Museum Artifact: Deagan 4-Bar Dinner Chime Bells & Mallet, 1920s
Made By: J. C. Deagan Inc., 1770 W. Berteau Ave., Chicago, IL [Ravenswood]
“When you summon your guests to the dining room with a Deagan Dinner Chime, your invitation is carried to their ears by the sweetest musical sound in the world. At once compelling, yet entrancingly beautiful, it carries with it the spirit of hospitality, without ostentation, that every hostess wishes to impart.” —ad for Deagan Musical Dinner Chimes, 1927
Chicago was arguably the epicenter of all things percussive instruments in the early to mid 20th century, and two of its biggest producers—Ludwig and Slingerland—are still familiar names. There was a time, however, when the innovations and international esteem of the J. C. Deagan Company topped them all—albeit for a slightly less rockin’ clientele. Deagan didn’t manufacture snares, toms, or kick drums, after all, but rather chimes, vibes, xylophones, and tubular bells—dings and tings heard everywhere from vaudeville stages to symphony halls; church belfries to the three-note signature of the National Broadcasting Company.
That famous NBC jingle, in fact (a simple sequence of a G, E, and C note), was likely first played on a set of Deagan dinner chimes not dissimilar to the artifact in our museum collection, which dates from the late 1920s. These bells—sold in 4-plate and 5-plate versions—were marketed both as musical instruments (they could be used to play military bugle calls) and posh summoning devices for homemakers, theater ushers, and dining car operators. Our museum chimes, sad to say, haven’t summoned anybody in decades. With the plates laying flat against the wood resonator box, you’re only likely to get a sad “clank” with a mallet strike rather than a satisfying “bong.”
The Deagan brand still exists today, under the ownership of the Yamaha Corporation, but the original business carries on in a more tangible sense through a much smaller Chicago operation known as the Century Mallet Instrument Service—founded in the 1980s by former Deagan employee Gilberto Serna and currently run by his apprentice Andres Bautista. Century still tunes, repairs, and restores classic instruments inside one floor of the old Deagan headquarters at 1770 West Berteau Avenue—a building known for its marvelous clock tower and its brief claim to fame as the largest musical instrument factory on Earth.
As for the original company namesake; that particular “J. C.” was John Calhoun Deagan (1853-1934)—not quite a Christ figure in the world of mallet-played instruments, but perhaps the Julius Caesar or Johnny Cash of the oeuvre. Like William Ludwig and H. H. Slingerland (both of whom followed in his footsteps), Deagan came from a background as a musical performer, but his lifelong devotion to the science of his trade was singular, and it routinely got him singled out as a “genius” in his own time.
History of J. C. Deagan Inc., Part I: The Ohio Clarinetist
In 1985, shortly after the company was sold off to Yamaha, J. C. Deagan’s former advertising sales manager, Harold Trommer, wrote up a comprehensive timeline covering the history of the business and its founder. Like a true ad-man, though, Trommer appears to have taken some liberties when describing the early life of John Calhoun Deagan—maybe as a result of lazy research, or possibly to perpetuate a mythology Deagan himself had constructed.
In Trommer’s account, “John Calhoun Deagan, destined to become the ‘grand old man’ of musical percussion instruments, was born in England,” where he was “trained from childhood on clarinet” and “earned recognition as an outstanding concert clarinetist and soloist by age 20.” In 1879, he then “joined the tide of emigrants to the U.S., arriving in St. Louis.”
Very little of that information is correct, and the specificity of its wrongness is quite odd indeed. John C. Deagan was—without question—a well traveled man and an accomplished musician, but he was also very much an American; born in Hector, New York, in 1853 (or thereabouts), to working class Irish parents, Michael and Mary Deagan. John was the second of ten children, and spent his formative childhood and teen years not in Europe or New York City, but in the famously cosmopolitan town of Youngstown, Ohio. There, he attended public school and graduated from Rayen High—some later biographies mention him studying at a “Raines College,” but no such institution appears to have existed, meaning it was probably just a twisting of his high school alma mater’s name.
In terms of his home life, one can easily imagine Deagan benefiting from the boisterous, folksy musicality of a large Irish-American family, but that would be mere stereotype-based speculation. Based on census data, his parents were not literate, so reading music may have been unlikely, as well. As far as we know, it wasn’t until John left Ohio and joined the Navy that he really set sail, so to speak, on his career in the music industry.
[The USS Brooklyn, on which John Deagan was a crewmember from 1871-1876]
As a crew member aboard the original USS Brooklyn in the early 1870s, Deagan finally did his proverbial grand tour of Europe, spending a couple years docked in the Mediterranean, then a couple more off the coast of England. He took advantage of his explorations of the Old World to foster a growing interest not just in playing music, but in learning about the history and science of orchestral instruments.
Before returning to the States, he attended classes at the University of London, possibly even earning a Bachelor’s in Music according to some unconfirmed accounts. While there, he also became enamored with the writings of the German physicist Hermann Helmholtz—whose book On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music was first published in English in 1875. An earlier French edition of the same book, incidentally, had helped inspire some of Alexander Graham Bell’s breakthroughs with the telephone a few years earlier.
