Musical Wonder House

Odd Collections, People
on January 28, 2001

Danilo Konvalinka is a gracious host who greets visitors with a bowl of candies before showing them around his elegant mansion on Maines mid-coast. As fingers touch the goodies, they set off the tinkling melody thats the real treat in the porcelain dish.

Its the perfect introduction to Konvalinkas Musical Wonder House, an enchanting museum a lot like the thousands of vintage music boxes filling its every nook and crannya feast for the eyes, a delight for the ears, and full of surprises.

Here, wooden boxes open to reveal miniature orchestras replete with chimes, snare drums, silver bells, even reed organs. A piano performs a classical composition with all the expression of the composers original 1930 recital, but there is no pianist at the keys. Tunes jingle merrily from unlikely places wine flasks, pen-and-ink sets, even little black dogs.

Master of ceremonies is Konvalinka, 69, who opened his museum in 1963, a year after he moved to Wiscasset (pop. 1,233), an old shipbuilding town near Brunswick, better known today for antique shopping and its claim as Maines prettiest village. The massive 19th-century sea captains homea white elephant to any but the largest family, the real estate agent had warnedseemed plenty big for Konvalinkas modest music box collection. Now, the Austrian native says, my main complaint is that the walls dont stretch. But a true collector never stops, even if he has no place for it.

With dry humor that pokes through his formal demeanor, Konvalinka leads visitors through the maze that has become one of the worlds largest collections of mechanical musical instruments. I dont have much to show you in here, he apologizes, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. I dont know how we could entertain you at all. He opens the door to a lushly furnished room with enough mechanical instrumentsmusic boxes, gramophones, player pianosto keep one entertained for days. And thats just the first room.

Winding through the Victoriana, Konvalinka leaves music in his wake, lifting a lid here, pulling a crank there. From his 1912 Steinway Grand pianola, he coaxes a sound thats a thousand concert halls away from the barroom melodies of its honky-tonk cousins.

Konvalinka has been smitten by this distinctive music ever since he was a child in Saltzburg. Both parents were pianists, and his father, a metalsmith, made the housing for contemporary music boxes popular with American soldiers stationed in Austria after World War II. One day an officer sought the senior Konvalinkas help in repairing an antique box. After I heard that piece, I said, I wish there was another like that in the world, Konvalinka says.

Years later, he found that other piece at an estate sale in Washington, D.C., where he settled in the mid-1950s. Made in Geneva in the 1860s, the handsome box remains a personal favorite. Konvalinka, however, is charmed less by its satiny rosewood veneer than by its sonorous music. Lets not talk over this one, he says, pulling a lever and gazing intently at the spinning cylinder as a tinkling symphony fills the room.

Unlike tinny-sounding contemporary music boxes, the old boxes are true instruments that perform rich, complex compositions. The chief difference: the vintage boxes revolving drums have more pins plucking more metal teeth. Its like playing 18 keys on a piano versus using the whole keyboard, Konvalinka explains.

While most music boxes were made in Switzerland and Germany, Konvalinka has done most of his collecting in the United States, whose soil has been free of the wars that destroyed so many instruments in Europe. Here, do-it-yourselfers are the chief threat to music boxes. People attempt to repair them, and they only make them worse, says Konvalinka, whose collection is really just the hobby side of his business, which specializes in music box repair and restoration.

At the end of a half-hour tour, Konvalinka typically escorts visitors back to the front hall and invites them to return another day. Theres not much up there, he says, gesturing toward a grand staircase, just two or three things you might like to see.