Mike and Sandy Schoeppner restored their 1910 Dutch street organ. Photo by Kathy Feist
Neighbors treated to Dutch street organ recital
By Kathy Feist
Historic photo courtesy Mike Schoeppner
Underneath Sunday’s bright blue sky, south Kansas Citians fished, golfed, and bicycled. A few strapped kayaks to the tops of their cars and headed to a nearby lake. But somewhere on a shaded front yard, 20 neighbors gathered—while keeping their distance due to the coronovirus—for an outdoor concert featuring an antique Dutch street organ.
Wearing red suspenders, a Dutch fisherman’s hat and wooden Dutch shoes, owner Mike Schoeppner proudly stood by as neighbors took turns cranking out tunes from behind the organ’s pastel painted wood façade. As they turned a large wheel, air filled the organ’s bellows, a punch card traveled through a reading mechanism and the sound of old-time tunes and polkas drifted across the expansive lawn and into the streets welcoming visitors to a carefree past and present.
“This thing is just phenomenal!” exclaimed one volunteer, somewhat winded from the experience.
Schoeppner and his wife Sandy have been collecting and restoring antique mechanical music machines such as street organs, music boxes, and phonographs since the 1980s. This particular organ, a Stelleman, was purchased in 2010 and over the course of four years, painstakingly restored to its 1932 street organ configuration. “We took apart every last screw and bolt,” said Mike, a retired electronics engineer.
The Dutch street organ is a rare find in the United States, but heavily collected and documented in Holland. The Schoeppner’s organ has been traced to its beginnings in Belgium as a 1910 dance hall orchestral organ. After World War I, it was converted to a smaller, but more mobile, street organ that roamed the streets of Rotterdam, Holland, until 1938. The organ was then switched to traveling carnival use and moved around the Netherlands with the Dalstra Bros Carousel for many years. But the frequent travel on and off boats and across the countryside took its toll. In 1964, the dilapidated music machine was imported to the United States where it exchanged hands several times.
When the Schoeppners purchased it from an estate in Georgia, the wood façade was mostly rotted away, as was the leather, glue and rubber tubing within the mechanisms. But the wood pipes were in good shape, according to Mike. He replaced all the rubber tubing and leather parts, and refinished the worn wood grain to pristine condition.
After restoring the organ, Mike and Sandy rebuilt the façade by making rubber molds of some of its parts in order to recast it. Sandy painted the façade a pastel blue and incorporated scenes from Holland. Their daughter, a former Disney artist, painted tulips. Wooden wheels, recreated by an Amish craftsman in Pennsylvania, were attached to the wooden cart which Mike reframed and built.
Before and after photos of the restored street organ.
There were 15 music books (similar to player piano rolls) that came with the organ. Damaged, they were sent to Holland to be restored. Fifteen additional tunes were purchased, including a few customized arrangements requested by the Schoeppners.
Finally, in 2015, the Dutch street organ was played for the first time in 50 years, thus making its official US debut.
With new tunes and a dazzling newly restored organ, the Schoeppners have taken their pride and joy to the streets, so to speak, showcasing the instrument at a German festival in Milwaukee and an Irish festival in Arkansas and street organ rallies across the country. Locally, it’s appeared at a public library. Mike says he wouldn’t mind showcasing it in the area more often and will keep our readers abreast of any public concerts. Based on the enthusiastic response to the concert video posted on Martin City’s Facebook page, the concert would be very well received by the Kansas City audience. (A newer video from the performance is posted below.)