Blown away by Helmholtz’s clinical deconstruction of audio anatomy, J. C. Deagan came back to America with a new drive to perform, teach, and—lest it seem cocky—“improve” the sound of music for the Gilded Age. At least, that’s the theatrical version of events.
II. Spirit of St. Louis
“The world owes a debt of gratitude to J. C. Deagan, the master builder of musical percussion instruments, whose untiring zeal in the pursuit of ideals has bestowed on the world a legacy.” —Theatre Organ Magazine, 1926
Clarinet players are not widely celebrated in modern society, and we’re not ready to suggest they were household names in the 19th century either. But through much of his 30s and 40s, John Deagan was at least talented enough to make a good living playing his “clarionet” (as the old spelling goes) in a wide variety of venues—be it a scuzzy beer hall, a scuzzier minstrel show at an Elk’s lodge, an outdoor military band concert, or a stuffy opera house production. According to some sources (including several of his obituaries), he initially landed in New York City on his return from London, and somehow became the orchestra leader at two of Manhattan’s more popular theaters, Niblo’s Garden and Tony Pastor’s. There is zero evidence of any such gigs, though, suggesting that it was more fanciful apocrypha to ret-con the Deagan mystique. In terms of actual documented history, Deagan spent some time back in Youngstown and then Bradford, PA, working as a sign painter and amateur musician. He re-located to St. Louis by 1880 and married his wife Sophia—a native of the area—a few years later.
Through the 1880s into the early ‘90s, Deagan was associated with both the Hamlet Theatre and Pope’s Theatre in St. Louis, as well as the Haverly’s minstrel show circuit. He is mainly mentioned in newspaper accounts of the time as a “clarionet soloist,” though he was also supposedly doing some conducting, teaching, and composing. Through it all, the science of musical intonation remained an obsession, and J. C. gradually put his old college studies to use in a more hands-on way, designing and making his own instruments.
In the Harold Trommer version of events, Deagan’s specific interest in bells and chimes emerged very early in his St. Louis days. One of the theater orchestras he played with had introduced a very simplistically made glockenspiel as a “novel tonal effect” for the band, but since it was little more than a set of metal bars mounted on a chunk of wood, the generally un-tuned bells functioned “more as a sound effect than a musical instrument.” Deagan, the perfectionist, became massively annoyed with this, so he took it upon himself to try upgrading the glockenspiel, “calling upon his deep study of the Helmholtz principles.”
“He ground and filed on the steel bars,” Trommer wrote, “until his tonal sensitivities assured him the bars were balanced in tuning throughout the scale range. To improve tone projection, he applied physics in designing the method of mounting the bars to the support frame. Altogether, he had elevated the glockenspiel from the realm of toydom and created true orchestral bells . . . the first scientifically-designed mallet percussion instrument.”
Trommer further claimed that word of this new innovation spread like wildfire “among drummers and leaders of other bands and orchestras.” That may very well be true, but no great bell-making business was yet forthcoming for Deagan. In fact—even though the company later claimed to have been “established” in 1880—it would take the better part of two additional decades for a genuine, full-scale operation to get off the ground.
III. Setting Up Shop
There were some unanticipated detours on the road to this “Made In Chicago” fairytale. In 1893, at the age of 40, J. C. Deagan, his wife Sophia, and their son Jefferson Claude hit the rails and started a new life . . . in California. While they spent most of the next few years in San Francisco, selling made-to-order instruments out of a home office, Deagan and his son also became regular guest players with the Catalina Island Marine Band, based near Los Angeles, and it was there that the Deagan name really started to “resonate” with a larger audience.
“Every season at Catalina is marked by some new attraction,” the L.A. Herald reported in the summer of 1897. “The latest sensation this season is in the musical line. Almost everyone is acquainted with the bamboo in some form, but it was left for a musical genius named J. C. Deagan to demonstrate the fact that the sweetest music can be obtained from a combination of tubes made of the material. He calls the instrument the bamboo chimes, and it consists of a series of bamboo pipes of different lengths, which when touched with a small mallet produce a soft, mellow tone, which can easily be heard a mile. The bamboo is imported from Bengal, and is the strongest substance known of its weight. The chimes were played last night for the first time in the open air to a large audience and made a tremendous hit. They were accompanied by the Catalina Marine band, and numerous recalls conclusively proved the popularity of the new instrument.”
[Santa Catalina Island Marine Band, c. 1900. Bamboo chimes not pictured]
During that same summer, John’s young son Jefferson Claude (usually just known as Claude or incorrectly as “J. C., Jr.”) became something of a sensation on Catalina, as well, playing musical coins and tuned sleigh bells that his dad had rigged together. “Claude Deagan is only 12 years old,” the Herald reported, “but he manipulated the bells like a veteran, and there is no doubt he will make his mark as a musical genius. The music of the bells was very sweet and soft as it floated through the somewhat sentimental atmosphere of Avalon, and the listeners showed their appreciation by recalling the youngster again and again.”
