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Music at Sutro’s Showplace

by Q. David Bower

A Love Affair
Can you be in love with something that is unavailable? The answer of course is “yes.” Novels, poems, paintings, and more attest to the quintessential allure of unrequited love—usually between two human beings.

Can you be in love with something that doesn’t exist? This is not as easily answered, but for me the answer is “yes.” The object of affection is San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House in the French Chateau style, completed in 1896. It caught fire in 1907, and burned to its foundation.

My love affair with the Cliff House began in August 1958 when I had lunch there with a friend. In 1960, I bought my first music box for what would later develop into a nice collection of these, plus coin-operated pianos and orchestrions. I revisited the Cliff House and spent some time looking at their fine collection of such things, including some on one of the display areas of the Sutro Baths. I talked with members of the Whitney family, who owned the business. I shared my enthusiasm regarding the musical history of the earlier Cliff House and discussed the several automatic instruments once located there. Then came a surprise call in 1966: “Would I like to buy the collection?”

You can imagine my amazement! I could not handle them all, but I selected a number of choice examples as well as some printed and other memorabilia. Since that long-ago time—I have maintained my interest in Cliff House history.

Pianos and Orchestrions
Just as the Cliff House was a magnet for tourists, coin-operated pianos and orchestrions placed advantageously on the premises and also at Sutro Baths, were a magnet for nickels and dimes. In 1903, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company featured the Cliff House and its bestselling Tonophone in advertisements. Commissioned by Wurlitzer in 1897, the Tonophone coin-operated piano was made on contract by Eugene deKleist’s North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory. The first order of 200 was delivered in 1899. Music was pinned on 10-tune wooden barrels. By means of an indicator dial on the left side, a patron could select any tune. Each melody was played twice when a nickel was inserted, as otherwise the time was too short.

Barrels cost $40 each but could be rented for $5. The music system was hardly compatible with delivering the latest Broadway or ragtime tunes quickly, but the novelty of electric piano music was such that Tonophones sold quickly. Tonophones were the only coin pianos in the Wurlitzer line until the Pianino was introduced in 1903, the year the name was changed to the deKleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company. Even so, the Tonophone remained popular for several more years.

A 1902 advertisement included this:

The Tonophone is a new automatic instrument constructed on entirely new principles. The style, shape, and dimensions of this instrument are similar to the regular upright piano. In front, in place of the usual wood panels, are introduced beveled plate glass panels showing complete action, and when the instrument is playing it proves a most attractive feature. The mechanism and music-producing parts of the Tonophone are on the principle of the regular piano, introducing pneumatics, controlling, by patented valve, the action of the hammers, which in turn are controlled by the cylinder on which is the music.

The music produced is equal to the efforts and results of an accomplished and artistic pianist. On each cylinder are set ten pieces of music which can be selected by the prospective purchaser.

The motive power is obtained and developed by an electric motor which is furnished either in direct current of 110 volts or alternating current and voltage as may be called for. The motor is set in motion by a nickel, which is received by a nickel-in-the slot attachment.

While in time the Tonophone was eclipsed by paper-roll operated machines, it was the most important American coin-operated piano at the turn of the century. The Cliff House issued dime-size brass tokens for their use. There was an orchestrion in the Sutro Baths and one in the Cliff House dining room, although the latter is not known to have had a coin slot. The vast Cliff House could have had another orchestrion but details are not known today.

In the meantime, on a balcony in the Sutro Baths, a tall and elegant orchestrion played popular melodies as well as classical favorites. Little is known about this particular instrument, other than this photograph. A likely attribution is to Felix Schoenstein, of San Francisco, who initially was a representative for several lines of musical merchandise, and a representative for a family-related factory back in the Black Forest.

In the Grill of the Cliff House, music was provided by a Welte orchestrion. The San Francisco Call, Saturday, August 26, 1905, included this:

The new grill overlooking the sea at the Cliff House will be opened tomorrow with a concert composed of well selected numbers on the $10,000 Welte orchestrion. Thousands of invitations have been issued, accompanied by a beautifully gotten up souvenir, and the management of the Cliff House is prepared to entertain the largest crowd ever at the popular seaside resort.
The $10,000 probably was an exaggeration by several thousand dollars.

In April 1906, when much of San Francisco was destroyed by the earthquake and fire, the Cliff House complex was not affected. In early 1907, the building was vacated, the Welte orchestrion was shipped off to the Casino at Santa Cruz, which ultimately saved it. Redecoration took place during the summer. Then, on September 7, 1907, the Cliff House caught fire, and in a spectacular blaze it was reduced to a pile of embers. It was rebuilt by Dr. Emma Merritt, Adolph Sutro’s daughter, in 1909. George and Leo Whitney, owners of Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park directly to the south, purchased the Cliff House and baths in 1937.


Copyright © 2012 San Francisco City Guides

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At the Cliff House, illustrated in this April 1903 advertisement, two Tonophones entertained patrons.

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Photo credit: Tonophone advertisement, 1903, courtesy of Q. David Bowers.

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In the Sutro Baths, within an arch high on a balcony overlooking rectangular bathing pools, an orchestra provided music on occasion. To the right of the vertical steel column can be seen an orchestrion.

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