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Rare Breed 

With his passion for restoring obscure early 20th century music machines, including the Violano Virtuoso, New Orleanian Bobby Skinner is truly one of a kind.

A warbling waltz rattles the room that provides shelter from the cold, winter rain on lower Magazine Street. Inside the room, Bobby Skinner -- a compact man with an intense face -- hovers around a Violano Virtuoso, a rare, early 20th century music machine that combines a player piano with a player violin. As he carefully tunes the strings of the automated violin, the song wavers on, reverberating off the floor and walls. With the dreary weather persisting, the off-kilter, slightly warped effect on the melodies that squeak out as Skinner carefully adjusts the strings to proper pitch evokes a bittersweet nostalgia. Over the wobbling rendition, the photographer taking pictures of Skinner sighs, "I miss my mom when I hear this."

Skinner is focused on the matter at hand, barely acknowledging the clatter a clump of cables makes when it is knocked over nearby. He is expected to deliver this particular Violano Virtuoso, tuned and ready to play, to its owner in Ohio the next week via rented truck. It is one of a few hundred remaining of the 3,000 originally produced. He has personally worked on about 50 of these increasingly hard-to-find machines. His own Violano Virtuoso of 10 years sits in the room across the hall.

Propped up on its cabinet, a certificate issued by the federal government declares the electromagnetic Violano Virtuoso "one of the world's top eight inventions" as judged at the 1905 Pacific-Yukon Exhibition. Subsequently, it was manufactured for various venues as a sort-of coin-operated antecessor to the jukebox. The Virtuoso's heyday stretched into the 1930s, a popular spectacle in places where there was fun to be had -- candy stores, theater lobbies, gambling dens, brothels.

In our current era of rapid technological change, the Violano Virtuoso remains unique as a mechanical creation. "It's just a rush that somebody actually produced something like this," Skinner says. "You can imagine what people thought about it in the '20s if it's impressive now. These days it's hard to impress anybody with this kind of technology. You're gadgeted to death."

A flight attendant during the week, Skinner pursues his passion for reviving such melodic contraptions in between flights. Throughout his workshop and the surrounding rooms, there is a sense of Old World craftsmanship at hand as Skinner and his apprentice, Patrick Mackey, patiently restore these instruments to their original grandeur. To Skinner's discerning ear, the Violanos are more novelty item than music-maker: "They're interesting. The violin machine is a lot of fun to watch and to hear it and to realize that they actually made this thing. But is it musical? Sometimes."

What he most cherishes working on are the carefully crafted "reproducing pianos" designed in the early 20th century by companies such as Chickering, Steinway and Baldwin. Across the hall from Skinner's Violano workshop, Mackey diligently prepares a Chickering for its soon-to-arrive owner. "These are the machines that really keep me going because they are really fine, fine instruments -- good instruments, not just honky-tonk bangers," Skinner emphasizes. In the 1920s and '30s, the companies that produced these instruments enlisted the loyalties of the greatest composers and performers of the time, soliciting talent from classical, hit parade and the then-burgeoning jazz genres. "Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin ... each company maintained their own artists and produced music rolls exclusively for their company's player pianos," Skinner says. "The arrangements are just exquisite, and it sounds like someone's really playing the thing, not just banging out a bunch of noise." Skinner and Mackey finally finish working on the Chickering model and are able to listen to it play -- a reward for their efforts. The felt-headed hammers fly in the interior while the keys animate. As a jaunty piece by Rudolph Friml called "Rackety Coo!" spools along, the ghost fingers of the long-dead maestro flutter and declare up and down the length of the keyboard.

Skinner's eyes beam. "A lot of these haven't functioned in sixty years or more. The rush, to me, comes during that quiet time after working on these things when you can sit back and listen to a machine perform the way it's supposed to. That's the kick. Without these remaining machines, all of this music simply doesn't exist anymore."