The huge responses at these shows might have sparked a realization for the elder Deagan—that there may be greater glory in making new instruments than merely performing on the old ones. Within a year, he and his family picked up stakes again and returned, as ever, to the Midwest—this time to a city well suited for importing the materials needed to start making chimes and bells on a much wider scale than he’d ever tried before.
By the fall of 1897, the first J. C. Deagan Musical Bells office was opened in Chicago at 358 N. Dearborn Street. A full year later, its first manufacturing shop started production at 2419 Wabash Avenue. In these early days, Deagan’s focus was mostly on fine-tuning and patenting his inventions, some of which he’d been tinkering with for a decade or more. By 1904, though, the company catalog had grown substantially weightier, and a new dedicated two-story factory had been built at North Clark Street and Grace Street [pictured]. That building is no longer standing, but its former location, at 3800 N. Clark in Lakeview, is now occupied by the Uncommon Ground coffee bar & brewery.
The first Deagan catalogs weren’t exactly competing with Sears-Roebuck for mass appeal, but they weren’t necessarily for the musical “elites” either. A lot of the instruments therein were still viewed by some as hokey vaudeville novelties—remindful of the music hall stages of the lower classes, rather than the refined tastes of the opera crowd. There were steel marimbaphones, shaker chimes, tuned cowbells, tuned metal bamboos, musical coins, musical rattles, and a newly patented xylophone of J. C.’s own creation, made with Honduran rosewood (still the standard today). The difference between these and similar looking items on the market, however—as Deagan routinely explained—was nothing short of everything.
“All the musical bells and novelties listed in this catalogue are made in our own factory, under the most critical supervision,” one of the early Deagan catalogs noted in its introduction. “They must not be confounded with the many new and second hand novelties so generally offered for sale. . . . The leading artists of the world are using our instruments. . . . We have no competition.”
Deagan’s self-described “Points of Excellence”—unfound in any competitors’ percussive lines—included: Absolutely flawless tuning, unequaled tone quality (depth, volume, and carrying power unsurpassed), the very best materials (sparing no expense), greatest durability and strength (combined with lightest weight), beautiful and imposing stage appearance (workmanship perfect in every detail), proof against climatic changes (perfect tune under any conditions), great simplicity (any musician can play simple selections on them from the very beginning), and easy packing (breaks down for shipping with easy assembly).
The Clark Street plant was soon dubbed “The House or Originality,” and its small team of less than a dozen craftsmen was led by J.C., his son Jefferson Claude (plant manager), and an apprentice of sorts named Henry J. Schluter, a German-American whom Deagan trained in the Helmholtz gospel, eventually naming him head tuner (which in a German accent probably sounded a bit like “big tuna”). Many of the other tradesmen were immigrants or first generation men of German, Swedish, and Polish background—not hard to find on Chicago’s north side.
Inside the Deagan Factory on Clark Street, circa 1905
By 1908, with at least 10 new musical bell patents collected and a strong trust developed in his workforce, John Deagan —now ascended to his role as the “grand old man” of percussion—became an increasingly vocal public figure; an ambassador not only for his business, but for the musical principles he believed in. Sometimes, this meant matching wits with the stuffiest, entrenched segments of the musical establishment. On other occasions, it just involved setting up silly promotions, publicity events, and contests to get his name in the industry trades.
“XYLOPHONE CONTEST: In these days of the ‘survival of the fittest,’ contests of all sorts are quite the thing. A novel competition in this line has been announced by J. C. Deagan, manufacturer of musical bells, etc., who as soon as arrangements can be made regarding time, will inaugurate a contest for the championship of those musicians whose field covers the playing of xylophone instruments. Mr. Deagan is in close touch with the general situation, personally acquainted with nearly every artist in his line, and is a man of integrity, whose reputation insures a square deal. Hence we may soon expect to hear of one as the champion of the xylophone world, and may safely accept him as such. This branch of music is fast growing in favor and certainly none other has greater claim on the lovers of melody. It is now our pleasure and an opportunity is had to hear, in the best of vaudeville houses and music halls, the well known instrument in melody interpreting compositions of popular and classic favor. Mr. Deagan’s contest is anticipated with interest, and the exact date of the contest will be announced as soon as definite arrangements have been formulated. The Deagan medal will be awarded the winner.” —Billboard, Vol. 20, 1908
IV. The New Standard
As a small-town kid from humble beginnings, John Deagan seemed—for much of his life—to be on a quest for validation. On one hand, he was a proud vaudeville musician; a self-taught purveyor of popular tunes. But on the other, he was a dead-serious student of music history; often boiling over with strong opinions on the subject. In many ways, the 1910s finally legitimized everything he’d been working toward since disembarking the USS Brooklyn.
