Web Extra! Audio of the Violano
It has 123 separate functions, roughly 1,500 individual parts and 27 miles of wire (each the thickness of a human hair), and it’s all crammed into a mahogany and glass cabinet – along with a violin, a piano harp and hammers, two rollers and a 110-volt DC motor.
And this contraption played Bach’s “Air on a G String” – beautifully – for a delighted and intrigued audience a week ago Tuesday at Pleasant Home, the once-upon-a-time residence of Herbert S. Mills, whose company manufactured this curious mechanical music device known as the Violano Virtuoso.
Air on a G String
The occasion was the annual meeting of the Pleasant Home Foundation, dedicated to the restoration of the George Maher-designed mansion located at the corners of Pleasant Street and Home Avenue.
The foundation used its annual meeting as a “coming out” party for the Violano (a hybrid term combining, like the instrument itself, a violin and a piano). The instrument donated by Evon’s Nuts magnate Jasper Sanfilippo, of Barrington Hills, who owns more of these mechanical marvels than anyone.
Laura Thompson, executive director of the foundation, was on the job one week when she and her husband attended a fundraising event at Sanfilippo’s mansion back in 2004. She mentioned Mills’ Oak Park connection, and Sanfilippo offered to donate one of his 52 machines to Pleasant Home. All the foundation had to do was pay to have it restored, a multi-thousand-dollar proposition in its own right.
The Violano finally arrived at Pleasant Home in 2009, but needed some tinkering and tuning before it was ready for public appreciation. The foundation still needed to raise $8,000 as of a week ago Tuesday when a donor called and offered $4,000. Thompson is hoping someone will match that gift.
To mark the formal unveiling, the foundation invited Terry Haughawout, the man who painstakingly restored this and over 700 other Violano Virtuosos over the last 35 years, and Bob Brown, who holds the rights to the Mills Novelty name (millnovelty.com) and the inventor of a computer interface that allows the machine to play over 7,000 tunes via a wireless computer hookup.
In addition to Bach, listeners that night were treated to Violano versions of “Rocky Top” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
Brown and Haughawout talked not only about the machine but its history, checking periodically with three of Herbert Mills’ descendents in attendance – two granddaughters, Corinne O’Brien James and Judy O’Brien Nordstrom, and great-granddaughter Julie James O’Brien – for verification.
Herbert Mills, it seems, was every bit as intriguing as his machines. The youngest son of Mortimer Mills, who started the business back in 1891, Herbert bought the company in 1895 and changed the name to Mills Novelty Co. By the 1920s, the 375,000-square-foot facility at 4100 W. Fullerton was among the largest employers in Chicago, churning out over 600,000 “arcade” machines (slots, jukeboxes and mechanical music devices).
“Slot machines were the bread and butter of the company,” said Brown, but Mills was always in conflict with the government, which wanted to limit access to gambling devices. To make them look more family friendly, Mills reportedly invented the fruit symbols that still adorn slot machines to this day.
Endlessly inventive and resourceful, it was said that he could walk in on Monday with an idea and by Thursday, his wizards would produce a part to make it happen. Sixty percent of the patents Mills owned were never produced.
“They were extremely inventive people,” said Brown, noting that at the height of the operation in the 1920s, Mills Novelty employed more mechanical engineers than General Motors. They also produced the first refrigerated coin-operated vending machine for Coca-Cola.
The inventions didn’t always go over so well. An early video machine that showed a “girlie” film (tame by today’s standard, Brown said, but lurid for that era) landed Mills in jail for several months. The county was lenient, allowing him to go home on the weekends, but while he was there, he endeared himself to many of his fellow convicts by generously handing out money, and he paid to have the drab facility painted.
When he got out, he threw a big party. Mills had lots of parties, his descendents attested, and they confirmed the longstanding rumor that he had the dining room table at Pleasant Home wired so that, with the push of a button, he could deliver a small electric shock to his guests when they touched their silverware.
“It livened up the parties,” said one of his granddaughters, who now lives in Mills Tower, overlooking the mansion.
In addition to shocking silverware, Mills also had a Violano Virtuoso in the family living room. The person who owns that machine now, in fact, visited Pleasant Home the afternoon before the annual meeting. The Violano currently in the home was built in 1929.
In 1904, Henry Sandell approached Mills about manufacturing his new invention and by 1909, the U.S. Patent Office ranked it as one of the “Eight Greatest Inventions” of the 20th century’s first decade. Mills Novelty morphed that distinction into the marketing slogan, “Eighth Wonder of the World,” to describe their marvelous mechanism.
Mills also manufactured a Double Violano, as well as a Viol-Cello and a Viol-Xylophone. The machines ran entirely by electricity, which had only been in homes for a decade by the time they started rolling off the assembly line. Nowadays, a restored Violano would probably cost $50,000 with the computer interface. Sanfilippo owns so many because “if you pay too much, they find you,” said Haughawout.
They originally cost $2,000, which was a lot of money back then, but the merchants who put Violanos in their cafes and ice cream parlors reportedly could recoup that amount in one year, one nickel at a time.
This was the era before radio and jukeboxes (which Mills Novelty also specialized in). So having a device like this in your house was a big deal.
“People were tickled to death to hear anything,” said Haughawout.
Peering into the cabinetry, watching the hammers strike the piano harp on the back wall and the wheels spinning against the violin strings, it was obvious that people are still tickled by the Violano Virtuoso.