Still Old School: Kennywood Prepares Its Century-Old Carousel Organ For Another Season

Apr 28, 2017

The “Soul of Kennywood” is how some refer to the band organ that sits in the center of the park’s carousel.

It’s a century old and each year before the park opens for the summer, it gets serviced. For the last two years, Joe Hilferty has been the man tuning and fixing the organ, which consists of a series of wooden pipes encased behind a pane.

“It’s mostly all wood, the pipes – you got violins, flutes, trumpets, set of bells on the front … there are metal frames where the rolls operate off of,” said Hilferty. “But other than that, it’s mostly wood.”

Located in the middle of carousel, the organ is mostly protected from Pittsburgh’s wet weather. But the humidity can affect its sound. Hilferty services a couple of other organ models in different parks, and he said each aged instrument has different needs.

Joe Hilferty checks something under the front of the band organ. Tuning and servicing can take a full day.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

“This one’s not too bad, this one just needs tuned up and a few things here and there,” he said. “It just depends on what it needs and after a while you have to rebuild certain parts of it, but once it’s rebuilt it lasts 10 years, sometimes more.”

The organ received a full restoration in 2010. Instruments like these were once a staple of carousels at amusement parks and carnivals around the country.

“This one here, it’s a Wurlitzer,” Hilferty said. “They were the major manufacturer in the United States back then. This model is the 153. This is the first one they built, it’s about a hundred years old.”

The same Wurlitzer model can be found playing at amusement parks in Hershey and Allentown. Others in the state can be found in private collections or museums.

Hilferty, originally from York, Pa., has been doing this kind of work for 40 years.

“I just fell into it,” he said. “Started in player pianos like most of us did. These operate like player pianos – it’s a roll and you pump through a piano and it plays a music roll. And these do the same thing, but instead of playing piano notes, they’re playing organ pipes.”

The front panel of the organ is set off to the side, it will be put back over the organ after tuning and servicing is done.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

It takes about a day to tune up the organ. And while there’s a certain amount of nostalgia associated with what he does – especially while working among the colorful, ornate horses sprinkled throughout the carousel – he doesn’t glamorize what he does.

“You know, I’m a mechanic,” Hilferty said. “We work on the insides. To me, it’s a job. It’s how I make my living.”

Many parks are switching to digital music rather than organs, according to Hilferty. He said electronics don’t wear out the same way wooden organs can. But as for Kennywood, he said the organ is ready for the new season and many more. 

Kennywood opens to season pass holders this weekend and will be open to the general public on weekends in May, with it opening to seven days a week later that month.