His most high-profile moment of glory came in 1910, when—after years of meticulously arguing his case—Deagan helped convince the American Federation of Musicians to formally adopt the A=440 pitch, or 440hz, as the standard universal pitch for orchestras and bands, replacing A=435. It may have been a mission with an ulterior motive, as his own line of tuning bells and tuning forks would conveniently be there to help performers adapt to the new standard. Nonetheless, Deagan played the whole thing off more like he was some sort of Indiana Jones character, traversing the Earth to discover the secrets of universal pitch for the good of all mankind.
“Mr. J. C. Deagan, an original investigator and thinker, has devoted a lifetime of study to the science and philosophy of musical tones,” read the introduction to a 1916 sales book for the Dea-Gan-Ometer, the first tuning mechanism that could demonstrate pitch both audibly and visually. “In research work he has visited the leading universities, museums, literary and musical circles of this country and Europe. In Greece, he examined the ancient musical instruments from the great Temples of Apollo at Argos, Delos and Delphi. Mr. Deagan has also visited Egypt many times and gone a thousand miles into the Sahara Desert, where he found the customs, habits, manners, morals and music the same as in the days of the ancient Pharaohs.”
I mean, how would he even know if the music was the same as in the time of the pharaohs? But I digress.
In his own words, Deagan was at least a bit more measured in his language, especially when it came to the pushback he got from devotees of the old A=435 pitch standard.
“In my musical novelty business I have customers in all parts of the world who send me tuning forks, plates, reeds, and pitch pipes to pitch the various instruments I manufacture for them,” he wrote. “This fact has given me large experience on the subject of musical pitch.”
“Instruments tuned to A=435 at a temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit will raise in pitch to A=440 or very close to it, when used under normal temperature conditions (68 to 72 degrees). . . . American instrument makers who attempted to tune their product to A=435 at normal temperature soon found their error, as from all sources they received the complaint, ‘Your instruments are too flat!’ Rather than jeopardize their reputation in this respect, the progressive manufacturers soon switched over to A=440 and have since received practically no complaints regarding pitch.”
A440 is still the standard international concert pitch, as observed by the International Organization for Standardization, so it’s hard to say J. C. was solely serving his own interests.
If that victory wasn’t enough, Deagan also soon found his arsenal of unusual instruments increasingly embraced by artists from the upper echelons of that so-called establishment. Critics might not have had much interest in Deagan’s own compositions, like “Dinner Chime Music” (1917), but when the celebrated composer Percy Grainger debuted his “In a Nutshell” suite in 1916, they certainly took notice.
Grainger had proudly featured four Deagan instruments front-and-center in the piece (the steel Marimbaphone, Marimba-Xylophone Swiss Staff Bells, and Nabimba), describing them as “marvelously perfected examples of American inventive ingenuity in the field of musical instrument making.” In performances, Grainger further directed the mallet instruments to be positioned “as near the pianoforte as possible, and right to the front of the platform; not at the back, near the drums, cymbals, etc.”
When “In a Nutshell” came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1917, audiences were supposedly “astonished” by this dynamic, with one magazine review noting that if Grainger’s “weapons of offense had been discreetly masked in trenches behind the orchestra they would have thrown the audience into less perturbation. When a Deagan marimba-xylophone is leveled straight at you, there is nothing to do but throw up your hands and surrender.”
Maybe xylophones really were the punk rock instruments of their day, after all.
Anyway, all of this bubbling media attention was conveniently coinciding with the establishment of the new Deagan factory at 1770 Berteau Avenue in Ravenswood, which opened in 1912 and was advertised for years as the largest musical instrument plant in the world.
V. The Big House
“The Deagan factory is one of the handsomest industrial buildings in the Chicago district. In arrangement and equipment it represents the last word in industrial housing and much of its machinery is of special design. It is a large five-story structure, entirely fireproof, and its tower—equipped with Deagan chimes—is an attractive feature of the beautiful Ravenswood suburb where it is located.” —The Purchaser’s Guide to the Music Industries, 1922
There was no better advertisement for J. C. Deagan’s success and acclaim than his new headquarters. Was it truly the largest instrument factory on Earth? Doubtful; since Deagan only occupied the lower two floors and rented out the rest. Still, according to Harold Trommer, the facility boasted an “8,000 sq. ft. machine shop, a 5,000 sq. ft. wood shop with its own wood-curling kilns, a large polishing/buffing/plating department, modern spray-finishing facilities, and more than 30,000 sq. ft. of area for assembly operations, materials storage, shipping facilities, engineering, and offices.”
“When we took the elevated train for Ravenswood,” the early cinema magazine Exhibitor’s Times reported in 1913, “we had no idea of finding Mr. J. C. Deagan housed in such a fine factory. While it is a factory, the name is not proper, as the exterior appearance of the building, with its large plate-glass windows, its monumental tower and clock, etc., looks more like a large office building. . . . There is something imposing in the structure that conveys the impression of prosperity.”
