We’ve all heard (or at least heard of) player pianos, but many carnivals in the early part of the 20th century employed automated theatre-type organs that included not just pipes and reeds, but percussion such as drums and xylophone. Like on player pianos, they read paper scrolls in which punch-holes of varying positions and sizes determined which notes were played--think of it as early sequencing. (In fact, this is the origin of the familiar term “piano roll view” in modern sequencing software.)
Lest you think that the song selection is limited to chestnuts you might hear in the Boardwalk Empire universe, some enthusiasts are preserving these fascinating machines and even creating new player scrolls for them. For example, Alexey Rom’s original arrangement of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for this gorgeous 1905 player organ, which belongs to noted equestrian Bill Nunn. The results are surprisingly lovely. The iconic operatic rock song proves a perfect fit for the organ’s steampunk palette of timbres.
Almost as cool is this Aeolian pipe organ with a retrofit to make it automated, playing “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker.