Bob’s Symph, A.K.A The One! : A tale of a Symphonion Grand Monstor Automat. By Mark Singleton
Back in the early day’s of my collecting, by a mix of pure chance & circumstance, I was introduced to mechanical music enthusiast & true master of disc box restoration, Bob Minney.
Little did I know that for the next 25 years I would be a regular visitor to his home, which entailed a four to five hours drive in each direction.
Bob was recently retired from his profession as a design engineer at Vauxhall (GM) motors in Luton Bedfordshire, a career which obviously stood him in good stead for what was one of his great pleasures. Mechanical Music.
Bob had a brusque ‘no nonsense’ demeanour, which commanded immediate respect. So you knew right from the off where you stood, and woe betide anyone who didn’t play to these old school rules.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that behind this hard man exterior, lay a helpful & extremely willing soul, a man who would strive hard to help, with expert restoration and knowledgable advice, interspersed with relevant tales from past encounters with both man & machine.
Bob was a recognised authority/ guru/ genius on all matters relating to disc boxes, & I lived and breathed for them (still do) he had a great collection, and I was trying to build one: (still am) I’m sure you get the picture.
Sat in the corner of Bob’s lounge/workshop sat a big impressive looking Symphonion, so nervous on my first visit, I hardly dared to look, let alone ask! On my return home I quickly consulted The Bowers Encyclopaedia ( still the best! ) and looked it up. The Grand Monstor Automat 192. The number denoting the amount of teeth on the combs, set in duplex fashion. Playing disc’s of 25.1/4 diameter.
Upon my return some three months later to collect a small job that Bob had agreed to help me with, I plucked up the courage, cleared my throat: “ Excuse me, but I couldn’t help notice that wonderful looking machine last time I called and wondered if I may hear it play?”
Bob gestured towards the machine, and I literally tripped over my own feet as I made my way to this machine. Looking feverishly around for a penny, he pointed out it had a push/pull start behind the winding handle.
With baited breath, mouth agog, and a huge adrenalin rush, It started, not knowing what to actually expect, I stood back and was blown away by it’s ethereal performance. Soft, mellow, sonorous, with a deep fully rounded, yet gentle base, liquid mid range and a silver bells treble.
Wow! . . . I looked over at Bob, who gave a gentle, all knowing ‘what about that then! ‘ type nod . . .
I enquired if this was the Same machine credited to him in Graham Webb’s ‘The Disc Musical Box Handbook’ ?
‘Good gracious no!’ was his swift reply ‘That was a dreadful machine’
‘Actually that machine came from up North where you live!’
‘Oh?’ I enquired and he proceeded to to tell me the following story.
Back in 1958, two young lads, the Moss bother’s, travelled by train to Blackpool for a weekend trip.
( Blackpool, being a some what frothy and often bracing seaside resort, home to England’s answer of Coney Island: The Pleasure Beach)
On alighting from the train, the brothers set off to find digs (accommodation) within minutes they heard a music box playing in a guest house, knocked on the door, and upon being answered by the landlady of the establishment, one brother asked ‘ Excuse me, but you have a music box playing’
‘May we come in and listen?’
‘Yes’ ( it was normal in days gone to knock on at a boarding house & inspect the premises were to your suiting before handing over any money)
After listening and obviously impressed, they enquired if it might be for sale. It was, and after a little haggle they agreed on the princely sum of £11
At this point the Moss brother’s returned to the train station, armed themselves with a sack truck apiece, forwent their weekend of Wine, Women & Song. . Having now ‘spent up’ they split the machine in two and returned home with the monstor Symphonion a couple of hundred miles South.
Some 5 years later in 1963, a young Bob had to part with £40 to acquire this piece, a considerable sum I guess back then.
So my quest to find one for myself started, along the way I enquired with just about everyone I met within the MBSGB. Back then it was a very friendly society, full of old boys, happy and willing to share their knowledge. Many knew this machine, and referred to it as ‘ ‘The One’ it soon became apparent that not only was this case style rare, but this particular machine was held in high regard by all that knew her.
Many years passed before one surfaced, it was an incredible survivor, having sat in a small house in the midlands were it was sent for repair in 1926. The mainspring was broken, as was the endless. It was repaired alright, by myself, about 75 years later. Fortunately due to it’s early commercial retirement all was shipshape on the bedplate, and it played beautifully, what was not to like? . . . Well it just could not compare to ‘The One!’
