Band organ enthusiast brings festival to Olcott - The Buffalo News
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Band organ enthusiast brings festival to Olcott

When you listen to Dan Wilke talk about band organs, you can easily recall the magic of the music accompanying carousel rides of your youth.

In fact, Wilke is adamant that the two go hand-in-hand.

“When young children don’t hear an operating band organ on a carousel, they’re only getting half of the experience,” he said. “A recording just doesn’t do it justice.”

To that end, Wilke keeps the 83-year-old Wurlitzer band organ that accompanies a 1928 Allan Herschell carousel at the Olcott Beach Carousel Park in tip-top shape. Wilke travels from his South Buffalo home to volunteer his time with the organ and operates the park’s carousel and Ferris wheel, as well.

According to Rosemary Sansone, park president, Wilke also is the reason a National Band Organ Rally will be held in Olcott from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at venues throughout Olcott. The event, sponsored by the Carousel Organ Association of America, will feature more than 40 band organs from around the country and Canada, situated along Main Street and in Krull Park.

“It was a treasure to find Dan,” Sansone said. “He’s just wonderful. He loans the park band-organ rolls and is very good about tuning the organ. He even taught us how to ring the bell properly. He really knows his stuff. We are so fortunate to have him, and he’s the reason we were able to get the Organ Rally down here.”

Wilke is a self-described amusement park, roller coaster and organ enthusiast. He recently discussed the upcoming National Band Organ Rally, which will be the third time Olcott has hosted it in the past six years. It also came to Olcott in 2008 and 2011.

“It’s part of Old Olcott Days, which is a heavily nostalgic event, and so it’s the perfect fit,” he said.

I expect collectors to bring 20 small instruments, which will be positioned along Main Street, and 22 large ones, in Krull Park,” he added. “The difference between small and large instruments is that the small ones are hand-cranked, and the large ones are big enough for an electric motor, and most of them are trailer-mounted.”

“There are plenty of antique ones,” he added, “and some represent the two competitors who built them in North Tonawanda – the Wurlitzer Co. and the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works.”

The oldest one is from 1897 – a French-built, fairground organ that belongs to a collector in Massachusetts.

Wilke has been a volunteer at Olcott’s carousel park about 10 years, as well as a committee member there nearly as long. “I’m an amusement park historian and, especially, a band organ hobbyist,” he said. “That park is a real passion of mine.”

His passion is no stranger to his hometown, either.

I am Buffalo’s only organ grinder,” he said. “I’ve been playing for 28 years at the Broadway Market at Eastertime. I own two organs, both built in Germany and hand-cranked, but not too old – one is 28 years old, and one is 14, but they use 150-year-old technology. They work off of air pressure. I operate the bellows, and the pipes make the sounds. Some other organs have reeds. The band organs play small paper rolls – smaller than a player piano’s.

Most play punched paper rolls, but the European ones use something called a “cardboard book,” which is folded like an accordion, with holes punched in the cardboard.

The Olcott showcase is being staged by the Carousel Organ Association of America, which holds five to six rallies each year in different parts of the country.

The organization is fond of Olcott, said Wilke, who added that the event is free and tunes range from classical music to rock ’n’ roll.

It’s a tremendous amount of fun,” he said. “My satisfaction is not only the social aspect with the organization, but by Sunday I can relax, and when I see the crowd enjoying the instruments, then I know I’ve done a good job. It’s part of my personal passion.”

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