Along with the rare instruments are a variety of early to mid-20th century curios. Skinner owns a version of the first Wurlitzer jukebox made available to the public. Distributed in 1939, it features the motto, "Our only ism is Americanism." A line of 1950s-ish beauty salon chairs and their accompanying hair dryers sit in his kitchen across from a monitor-top icebox from the 1920s. Elsewhere are crank-operated phonographs, early home radios in their small wooden cabinets, antique clocks, weathered steel fans lined up by size, and old piano consoles in various states of disrepair. Across the hall stands a "Fun Chicken," an arcade machine in which a mechanical chicken squawks, rotates and drops a prize-filled egg for a quarter.

Skinner's passion for keeping music machines alive goes back 25 years. He began by educating himself on the rare craft of rehabilitating player pianos and sought tutelage from Hardy Oglesby, the only man doing such work in New Orleans at the time. At first, Skinner would focus on the player (the automation aspect) while Oglesby rebuilt the piano itself. Learning quickly, Skinner was soon doing all of this work on his own. The first player piano he rehabilitated is still functioning in Abbeville. As he gained experience and expertise, he eventually established a reputation as the man to call not only for player piano repair, but for pipe organ maintenance as well. While a student at Tulane University, Skinner restored his first pipe organ, which was in the home of then-university president Sheldon Hackney.

Around Mardi Gras 2000, Skinner decided to acquire his own theater pipe organ. He determined he could set up such a behemoth, with its keyboards, blower and attending ranks of tubes, bars, bells and whistles, on the first floor of his home in the Lower Garden District. He would build the chamber necessary to house the organ's speaking parts within the framework of the building.

He put the word out that he was in the market for this type of organ. The Theatre Organ Society in Indianapolis contacted Skinner to inform him that a pipe organ was available from the Los Angeles Ambassador Theatre. The Biltmore Hotel in L.A. would be converting the theater into a ballroom and needed it out of the way. Skinner purchased it and drove it back to New Orleans in a 16-wheeler he had rented and commenced assembling the beast while customizing his home to accommodate it. Skinner demonstrates its tremendous sound capacities as "Down Old Southland" plays. The effect is stentorian, as the instrument booms and bellows through the special room holding the bulk of its parts. Different sections are summoned by flicking down tabs here and there. Skinner depresses the tab labeled "Orchestra Bells" and a special section of bars framed 10 feet high is called to action. A comical percussive harmony commences via mechanized sticks on wood bars, hearkening the image of an old black-and-white Betty Boop reel.

A month later, sun shining through French doors onto a newly acquired silent movie theater organ, Skinner recounts his travails delivering the Violano Virtuoso to its proper residence in Ohio. He spent New Year's Eve on the road in a blizzard, "stuck in the Smoky Mountains with that thing in the back of a trailer," he recalls. "Slept in the car with the car running for heat because I couldn't see to drive to a hotel. [The owners] were thrilled to get it. It hadn't played in half a century.

"I plugged it in and it played beautifully after a thousand miles through the snow," Skinner recalls. "So that's pretty good testimonial for how tough they are."

click to enlarge 'Without these remaining machines, all of this music simply doesn't exist anymore.' -- Bobby Skinner, of the automated antique instruments he restores - RON BOCIAN
  • Ron Bocian
  • 'Without these remaining machines, all of this music simply doesn't exist anymore.' -- Bobby Skinner, of the automated antique instruments he restores
click to enlarge One part player piano and one part player violin, the Violano Virtuoso hails from the early 20th century. - RON BOCIAN
  • Ron Bocian
  • One part player piano and one part player violin, the Violano Virtuoso hails from the early 20th century.
click to enlarge In the 1920s and '30s, the Violano Virtuoso could be found wherever there was fun to be had -- candy stores, theater lobbies, gambling dens, brothels.
  • In the 1920s and '30s, the Violano Virtuoso could be found wherever there was fun to be had -- candy stores, theater lobbies, gambling dens, brothels.
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