Max Hurley wears a name tag that reads "Carousel Technician." A silver-haired Washingtonian, he figures he's the only man in the region with that job title, and as he ramps up his daily routine — the same one he has practiced since 1978 — you don't doubt it. Who else possesses his oddball blend of skills?
Hurley, 63, runs the Dentzel Carousel at Bethesda's Glen Echo Park, the historic, 15-ton merry-go-round with 52 hand-carved riding animals that turns 90 years old this summer. For years, writers have waxed eloquent over its power to conjure the golden days of cotton candy and penny arcades.
That magic wouldn't happen were it not for the equally majestic contraption a few feet away.
Twelve feet high, gilded with hand-painted scenes, boasting 256 wooden pipes, two castanets, shutters that open and close and a 24-bell silver glockenspiel, the park's 1926 Wurlitzer Military Band Organ (Style 165) is one of 24 ever built and three still in operation. Hurley is its maestro.
"There's a lot to the daggone thing," he says.
After polishing brass and tightening screws on the merry-go-round, Hurley can't suppress a smile as he crosses over toward the Wurlitzer, a machine that might qualify as a full orchestra if it had a conductor or any musicians.
Maintaining it is pretty straightforward, says Hurley, a former auto mechanic and a man who has played accordion and piano since he was a boy. An organ specialist from Baltimore tunes it regularly, a proposition that takes four hours per visit.
But Hurley's daily task is a window on how it works. His first order of business: change the two paper rolls that make the music.
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., the Tonawanda, N.Y.-based firm famed for making pipe organs and jukeboxes for generations, designed the band organ so it can play music continuously, first one roll, then the other.
Hurley was here for six hours the day before, and the 20 songs loaded into the machine are still ringing in his head. "I love the music, but everybody needs variety," he says, choosing another pair of rolls from the park's collection of 163.
He unfastens two end clamps, removes one roll and stores it in a long black box. Conditions in the room (it's heated in winter) help extend the lives of these two-pound masterpieces. In 32 years, Hurley says, he has lost one or two rolls to irreparable tears, but none has degraded on its own. He inserts a selection of Broadway hits, fastening its vinyl leader to a metal loop.
A band organ works a little like a music box, he says, but rather than using a cylinder with raised teeth to dictate which notes to play it relies on the roll of paper, which is punched full of tiny holes.
The whole operation hinges on pneumatic power. An old G.E. motor runs a bellows, creating a steady stream of forced air. That air proceeds into a "tracker," a horizontal brass cylinder that contains 75 tiny holes of its own. A second motor drags the paper across this cylinder. As holes in the paper cross holes in the tracker, air shoots through.
Each burst of air activates a valve deep inside the organ, which in turn creates a note from one or more specific instruments out front. As the paper roll moves through, the Wurlitzer "band" — viola, bass, organ, piccolo, castanets — swings to life, filling the bungalow-like building with the sounds of pre- World War II hits, from "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" (1910) to "When You Were The Blossom of Buttercup Lane (And I Was Your Little Boy Blue)," a foxtrot from 1931.
Hurley uses the same philosophy today that he used fixing cars. "Anything mechanical, if you don't maintain it on a regular basis, you'll have problems," he says.
He removes the tracker, blows through each hole, and clamps it back in. The new rolls are set.
In the organs' heyday, Wurlitzer employed a few individuals, long since dead, who knew enough about music and about machinery to make the rolls. Back in the late 1980s, chafing at the narrow range of the music, Hurley sat down with some blank rolls and a metal-marking punch, teaching himself through trial and error to arrange favorites like "Sentimental Journey," "The Entertainer" and " Tangerine."
Among his discoveries: an unspooling roll gets smaller as a song proceeds, so you must use larger spacing as you go. He made nine rolls, spending more than 800 hours on each. He's now one of a dozen or so people who can practice this art.
It's not the only skill that could vanish when Hurley eventually retires. The job pays little, and no apprentice has emerged.
By 10 a.m., it's nearly 90 degrees out as moms and their kids start lining up in front. Hurley throws a switch. The great machine groans, the castanets shake, the shutters start to open and close, and "76 Trombones" thunders forth. For now, it's the good old days.