The Deagan Building, Then & Now
[Present day images come from the offices of Mata Traders, Ltd., which is now headquartered in the Deagan Building along with several other businesses]
“Everything but the wood and metal is made in the factory,” added Clarence Sinn of Moving Picture World. “The wood (for the xylophones) is cut especially for J. C. Deagan in Australia; the metal for bells, chimes, etc., is made to order by a special process. These raw materials are received at the Deagan factory and are cut, shaped, polished, tuned, plated and a lot of other things by expert artisans to become the things of beauty which you finally see and hear in the exhibiting department. There were orchestra bells to be played by hand and by electric key-board. Other electric bells in such profusion that space forbids naming them. Electric cathedral chimes; these are the same shape as the usual chimes; long tubes of a beautiful tonal quality with a hammer fixed to strike in exactly the right place and operated from a key-board. The chimes may be placed in the orchestra, lobby or any part of the house.”
It’s easy to forget that electricity, on an industrial scale, was still something of a novelty at this time, too, and though John Deagan was about 60 years old when his new building opened, he was never the type to be a “purist” or rely on old-fashioned methods. His legitimately hi-tech new “musical electrical bells” were first marketed to churches as a simpler alternative to complex and expensive pipe organs, but they soon found equal appeal in theaters and silent movie palaces, where they could be custom-mounted anywhere in a venue and controlled from a single keyboard connected by cable. Better still, the electric bells were easy to install and much easier to play than the manual, malleted version. “It takes long practice to acquire the even ‘roll’ necessary in playing the xylophone or steel bells,” Moving Picture World noted, “it takes none to manipulate a Deagan key-board and get the same result.”
The Deagan Electric Una-Fon, a literal “wall of sound” featuring dozens of bells stacked in rows and connected to a keyboard by cable, was the company’s popular “portable” option, even though the units weighed over 100 LBS. Offered as a replacement for old-school steam-powered calliope organs, the Una-Fon was marketed to theaters, shop owners, and even politicians—anyone seeking a crowd’s undivided attention.
The Exhibitor’s Times article makes a special point of crediting Deagan’s son and plant manager Claude Deagan for much of the company’s growing success in the electric bell field, and suggests the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. “While the son is as enthusiastic as his father, he looks at the commercial possibilities and can, once in a while, check the inventive mind into the proper channel. If a motion picture theatre could hire Mr. Deagan, Jr., to play the electric bells and the electric chimes, it would mean a big day, as Mr. Deagan can make them talk.”
By every indication, “J. C. Jr.” would soon be taking over the family business for decades to come. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
[J. C. Deagan’s son J. Claude Deagan in his vaudeville attire, 1900. He was plant manager at the Deagan factory in Chicago by 1910]
VI. It Tolls For Thee
For a short time during World War I, a large part of the Deagan factory workload shifted from musical bells to making aiming devices for cannons. As the 1920s loomed, though, a new boom in bell sales began.
“Coincident with the rush of business from distributors in different parts of this country,” the Music Trades reported late in 1919, “is the increased demand for the Deagan line of xylophones, orchestra bells, and marimbas from agents in foreign countries.
“’Our business in Australia, New Zealand, South America, France and Belgium has assumed very large proportions with the last few months,’ said M. L. Jones, sales manager of the company, ‘and the indications point to a steady increase of business in all the Deagan instruments in those countries.’
“It is noteworthy that a few years ago Deagan instruments were considered in the light of novelties, due no doubt to the fact that they were used almost entirely on vaudeville stages. But all this has changed. Modern bands and orchestras everywhere are not considered completely equipped unless they have one or more sets of bells, xylophones, or such instruments in their ensemble.”
Around this same period, the sounds of Deagan instruments were finding more ears through the proliferation of phonograph records and a new thing called the radio. Pre-recorded music was usually seen as a threat to manufacturers, as Americans were increasingly listening to other people’s music in their parlor rooms rather than buying and playing their own instruments. The ever-clever Deagans saw a way to use the radio age to their advantage, however, not only bringing modern mallet percussion to the masses, but encouraging listeners—especially kids—to get their own Deagan bells and play along at home. Since he’d become an accomplished bell player before hitting puberty, Claude Deagan probably appreciated the potential in the children’s market better than most.
In 1921, as John and Sophia Deagan began spending more of their time in semi-retirement in California (along with their 20 year-old daughter Marion), the keys to the Berteau factory—and essentially J. C. Deagan, Inc.—were finally handed over to Claude, who was still only 35.
Claude’s only two brothers, Michael (1898-1899) and Waldo (1894-1912), had both died very young, so a lot of expectations rested on his shoulders. No one anticipated another cruel blow on the horizon.
We don’t actually know much about what happened next. But it appears that some time in 1923, Claude became seriously ill, and was forced to leave Chicago with his wife and two kids in hopes of recovering in the warmer setting of Riverside, California. It didn’t work. The man known as J. C. Deagan, Jr. was dead a year later at just 38. In his will, he left his estate to his wife Ella Deagan, “the sweetest woman I have ever known, and whose beautiful character and steadfastness has aided me more than any other incentive in carrying on life’s battle.”
