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Mechanical Music Men

May 01, 1988|M.V. MOLLOY and T. HILGERS | Molloy and Hilgers are Honolulu free-lance writers

PARIS — Nearly all visitors to this city stop by the popular Pompidou Center, which displays modern dance, street art and punk paraphernalia.

But less than a block away is a small garden in which real grapes still grow. Behind the grapes, known only to few weekend visitors, exists a fascinating world.

At the end of Impasse Berthaud--a small cul-de-sac off the Rue Beaubourg at the northeast corner of the Pompidou Center, is the Musee d'Instruments & Mechanique--the Museum of Mechanical Music.

In an old Paris house the Henri Triquet family and their friends have created a mechanical wonderland. In the house are castle-like organs, no-hands pianos, a self-playing accordion and a self-strumming banjo.

Walls are covered with moving pictures in which people stroll, birds fly and ships rock on the waves.

In an hour-long exhibition, Jacqueline Cartron, Triquet's daughter, turns wheels, winds keys, pushes buttons and sometimes inserts a coin into the machines to set them in motion.

Victrolas Still Play

A tour begins with the museum's gramophones. Some 50-year-old victrolas still play. The most unusual looks like an old wall telephone. Listen and you'll hear Enrico Caruso singing.

The same room also houses several organs that grinders used to play in Parisian squares and parks.

Songs are coded on cards that are folded accordion-style and fed through the organs. Mme. Cartron handles the cards, but a young man turns the wheels of the larger organs.

The biggest organ, the size of a small trailer, has been electrified. Children generally are delighted with the brightly colored figures that ring bells, clang cymbals and move their heads, all in time with the music.

In another room, duets are played on a piano and a violin, both in the same case. Player pianos are not all that unusual, but a player violin is. The sound of this violin is produced by wheels of floss that turn rapidly on the strings.

The machine, the "Violano-Virtuoso," was made in Chicago about 1900. A sign on it proclaims: "Designated by the United States government as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade."

Most player pianos simply belt out a tune. Not so this one. An elaborate mechanism plays from the softest pianissimo to a drumming forte. If you ask, Mme. Cartron might demonstrate with a roll of George Gershwin playing "Rhapsody in Blue."

Upright Banjo

Looking for musicians for your next club dance? The museum has a life-size duo, an accordionist with a working accordion and a drummer whose head moves back and forth with the beat. They play dance tunes.

No one can resist the charms of an upright banjo whose strings are held and plucked mechanically by metal fingers. Meant to accompany dancers, even today it makes the room extra lively and sets toes to tapping.

The museum also has a variety of music boxes, most of them far different from the one in which grandma kept her jewelry.

One shows a boy, dressed in burgundy knee-pants and a cap, whistling a simple tune. Another is a female snake charmer whose cloth-covered snake slowly writhes in time to the sounds of the music box below.

Smokes a Cigarette

Some machines don't play music. They belong to the collection of mechaniques simples (quiet marvels). Among them is a man in a tuxedo who lifts a monocle to his eye with one hand and raises a lighted cigarette to his lips with the other.

He inhales slowly, tosses back his head, exhales the smoke and closes his eyes.

On a nearby wall is a large apparently flat portrait of a middle-aged man. Wind the key. The man's eyes and mouth begin to change, every so slowly, from an expression of serenity to astonishment and then back again.

Film director and producer Steven Spielberg, when he visited the museum in 1986, sat enthralled for 20 minutes watching this early example of animation.

Family Picture Album

If requested, Henri Triquet may play the most personal of his music boxes. While the base produces an old folk tune, a mechanical hand flips through a set of old photographs, the Triquet ancestral portraits.

The mechanical marvels, or automates as they are called in French, vary in size from the grand organ and a mechanical duo-art piano to a tiny man playing "Silent Night" on a xylophone six inches wide.

Henri Triquet operates this museum, opened in 1983, as his hobby. From Monday through Friday he runs a service station, but on Saturday, Sunday and holidays he shares his collection with the public from 2 to 7 p.m. Admission is 25 francs for adults (about $4.50 U.S.), 15 francs for children up to 12 years.

The Impasse Berthaud is a narrow alley that runs northeast from the corner of Rue Beaubourg and Rue Rambuteau at the northeast corner of the Pompidou Center.

The Metro stop is Rambuteau. From there it takes only a minute to get to the museum.

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