Organ grinder is instrumental in bringing rally to Olcott - The Buffalo News

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Organ grinder is instrumental in bringing rally to Olcott

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 next 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 took some time to describe his passions and talk about the upcoming National Band Organ Rally.

Has the National Band Organ Rally been held here before?

This is the third time we’ve hosted one in the past six years in Olcott. It was here in 2008, 2011 and now. It’s part of Old Olcott Days, which is a heavily nostalgic event, and so it’s the perfect fit.

What can we expect at an organ rally?

I expect collectors to bring 20 small instruments, which will be positioned along Main Street, and 22 large ones, in Krull Park. 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, 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 we expect is from 1897, a French-built, fairground organ that belongs to a collector in Massachusetts. It’s the largest traveling mechanical fairground organ in the U.S. Everything that’s coming here operates.

How long have you been volunteering at the Olcott Beach Carousel Park, and how did you get started?

I’ve been a volunteer at the carousel park about 10 years, and I’ve been a committee member there nearly as long. I’m an amusement park historian and, especially, a band organ hobbyist. That park is a real passion of mine.

I am Buffalo’s only organ grinder. I’ve been playing for 28 years at the Broadway Market at Easter time. 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.

How did you help bring the National Band Organ Rally to Olcott?

One of the hobbyist groups I belong to, the Carousel Organ Association of America, is devoted to mechanical organs, and they hold five to six rallies each year in different parts of the country, and they’re holding this one in Olcott.

The COAA loves the setting here.

It’s a tremendous amount of fun. 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.

Tell us more about the rally.

Several people coming to the rally have built their own instruments. One has over 400 pipes, and the owner, who is an Erie, Pa., resident, even arranges his own music and has built his own perforator. He named the organ “Trudy” after his grandmother. Many of the owners also play other musical instruments and will give little concerts through the weekend.

The owners like to get their instruments out there and entertain the public for the enjoyment of playing – that’s the thrill of collecting these instruments, and we hope to expose the next generation to this.

This is a free event, and you will hear everything from classical music to rock ’n’ roll.

Do most carousel parks have band organs?

It’s not always easy to find playing organs on carousels these days. All five carousels in parks on Lake Ontario have organs, but only Toronto doesn’t operate theirs. St. Catharines does, we do, and the two in Rochester do, at Ontario Beach in Charlotte and Seabreeze Park in Irondequoit.

What’s your earliest memory of hearing a band organ?

The bug bit me when I was 3 years old, and I heard the band organ on the carousel at the New Rialto Park in Olcott. I also remember Dealing’s in Tonawanda, another amusement park, and Roseland Park in Canandaigua.

I just loved the music, and it was even neater that the organ had belts and gears and wheels.

It was beyond magical for me, and it’s something that has stayed with me all of these years. It’s glorious music.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email

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