Upon my next visit to Bob, collecting a job fo myself, and leaving a Polyphon bedplate for an acquaintance, I told him of my eventual good fortune, but how it didn’t compare. ‘ Well what did you expect?’ Was his very matter of fact response. So I went for broke, didn’t know if I would be thrown out on my ear, or what, for it had been known to happen!
‘It’s like this Bob, I have never coveted anything belonging to any man in my life, but barely a week passes without me thinking of that machine! . . . and I was wondering if you were to ever consider parting with it, would you please consider me as the next keeper?’
He looked at me, quick on the uptake he cut to the quick and replied ‘ Sorry, you are out of luck, when anything happens to me, the Moss brothers want it back . . .OK!’
Well that was that!
Sometime later, out of the blue, Bob rang me, seething, spitting feathers and played merry Hell with me!
‘What’s this you told that chap who came to collect the bedplate that the Symph is yours one day! I told you . . . Etc. Etc.’
Naturally I was shocked, felt physically sick, for I had said no such thing, and told him I had merely advised this chap to listen if the opportunity arose, adding that I would have loved the chance one day, but it was not to be.
A 5 second eternal silence ensued . . ‘Ok, as long as we are clear, I suppose that’s that then!’
‘Crystal Bob, you suppose right! & that is that!’ . . . . We both hung up, one thing was evident, emotions were running high.
Sometime later in the mid 00’s I called in to Bob on a social while passing , for he lived no more than 2 minutes from an arterial freeway serving London. After a little chit chat, and quite out of the blue, his tone changed to serious: “ Had the Moss brother’s round yesterday ” nodding in the direction of the Big Symph “ Gave her a good thrashing, we had a most pleasurable afternoon”
“Oh wow, that’s great, I . . . . I was cut off mid sentence.
“ No listen! we had a good chat, we are all getting old, they agreed they had their enjoyment, I’ve had mine, so it’s your machine! “
With forehead sweating & mind trying to take it in, he added, with a genuinely humble request “ But do you mind if it stays there for now”
Well obviously not at all, after all he was keeper of this machine, and I felt truly honoured.
Later that year, I was visiting a collection in Germany, accompanied by a friend, John Harold, who happened to know Bob as well I. Both of us intrigued to hear the same model, that we were assured by the owner, speaking with great pride, was something special. Indeed it was a fine box, but John took the words out of my mind, when he later turned with a wry smile ‘Obviously they never heard Bob’s then!
Around 2010, a couple of days before a long planned family trip to the USA, Bob’s daughter Marilyn rang to inform me of his passing, after offering my condolences, I apologised in advance for my inevitable non attendance , of course she understood fully and before hanging up she added that the agreement I had with her father still stood.
Of course I would have preferred he remained longer ( hey we lost Yoda) but shortly after the Big Symph headed back to the Blackpool area after a 50 + year hiatus.
Out came my Symphonion, in went Bob’s Symphonion ( which it’s currently known as) to much shaking of heads by family member’s who thought I had lost the plot.
Now this machine had sat on a carpet, with a curtain to one side, and a fabric sofa, with soft cushions immediately to the front. I had seriously under estimated how this altered it’s acoustic properties. In my home, it sat on a traditional suspended bare hardwood floor, quite spartan in comparison, and quite a soundboard. Out went the super smooth, mellow machine that we all knew and loved, in came a powerful voice akin to Pavarotti in his hey day.
Different again, but retaining it’s unique colours, tonal qualities, Musical ability and true soul.
A German collector/ dealer friend called to see me at my then place of business to collect a large Polyphon disc player, after loading he enquired ‘“Mark, is it true you have this machine they called the one?”
He must have spoken to a really old Boy along the line, because most still alive now, know it by it’s current name.
After a brief discussion, he followed me to my home, and cast his ‘disc box man’ eye over it. . . . 10 seconds into the performance, with finger in the air he declared ‘ Now I do understand!’
Of course we all have our own favourites, and one mans meat and all that, but in the following link, you may hear it play on you tube, or just type in silvertone music boxes
Not that it gives a fair representation as the microphone struggles with the complex frequencies and creates distortion, even from outside the room. Move two feet closer and a recording is an impossibility.
However, anyone reading this is more than welcome to listen to Bob’s Symph in person should they find themselves in the Blackpool area.