Ella Deagan, importantly, was far more than a loving wife. She understood the family business, as well, having served as its treasurer for several years. And after her husband’s death, her father-in-law trusted her enough to install her in a leadership role in Chicago, aided by long-time employee and new factory manager Henry Schluter.
VII. Good Vibes
“To produce the finest Percussion Musical Instruments possible to design and build; to sell these instruments at prices based on manufacturing costs plus only a legitimate profit; to give everyone regardless of his or her standing, the same fair and square treatment—these are the three things that have constituted the policy of J. C. Deagan, Inc., since its inception and have built it into what it is today, the greatest concern of its kind in the world.” —Deagan catalog, Century of Progress edition, 1933
The death of Jefferson Claude Deagan and the collapse of the stock market a few years later didn’t doom Deagan, Inc. as one might have presumed. Nor did the death of John C. Deagan himself, at the age of 81, in 1934. His daughter-in-law Ella Deagan, along with Henry Schluter and sales manager Melvin L. Jones, continued to run an extremely efficient ship that was adaptable to change, whether that meant ramping up production for international demand, tightening things up when the economy tanked, or adapting to new technology and possible competition—such as the rise of the electric tonewheel organs made by Chicago’s Hammond Organ Company.
[Left: Ella Deagan, company president. Right: Plant manager, product designer, and chief tuner Henry Schluter (front) works with Ben Jesolowski to tune a carillon chime tube for the 1939 New York World’s Fair]
By this point, there were three separate departments within the company: the growing Organ Percussions Division, the big-ticket Tower Chime Division, and the old reliable Mallet Instrument Division. The latter department now included not only orchestra bells, xylophones, and marimbas, but dinner chimes, door chimes, altar chimes, and various tuning devices. The dinner chimes in our museum collection were likely made in the late 1920s, and their function can admittedly be difficult to appreciate from a 21st century perspective.
“The emphasis on musical tone in this period of lavish living was reflected in this line,” Harold Trommer wrote. “Demand for dinner chimes for the home justified manufacture of no less than 13 separate models by 1928.”
The most significant new Deagan product of the period, though, was the Vibra-Harp—a modern metal xylophone which Trommer dramatically called “the first musical instrument of wholly-American conception.” Developed by Henry Schluter, the Deagan Vibra-Harp was technically an improvement of an instrument first introduced a few years earlier by the Leedy MFG Co. The superior Deagan version quickly became the industry standard, though, even if the trademarked Vibra-Harp brand name did not. Basically, the instrument we still know today as the “vibraphone” is the one Schluter created; using aluminum bars and a foot-controlled damper for its distinctive mellow tone.
The Vibra-Harp / vibraphone became Deagan’s new calling card in the ‘30s, and helped the company power through the Depression with a new-found hipness to boot. The vibes had been adopted into America’s predominant genre of popular music—jazz—and several big-name artists were recruited as Deagan-affiliated players, including Red Norvo in Chicago, Adrian Rollini in New York, and Lionel Hampton in Los Angeles (Hampton and Terry Gibbs would later bring the vibes to Benny Goodman’s famed band). Milt Jackson became arguably Deagan’s No. 1 ambassador after World War II, and Roy Ayers, Bobby Hutcherson, and Gary Burton helped keep the vibes vibrant into the ‘60s and ‘70s.
[Top Left: Albums by jazz vibraphonists Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, and Gary Burton. Top Right: A “King George” Vibra-Harp made specially by Deagan for Lionel Hampton in the 1930s. Bottom Left: Beatrice Shopp, “Miss America” for 1948, playing the vibes on a victory tour. Bottom Right: Deagan ad featuring Milt Jackson]
From 1930 through World War II, Deagan’s Mallet Division was led by a young xylophone virtuoso, acoustical engineer, and promotions master named Clair Omar Musser. Following the success of the Vibra-Harp, Musser spent much of his tenure obsessively focused on the under-appreciated marimba, improving its design and creating some wildly ambitious “marimba orchestras” to promote the instrument—starting with a much talked-about performance at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
In 1935, Musser took his International Marimba Symphony Orchestra to Europe for another big promotional run. Among the 50 girls and 50 boys in the band was a young William Ludwig II, son of the founder of that rival percussion manufacturer. In his autobiography, Ludwig recalls the difficult tour, including the scary moment when German officials refused to allow a Jewish girl in the orchestra to cross the border from France. In response, Musser canceled the tour’s German dates and circled everyone back to Paris. Unfortunately, the cost of moving around a 100-piece band and their hefty instruments soon bankrupted the tour.
“We didn’t have enough to pay our hotel bills plus the boat tickets home,” Ludwig recalled. “Were it not for the J. C. Deagan company of Chicago I might have grown up French! The genial and most personable Ella Deagan, president of Deagan, wired us $10,000 to buy our tickets for the return voyage and clear our hotel bills, releasing our luggage which had been impounded.”
