Back in 1933, the famous (at least in percussion circles) Clair Omar Musser created a unique orchestra for the Chicago World’s Fair (aka Century of Progress International Exposition). Musser was an accomplished mallet player, conductor, and educator, and he joined the J.C. Deagan company in 1930 as the manager of its mallet instrument division.
The Century of Progress Marimba Orchestra Musser put together in ’33 consisted of 100 Deagan marimbas that were specially designed for the occasion. The group consisted of 75 3.5 octave models, and 25 of the 4.5 octave versions. Each member of the orchestra purchased his or her own instrument, which came with a plaque bearing the owner’s name and a serial number.
I was browsing on a popular online auction site not too long ago, and was surprised to see one of these rare instruments was for sale. While I don’t play a lot these days, I was intrigued by the idea that I could own a small piece of percussion history. The price was pretty reasonable, and while I’m not normally an impulsive person, I found myself clicking on the “Buy It Now” button.
As luck would have it, the owner was living in Toronto, and he offered to drop it off at my home the next day. He had purchased it from the family of the original owner a few years back after seeing an ad for it on Craigslist (yes, there are hidden gems on Craigslist).
The instrument I now own is serial number 78, and it originally belonged to Harold August Maves. It’s one of the 3.5 octave models, and it’s in pretty good shape for an 80 year-old instrument. The brass resonators are pretty tarnished, but I love the Art Deco design. The bars were re-tuned a couple of years ago by the legendary Gilberto at Century Mallet Instrument Service in Chicago. It sounds fantastic – I had heard stories about how good the old rosewood bars are, and the lower end does seem to have a fuller sound than my Marimba One instrument.
Being a percussionist means you never have to stop collecting. There’s always something out there that catches your eye – a new cymbal, rope-tensioned snare drum, triangle beaters, Tibetan prayer stones, or a vintage marimba. Don’t tell B, but I’m secretly hoping to come across a vintage Deagan xylophone to add to the line-up.
I know Steve Weiss has an interest in the Century of Progress marimbas and is keeping a list of known instruments and original owners. You can visit his page here for more details.
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