Thursday, March 29, 2007

Marvelous music-making machines

Lydia Aisenberg, THE JERUSALEM POST Feb. 14, 2007
Follow the signs down the winding pathways of Ein Hod, the artists' village on the Carmel, to the Nisco museum of antique mechanical music boxes and toys, probably one of the only music centers in Israel that can function through a power cut.

US-born former documentary film maker Nisan Cohen began his captivating collection of small and large music boxes, hurdy gurdies, hand-operated automatic pianos, gramophones and a host of other antique musical instruments about 40 years ago. Cohen traveled the world during a filmmaking career that began in the 1950s. "The first music box that got me hooked on the habit was in a Long Island antique shop I visited during a break when on location there with NBC," recalls the larger-than-life, charismatic cinematographer.

The music box was made in America in 1895 by the Regina manufacturing company. There were just two music box manufacturers in the States, he explains: the Regina and Otto companies, until Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph - the first device to record and reproduce sound - stormed the home entertainment market in the early 1900s, closing the lid on the mechanical music box industry. "The Regina company closed after Edison came on the scene but the Otto company switched to making vacuum cleaners and is still in business to this day," recounts Cohen, whose collection of antique mechanical music boxes now numbers over 150 items.

One of those items is seven feet tall and six feet wide: The Aeolian Orchestrelle organ was manufactured in England and Cohen had it shipped to the US some 15 years ago. A few years later the beautiful sounding organ was on its way to Israel, together with a coin-operated German manufactured machine that Cohen says was the first jukebox to stand in a railway station.

It would seem that each item in the Nisco Museum has a story or two behind its melodic bars. "My music boxes and toys are all mechanical, they need to be wound up and therefore we are physically involved in giving them life - I just do not like pressing buttons," says Cohen with a grin.

The toys sit on shelves and tables in a small, marvelously cluttered shop entrance to the large hall. The brigade of versatile, mostly tin wind-me-up-and-see-me-strut-my-stuff toys are amazing both for what they can do, and their ability to open long-closed doors down memory lane to toys we cherished in the 'good old days.'

Cohen actually ran a number of mechanical toy stores in the US at one stage, and obviously found it difficult to part with his accumulated stock, so all made aliya - lock, stock and music barrel - together. "My dream was to share my collection with the people of Israel and so I started looking around for a suitable venue," he explains.

When the Ein Hod locality was approached with the idea of giving a home to Cohen and his mechanical company, the dream became reality. What was originally a community center, later used as a dance school and lodgings for budding artists, became the Nisco Museum of Mechanical Music.

He has also established an archive of old Yiddish gramophone records recorded from the early l900s to the beginning of the Second World War. Cohen - whose wicked Jewish-American sense of humor, marvelous range of facial expressions and equally expressive hands might well have developed into a successful career on the other end of a

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