Musser certainly appreciated the bail out from his boss, but his loyalty didn’t carry over once Ella’s son Jack Claude Deagan—the third generation of J. C. Deagans—took over the presidency after the war. According to Bill Ludwig II, “Jack and Musser didn’t get along too well, for Deagan refused to rehire two long standing employees that had been in the war— F. K. Pepper and Charles Newsom. Musser left Deagan in the spring of 1946 and took some of the ‘brain’ people of the business with him, including Ray Ikeberger.”
Musser’s new independent mallet instrument business went belly up by 1950, but he was soon bought out by Ludwig himself, and became a serious competitor of Deagan in the years that followed.
[The Marimba Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Deagan marketing manager Clair Omar Musser, performing at Carnegie Hall in New York, 1935]
VIII. I’m in Love with My Carillon
Jack Deagan may have ruffled Clair Musser’s feathers, but through the ‘30s and ‘40s, the two were friendly rivals of a sort. While Musser built up Deagan’s Mallet Division in his own image, Jack looked to make his own mark in the Tower Chime department, to similar success.
Born in 1910, Jack was already working in different parts of the Berteau plant as a teenager, before his father Claude’s death, and he would become the company vice president and general manager under his mother Ella before turning 30. His interest in dinner chimes and marimbas was dwarfed, however—quite literally—by his ambitions to modernize the world’s carillon towers.
Between 1920 and 1940, the Deagan Company was bringing in a large share of its income from America’s churches, as aging houses of worship paid top dollar to have top-quality Deagan tubular bells installed in their carillon towers. The company sold an estimated 400 such units during this period, usually sending its own team of highly trained installers to make sure everything sounded pristine. Men like Charles J. Lustig, Roy Lofink, and Clarence J. Gercken led these installation units, representing the ultimate specialists among specialists.
Despite the relatively steady work and leading reputation that came with it, Jack Deagan saw greater potential in the tower chime department. As it stood, there were too many factors limiting the opportunity for new sales—many buildings either couldn’t afford the bells or didn’t have the space to contain them. And there were limits on what the bells could actually do, as well, lacking the harmonics or variance for more complex melodies.
And so, by 1939, Jack Deagan and Henry Schluter had perfected a new 32-bell Deagan Carillon with patented harmonic quintamonic tuning—debuted to the public at that year’s World’s Fair in New York. Crowds were appropriately wowed, and new requests poured in. The timing just proved a bit problematic.
[Deagan Tower Chimes had a very specific, very wealthy clientele, as advertisements in the ’20s and ’30s often emphasized chimes for use as musical memorials to lost loved ones, all for the small price of $7,250, or over $100,000 in the modern cash equivalent]
[This Carillon at the Stephen Foster Memorial in White Springs, Florida, houses the tower chimes Deagan made for the 1939 World’s Fair. Containing 75 tubular bells weight 25 tons, it was the largest carillon in the world for many years]
World War II and its metal rationing threw a wrench into just about all of Deagan’s new instrument production in the early 1940s. Instead, Henry Schluter and his factory team were recruited to work with U.S. Navy engineers on a secret government project, designing and building an acoustic mine detonator called the XST Sonic Mine Detonating Device. The plant was later recognized with a Navy “E” award for outstanding performance in the war effort, but business would never quite return to its previous trajectory.
When the war ended, bells of victory chimed from the Deagan Carillon inside the company’s own factory in Ravenswood. As usual, the building was its own great advertisement for the brand, as passersby could hear—or even request—certain tunes to be played each day by the company’s resident carillon master, June Albright.
“Without a song the day would never end—along Berteau Avenue,” Tribune scribe Ruth Logan wrote in 1945. “That’s the street where, without warning, strollers may be enveloped in melody—round, dulcet tones floating on the air so sweetly that even the trees seem to move in rhythm. . . . At the console, unless automatic controls are in effect, is blonde and petite June Albright, 1100 Lawrence av., believed by her employers to be the only arranger and instructor of carillon music.”
A former member of Clair Mosser’s marimba orchestra, June Albright sat in her studio in the Deagan plant, happily playing hymns, wedding anthems, or “Happy Birthday” at specific times of day, when requested by folks in the neighborhood—although her boss Jack Deagan made it clear there were some limits.
“As a rule, we don’t play the bells before 11am, between 1 and 3pm, or after 9pm,” he told the Tribune, acknowledging that June had also produced plenty of pre-recorded carillon tunes on perforated rolls. “You can’t tell the difference between manual and automatic playing,” he said, “unless there’s a mistake, and then you know it’s manual.”
Fortunately, June Albright didn’t make many mistakes anyway. As the authority on Deagan Carillons, ten of her perforated music rolls and two-weeks worth of her personal instruction courses were included with each sale to a church or institution. “Sometimes people are surprised to learn a carillon is operated by a keyboard rather than by pulling ropes,” Albright said, adding that just about any style of music can now be played on the bells—although she discouraged attempting “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”
[Workers at the Deagan factory in 1949. Top Left: Jack Deagan and Henry Schluter tune a tubular bell. Top Center: Chief electrical engineer Fred B. Little and his automatic carillon player. Top Right: John B. Hoffman tests a bell with 1,000 automated mallet strikes. Bottom Left: James Righeimer makes note of tubes needing tuning. Bottom Center: Office worker Marion Karst and a scale model of Deagan’s 75-bell World’s Fair carillon.]
