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Article posted: 9/8/2013 10:46 AM

Decatur man loves 'happiest' music makers


DECATUR, Ill. -- David Mahr is a purveyor of "The Happiest Music on Earth."

The Decatur man is a member of the Carousel Organ Association of America and is a collector of hand-cranked street organs, nickelodeons, player pianos and all forms of mechanical music.

He attends six or seven organ rallies a year in locations east of the Mississippi River. "There are 500 of us in the Organ Association," Mahr said. "We're dedicated people, we bond together. In July, my wife, Pat, and I took part in the German Fest in Milwaukee, Wis., 165,000 people. Most people have never seen a street organ or a lap organ. They are entranced.

"The carnival-type upbeat music makes you smile, it never fails," Mahr said. "The Organ Association is dedicated to enjoying, preserving and sharing knowledge of all outdoor mechanical musical instruments, including band, fair and street organs, calliopes and hand-cranked organs of all sizes."

The street organs were manufactured in Europe. They operate on a paper roll with holes punched for the notes, like a player piano. Turn the crank and hit a button to operate the stops for flute, violin, piccolo, trumpet, bass and bassoon. Hundreds of songs can be played.

"My focus at present is with street organs," Mahr said. "My wife and I meet people and acquaint them with our instruments. We need to bring these to the masses, make them happy."

Mahr has been using a lap organ, which weighs 12 pounds. He turns the crank like the organ grinder with the monkey in early days. He has a toy monkey, too. And sometimes his wife dresses in a monkey costume. Think of the smiles. It's a visual attraction as well as musical.

The happiest music man in Decatur has player pianos, one which exactly reproduces intonation and shading, the nuances, as if the pianist was a few feet away. He has a calliope. He has a music box from the early 1900s. He has a stationary organ that plays 11 different instruments when you insert a coin. The 1916 nickelodeon Mahr rebuilt with 2,000 hours of labor has a stained glass exterior.

Mahr was fascinated by the mechanics of player pianos when he was growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After graduating from Iowa State University in Ames, he rebuilt a player piano. He was encouraged by a brother, Douglas, in California who also liked to rebuild music machines.

Employed by Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Minneapolis, Minn., when the firm moved to Decatur in 1969, he came along. He continued at ADM in labor relations and human resources, retiring in 2001 to devote more time to "The Happiest Music on Earth."

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