At the moment, the very interesting Violano-Virtuoso in Villa Finale’s collection is more a feast for your eyes rather than your ears. The double violins and up-right piano all need tuning-however-even played untuned, it still conjures up images of dancing in a saloon in the mid-20th century.
Mr. Mathis has two mechanical musical instruments, one is the Violano, the other a Bechstein-Welte reproducing piano (not to be confused with a player piano, which is much less accurate).
This Violano-Virtuoso was one of a couple of thousand produced in the early 20th century for saloons and bars all over the United States and Europe. They acted as Juke Boxes did in the ’50s, you inserted a nickle and it would belt out a catchy tune. It was invented by a man by the name of H.K. Sandell, and manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago; the patent date on Villa Finale’s is June 4th 1912. There are only a few hundred left, and only one man who fixes them properly-Robert Skinner from New Orleans. Mr. Skinner was here last year to fix the mechanics of the Violano and will be back before Villa Finale opens to tune it. The story of our Violano is quite neat:
Otto and Emma Koehler ran what is now known as the Pearl Brewery from 1902 through Prohibition. The brewery stables went through several transformations, even housing an exact replica of Judge Roy Bean’s saloon. I can only think that this is where this Violano may have come from. As the story goes, the Violano was offered to Mr. Mathis by a Koehler family member, who called him up and asked if he would like “this old music box?”, to which Mathis replied an enthusiastic “yes!”. I think when he did that, he was unaware of two things: the size of the “music box” and that his friend expected payment. No matter, Mr. Mathis acquired it and it still plays boldly from the back of the main hall of the house, where it can be heard in every room. Villa Finale has about 75 of the changable rolls with around eight songs each, but the one of waltzes is one that Mr. Mathis preferred.