonograph and a Regina Music Box made in 1898. In the taverns section, he has a handful of nickelodeons, which were forerunners of the jukebox. People could drop in a nickel to hear a song played off a paper or cardboard roll.
The largest instrument comes in the dance hall section. At 12 feet tall and 24 feet long, the giant, brightly-colored dance organ would have been considered portable in its heyday, moving from dance hall to dance hall. Like the smaller organs — smaller meaning 7 or 8 feet tall and 4 or 5 feet across — this behemoth plays its music off a cardboard book and has drums and accordions built in. Unlike the smaller organs, it has 535 pipes, two saxophones, a woodblock and cymbals. When it plays, the museum vibrates with the music and any hope of a conversation is drowned in the sound.
Ted’s favorite instrument, however, sits in a back corner of the museum behind two carousel horses. It’s a Wurlitzer 153 organ that was made in New York in 1923 before being shipped to Cincinnati where it was bought by an Iowan for use in his ice skating rink. Before the instrument reached the rink, however, the Iowan died. The Wurlitzer stayed in a crate for 30 years before being purchased for use in a roadside attraction. After that, a collector in Minnesota found it, and Ted saw it for the first time in the Minnesotan’s collection.
“I just said to him, ‘You ever sell this thing, put me on the list,’” Ted recalled.
Time passed, and Ted forgot all about the piece. Then, the phone rang. Now, Ted has a one-of-a-kind Wurlitzer in his collection. Only 160 of the Wurlitzer 153 were ever made, but no two are exactly the same. The front facade features a detailed painting, and no two painters were the same.
In its heyday, the Wurlitzer would have been used on a merry-go-round, and that history is part of why the instrument is Ted’s favorite. Growing up in Louisville, Ted frequented Fountain Ferry Park. There, he rode a merry-go-round with a Wurlitzer and fell in love with that organ.
“I just like that merry-go-round organ-type sound,” he said.
Ted describes the sound as somewhat sad, saying that even the peppy tunes have sort of a melancholy sound. A better word, perhaps, would be nostalgic, as the music seems to call back to a bygone era in an effort to restore that time to the present. Ted, too, reaches back to that era and brings it forward with the work he puts into restoring each piece in his collection. And he’s more than happy to share his passion with others, though right now the museum is only open for tour groups of 15 or more. To schedule a tour, call the museum at 812-937-4250.
Ted seems determined to preserve the legacy of his “musical marvels” for generations to come and makes a point of buying pieces that are a little rough around the edges because they’re cheaper, but not that cheap — the Wurlitzer was thousands of dollars — and because he likes to fix them up.
His current restoration project may well be his second favorite piece. It’s a 57-key Gavioli, a French organ. When Ted got it, all it had was the case and pipes. The ornate facade and the drums were gone. That’s not surprising, Ted said. It was probably in some kind of street show, and when nonessential parts broke, they were cast aside. They really only needed the pump and the pipes to make it work anyway, he said.
Determined to restore it to the way it looked coming off the factory floor, Ted started researching. In the process, he discovered that his Gavioli was made at the German factory, the biggest clue being the German newspaper that lined the inner pipes. He also found an early catalogue full of photos he’s using to restore the instrument. He’s been slowly chipping away at the project for 15 years, but now that he’s retired, he thinks he’ll make more headway.
Mary K enjoys listening to the machines play, and she supports her husband’s passion for restoration.
“I think it’s going to be a dying art,” she said.
Despite the hours of work and thousands of dollars Ted has put into his musical marvels, he doesn’t feel like they’re his. Rather, he said, they belong to everyone.
“Right now, it’s my turn to keep them,” he said. “After me, it’ll be somebody else.”
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