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Music To Their Ears

Dee and Gail Clarke, of Watchung, collectors of rare mechanical musical instruments, recently shared information about three of their rarest ones at a mechanical engineering department seminar held at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). The Clarkes discussed their extensive collection focusing on a 1300-pound Wurlitzer 153 Duplex Orchestral Carousel Organ built for a West Virginia amusement park. The rare carousel organ, and two similar ones, all were on display during the talk. The event was part of NJIT’s 125th ongoing anniversary celebration.

Paul Manganaro, a friend of the couple’s, who has restored almost 500 music machines to date and enjoys a national reputation for expertise in this craft, demonstrated the process of a typical restoration during the seminar.

Gail Clarke is a 1944 alumnus of Newark College of Engineering at NJIT and is a long-time NJIT supporter. The instruments were recently on display to honor NJIT’s 125th anniversary celebration.

In 1927, the William Dentzel Company of Philadelphia commissioned the 1300-pound rare, Wurlitzer 153 Duplex Orchestral Organ for a West Virginia amusement park. The organ operated until the park closed in 1971. Daniel Muller, a renowned carousel craftsman, carved the Arabian horses for the carousel.  Muller’s horses featured historically accurate US cavalry gear. The organ, which stands more than seven feet high and eight feet wide, contains more than 150 pipes measuring in length from a few inches to eight feet. The instrument created the sound of trombones, trumpets, flutes, violins and cellos.

A Mills Violano Virtuoso was on view. The instrument is an ingeniously automatically played violin with piano accompaniment that was one of the most popular coin operated instruments ever made in America.  Patented in 1912, the instrument bears a plaque reading “Designated by the U.S. Government as one of the Eight Greatest Inventions of the decade.”  The Link Nickelodeon Model 2 E, a coin operated, cabinet style, keyboardless nickelodeon containing a piano and a xylophone with reiterating action was also discussed. The Link Piano Company in Binghamton, NY manufactured this latter instrument.

Clarke, a mechanical engineer, said that his interest in these instruments is as deeply rooted in science and cultural history as it is in his love for music. Such instruments were a prevalent source of public entertainment from the mid-19th century through the early 20th. Beautifully crafted, they are also technologically complex. In fact, building on the skills and technologies inherent to these instruments, many manufacturers went on to pioneer fields ranging from electrical products to aviation.

The breadth of couple’s interests is also reflected in what Clarke says about choosing to study what he did. The curriculum appealed to him because it drew from so many disciplines, from chemistry to surveying.

“I hope people will pause and reflect on how a creative combination of science and art can make life better,” he said. “You should also be able to take a moment or two and just listen to the music.” 

In 2004, the Clarkes donated a 55-foot tall carillon tower and supporting bell tower to NJIT. The bells of the carillon now sound from a site near the campus center.

Clarke has served as president of the NJIT Alumni Association and has been long active in the affairs of his fraternity, Sigma Pi. The couple also serves on the Leadership Circle Council of the NJIT Annual Fund.

In addition to philanthropy, Clarke’s commitment to NJIT encompasses energetic involvement in alumni activities. After serving as a naval officer in World War II, Clarke followed an engineering and sales career in the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning industry. A visit to a Danish mechanical musical instrument museum in Copenhagen inspired his current interest. His wife, Dee Clarke, a trained musician, shares her husband’s fascination with mechanical devices that make music.