Self-playing violin and piano combo restored to former glory

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — You can’t buy much for a nickel anymore. But you can hear a virtuoso violin and piano performance on a rare turn-of-the-century machine recently restored in Memphis.

The Mills Company Violano-Virtuoso, a self-playing piano and violin at the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art, was restored to service last week.

The Violano- Virtuoso is a finely tuned 64-note violin and an accompanying 44-note piano that was put together in 1902 and later presented at the World’s Fair.

“It was considered as one of the best mechanical instrument out there at the time,” Belinda Fish, Museum Director and Education Coordinator at the museum, said.

Perfected in 1912 by Henry Sandell, the Violano-Virtuoso was produced for a limited quantity until 1929.

It was found in the finest restaurants, hotels and ocean liners. It became one of the few American-made musical devices to be distributed worldwide.

"In good working order, there is less than a thousand of them in the world today," Fish said.

Because of the uniqueness of the machine, finding a repairman can be a challenge. Fish knows of only three people in the United States that can service the machine.

"It takes a little time to get repair people in to update the mechanics and keep it in good working order," Fish said.

The Violano-Virtuoso plays using paper strips similar to a player piano. It can play individually or together and the rolls can be changed out on occasion.

Visitors can pay a nickel to hear one song played by the "Single Mills" as it later became called by collectors, and can play continuously for up to an hour before it shuts down to cool off.

Fish said that for the visually challenged, coming to the museum can be difficult but that the Violano provides them a unique experience.

"Having something that is mechanized but still puts out such a beautiful sound and tone to them is important for us but it’s important for them too to understand the beauty of art in sound instead of just the visual," Fish said.

Fish also explained that for every nickel donated the museum gets some additional money that goes towards furthering their education department.

"Buying crafts, reaching out to teachers, providing power point presentation to understand different cultural concepts not only with the Judaic section but also the Chinese or Asian section of our museum as well,"  Fish said.

With so few of them in good working order, Fish says it's "not only a challenge but a labor of love."