FOR A HISTORY OF THE MUSICAL WONDER HOUSE in Wiscasset, Maine, click below on a LINCOLN COUNTY NEWS article from 2014:
WISCASSET, MAINE — In a stately old home you will find on the shelves and in the drawers, on display and out of sight in Wiscasset’s Musical Wonder House, cylinder records, thousands of them, mixed up and out of sorts. Some are valuable, some are not, but all are windows to a bygone era of recorded sound.
As the Musical Wonder House finished its season, the museum’s staff and supporters looked forward to a busy winter of sprucing up items in a vast collection of music boxes and gadgets. The place is known for miles around for its elaborate wind-up musical cufflinks, shoe brushes, footstools, teapots, cigarette dispensers, snow globes, paintings, and more.
The age-old craft of restoring antique tune carriers may have some computer-based company in this off-season’s workload, though: creating a database that catalogs the venue’s enormous and scattered collection of cylinder records.
Longtime Musical Wonder House visitor and volunteer Glen Gurwitz is an expert on the cylinders, which predated disc-shaped records and were developed in the late 1800s for use in Thomas Edison’s Phonograph machine — or another subsequent imitation.
Gurwitz spent an entire week sizing up the seemingly endless task of sorting through the museum’s cylinders in anticipation of an effort to organize the collection with an online database.
Cylinders were matched with appropriate canisters, which were compared with the correct lids. The old records came from various sources, as people who’d discovered them in attics or garages over the years would offer to donate or sell cartons full of the musical antiquities to the Wiscasset collectors.
“You can’t get this stuff from a book,” Gurwitz said. “You have to be doing it for years. Is it made out of brown wax or black wax, or celluloid? Is it foreign or domestic? Is it vocal or instrumental? Does it play for two minutes or four minutes? Is it something extraordinary or something very average?
“There are thousands of them around here — they’re all over the place,” he continued. “You can open up any drawer in the house and find them. Which ones are worth $5, and which ones are worth $500? There may be some here worth $1,000, but this isn’t a money hunt. This is a way of seeing what they have and taking inventory.”
Gurwitz, who lived in Vermont, is a retired customs inspector on the U.S.-Canadian border south of Montreal, has been visiting the Musical Wonder House since 1969.
The longtime historian of recorded music talked about the old cylinders and their players so contemporary listeners might relate to them.
“People have always valued entertainment,” he said. “At one time, almost every household had a piano or an organ or violin. By the 1920s, most families had some kind of a phonograph, the same way we all have computers and cell phones now.”
The phonograph and similar machines fell out of favor at the end of the Roaring ’20s, as the onset of the Great Depression left many Americans unable to afford new cylinder records to play. In addition, free music and news soon began to be broadcast over the airwaves, and old gadgets like those that populate the rooms of the Musical Wonder House became obsolete.
I remember the day I stepped into the Musical Wonder House to apply for a bookkeeping position for Mr. Danilo Konvalinka. Greeted by a formal but friendly Glen Gurwitz, I was overwhelmed by the cases of shiny, intriguing, vintage music boxes of every size and shape, some so ornate they were pieces of art. Next my eyes skimmed the Grand piano, wind up phonographs, shelves of music sheets, and antique tapestries covering nearly every wall in every room. Ushered upstairs to a room with boxes of random paperwork and receipts to be sorted, calculated and presented to Mr. Konvalinka in a form appropriate for tax processing. After that first day I questioned my motive for accepting such a position but decided to give my effort a second day.
The second day I arrived at the hour expected, near lunchtime. Glen met me at the door and invited me to meet and talk with Mr. Konvalinka, who immediately asked me to call him Danilo. He was cooking and invited me to sit down at his black and white enamel top kitchen table and talk with him as he stirred the dish on the beautiful but enormous eight burner commercial gas stove in his huge old kitchen. His dish, he explained, was a Bavarian specialty (the name now escapes me), made with sauteed and shredded cabbage, grated carrots, fennel seeds, celery seeds, a bit of olive oil, a tiny measure of apple cider vinegar, pepper, and salt. We shared the savory dish as we talked to get to know each other. His history was fascinating, and he certainly had a fascination of everything musical.
At the conclusion of our lunch, Danilo asked whether I would like a “tour” of his establishment. I was nearly beside myself at this invitation and merely managed to nod enthusiastically YES. As we walked from impressive dark room to dark room, (blinds prevented fading his valuable tapestries) the back of his fingertips swiped lightly across each tapestry as he explained its complicated significance and that he personally collected most of them in foreign countries. Some of them were one-off originals. His face glowed with pride, drinking in my excited reactions to each tapestry, obviously significant to him.
Next, we advanced to the shelves and shelves of numerous unique music boxes. Opening the glass doors of one, he gently brought a couple individually off their glass shelves and wound each fragile mechanism to play the tunes just for me. The ornamentation of some of these handcrafted boxes was exquisite, and what an extensive collection! Some of the musical tunes were humorous, some were catchy, and many were classical music tunes. We must have spent hours in that room, him demonstrating how each music box worked, winding and playing the tunes for my fascinated face.
When my bookkeeping project was completed, Glen and I shared another scrumptious lunch and lively conversation with and prepared by Danilo. It was a bittersweet couple of weeks for me as I did not want it to end.
Danilo Konvalinka peacefully passed on in 2015. He was a great and impressive man who loved music. I am richer for having met and come to know him just a little bit. He taught me through the tours of his MUSICAL WONDER HOUSE much more than how to cook that cabbage dish!