Circus Band Organs

Machines recreated orchestral music

Source: “AT THE CIRCUS” Practice Book Series by Rod Everhart, WJU#1351

Mechanical organs were used by circuses during the second half of the nineteenth century.  The term “band organ” came into use in the U.S. around 1895.  The intent of these instruments was to recreate orchestral and military band music via automation, using the organ’s elaborate pipes and percussion to deliver the sound. 

Royal American Gavioli Band Organ at Circus World Museum, Baraboo, WI

One of the most famous band organs in the world is the Royal American Shows Bandwagon.  Built in Europe around 1905, this band organ weighs over 3,000 pounds and is 17 feet wide, eight feet high and four feet deep.  The instrument is housed in a custom-built wagon.  The organ is comprised of several thousand parts, including over 400 pipes, two drums, a cymbal and chimes. It can play virtually any musical composition, from marches to overtures, and effectively re-creates the sound of an 80-piece orchestra.  The organ features an elaborate hand-carved and painted façade covered with real gold and silver leaf.  Included are seven carved figures – two pairs of dancers in a Louis XV wardrobe, two bell-ringers that actually ring the bells, and an animated band-mistress who leads the organ with her head and hand motions.  The façade also presents detailed murals of Greek gods and musical angels.

Circus World Museum has 63 acres of live programming, exhibits, facilities, and demonstrations and has been recognized as the nation’s premier circus history facility. It is located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, original hometown of the Ringling brothers and a circus support industry of tent, wagon and harness makers.  

Circus World’s circus wagon collection features over 225 vehicles from American circuses and abroad and includes a number of fabulously decorated bandwagons.  Among the elaborate and glittering antique wagons is the 1859 Bostock & Wombwell Bandchariot, the oldest circus wagon known to exist. 

Circus World also preserves and presents the world’s largest collection of unique circus musical instruments, including the America Steam Calliope Wagon, the Ringling Brothers Circus Bell Wagon, shaker chimes, rub chimes, unafons, and a 1914 Barnum & Bailey Circus air calliope.  

The Wurlitzer Company, founded in 1853 in Cincinnati, OH started with theater organs and pianos, but became the largest U.S. producer of band organs. They developed the “fairground organ” in the late 1800s in response to a call for louder music in support of mechanical rides at fairs and circus Midways. These devices were also called “barrel organs” and then “band organs”, and were most popular in supporting carousels, or “Merry-Go-Rounds.” Listen to the tune “Our Director” by clicking that title in the caption below with the Wurlitzer Model 165 Band Organ. During the hard times of the 1930s Depression era when demand dropped for its expensive products, Wurlitzer moved strongly into “jukeboxes”, for which they are now best known.

Popular Wurlitzer 165 Band Organ (Click to listen to Our Director March). Often used for carousels or on the circus midway to provide music.
Fairground Band Organ by Ruth Company (Listen to Merry Widow Waltz)
Back side of a band organ with the paper feed roll evident. Some, such as the Ruth Band Organs, used flat connected cardboard sheets as the music delivery device.

About Joe Shearin 16 Articles
Joe (WJU #3773) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG in addition to being a Trustee, Secretary and Trombonist in Windjammers Unlimited.