Kathy Rice, a 15-year tour guide at the Original Kazoo Co. factory and museum in Eden, N.Y. (pop. 8,076), watches as a visitor picks up a kazoo. The visitor, a woman in her 50s, blows on the small end of the metal tube, producing no sound.
"Hum, or sing," instructs Rice with a knowing smile. "From the other end."
Immediately the woman begins playing a tune on the toy instrument.
"See?" says Rice enthusiastically. "The kazoo can be played by anyone and enjoyed by everyone!" The instrument's creation dates back to the 1840s when its inventor, Alabama Vest, a former slave from Macon, Ga., directed German clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg to make a wooden instrument to his specifications. The origin of the name kazoo, however, is unclear. "No one really knows," Rice says.
But it was most definitely Emil Sorg, a traveling salesman, who brought the idea of manufacturing kazoos to western New York around 1912 when he teamed with Michael McIntyre, a tool and die maker. McIntyre later partnered with Harry Richardson, the owner of a metal forming plant, and added metal kazoos to the production line in 1916. McIntyre received a patent for the companys standard model No. D-19 kazoo in 1923.
Today, the factory is America's only metal kazoo manufacturer. Thanks to the industriousness of its 15 part-time employees, the company produces about 11,000 kazoos annually, using the very equipment installed by McIntyre and Richardson: 20 machines powered by a single 10-horsepower motor.
Over the years, the factory has had many owners. Suburban Adult Services Inc. (SASi), a not-for-profit organization that seeks to make life better for physically and mentally challenged individuals, is the current owner. SASi was offered the factory in 2002 as a donation from Brimms Inc., a family business run by Robert and David Berghash.
What wasn't given to SASi as part of the deal, however, was the manufacturing rights to the standard model kazoo. The Berghashes sold those rights to their largest distributor, Woodstock Percussion. The deal included rights to the original name, Original American Kazoo Co., so the Eden factory changed its name to the Original Kazoo Co.
The factory is allowed to make and sell 5,000 standard kazoos a year–and as many specialty kazoos as it can manufacture. The gift shop, which Rice helps run, sells the standard model for $1.99. Specialty kazoos shaped like musical instruments–trumpets, French horns, trombonessell for $10.95, while those in the shape of airplanes, cars or an ear of corn sell for $13.95. The specialty models also are sold through distributors.
The Original Kazoo Co.'s workforce is composed of SASi program participants who work six-hour shifts at their own pace three days a week to keep the factory buzzing and humming.
"They've all been here for at least five years," says line supervisor Sue Cruz, a 25-year factory veteran. "I've never let anyone go. I always find a spot for them."
That spot might be Press No. 18, which tightens the resonator caps, or Press No. 15, which seams the kazoo halves neatly together.
Employee Kevin Norton, 49, loves the seamer, which he calls Big Mama. Knowing how to work all the machines in the 18 steps of kazoo production gives Norton a sense of pride. "I like it here," he says. "I have a nice boss. Nice friends."
Co-worker Sherry Leight, 41, nods in agreement. "This job keeps me busy, out of the house," she says. "And gives me money for the mall."
"Years ago these individuals were institutionalized," Rice says. "Now they can experience a full life." And they're helping to keep the kazoo alive while doing it.