In 1947, Jack Deagan and Henry Schluter—with insights from June Albright and chief electrical engineer Fred Little—cooked up one of their last great innovations in tower chime technology. It was something less glamorous than the mighty Deagan Carillon, but that could function as a much more practical facsimile for the smaller churches and urban towers of the modern age. The electronic, keyboard-controlled Celesta-Chime “required small space for installation and little in belfry accommodation,” Deagan ad manager Harold Trommer wrote. “It was far less costly than tubular bell carillons and more versatile, easily mastered by a skilled organist, and more musically pleasing than old-style bell music.”
By 1949, there was a Celesta-Chime on the 33rd floor of the Tribune Building in downtown Chicago, bringing Christmas cheer to shoppers down Michigan Avenue with pre-recorded tunes controlled via a player-piano style roll. “Without amplification,” the newspaper reported of its own bells, “the music would be audible no farther than 10 feet and would sound more like a fork clinking against a spoon than chimes. With the loudspeakers, however, the sound is amplified about 100,000 times.”
The Celesta-Chime, and the even more price-friendly Canto-Bell Carillon that Deagan released a decade later, “opened a new and larger music market,” Trommer noted, “and led the way in making American communities more conscious of bell music and the houses of worship, monuments, institutions, and public attractions in their midst.”
IX. Sold Off to Slingerland
After Ella Deagan officially retired as company president in 1954, Jack Deagan began a somewhat tumultuous 15-year reign as head of the family business. Still focused largely on the carillon line, Jack regularly butted heads with other executives about the direction of the company. Vice President and GM Eddie Osborn resigned after less than two years working under Deagan, and Jack’s subsequent repeated efforts to establish a partnership with a traditional drum manufacturer never resulted in a contract—causing the company to miss out on the huge spike in drum-kit sales that followed Beatlemania in the 1960s.
By the late ‘60s, as competition from both domestic and foreign rivals was squeezing the Deagan bottom line, stockholders aggressively pressured Jack to find a buyer to save the business. He was extremely reluctant to do so, and that attitude changed little once Deagan, Inc. was finally acquired in 1967 by the American Gage & Machinery Co.—a conglomerate out of Elgin, Illinois. Jack stayed on as company president until 1969, but retired abruptly at the age of 59, wholly displeased with the new ownership group.
Between 1970 and 1973, Ella Deagan, Henry Schluter, and Jack Deagan all died in rapid succession, marking a clear and definitive end to the business as it once had been. The tower chime division was sold during these years, as well, to the I. T. Verdin Co. of Cincinnati.
In the fall of 1977, Deagan Inc.—now doing business as D.J.C. Corp.—was essentially collapsing, with its equity dwindling to about $15,000. Nonetheless, the Slingerland Company was willing to pony up $250,000 to purchase its northside neighbor that autumn, with hopes of improving its own recent downward trend with a boost from a brand with 80 years of history. For several years, Slingerland kept the Deagan plant running on Berteau Avenue, albeit with a much reduced workforce, including veteran advertising manager Harold Trommer and tuning master Gilberto Serna among the few remaining representatives of the old guard.
Sales actually kicked up for Deagan for a while, but when Slingerland management finally elected to close the Berteau plant in 1982 and basically stuff the Deagan workers into some back rooms of the Slingerland plant in Niles . . . the bell had finally tolled. The tattered remains of the Deagan name were sold off to the Yamaha Corp. in 1984, and while various Deagan mallet instruments are still produced according to some of the original specs, most purists would much rather seek out the genuine article from the old Chicago days. The sad part is, John Calhoun Deagan probably wouldn’t have wanted it this way. For him, there was always more appeal in the next great thing, not the things he’d already perfected.
“If you would achieve success,” J. C. Deagan wrote in 1930, “build the very best product that you are capable of and keep everlastingly at the job of improving it. I offer this, not as a bit of sentiment but as a sound workable rule of human conduct. To give the buyer of your time or your products a little more than bargained for is an investment that always pays.”
[Above: Letter from John C. Deagan to composer Percy Grainger, 1916]
[Above: Henry Schluter (front) with the lab-coated Deagan engineers, c. 1940s]
“Chronology of the J. C. Deagan Company,” by Harold Trommer, 1985
J. C. Deagan Musical Bells: Patented Musical Specialties – Catalog, c. 1905
“Deagan Tower Tube Installations” – towerbells.org
The Making of Drum Company: The Autobiography of William F. Ludwig II, 2001
Program Notes: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1917
“Claude Deagan” – Short Stories About Clever People Whom You Ought to Know, 1900
“Aunt Min Gets Big Bang from Carillon Music” – Chicago Tribune, Dec 16, 1945
“Work of a Genius in a Novel Field” – Theatre Organ, December 1966
“J. C. Deagan Will Give a Clarionet Solo” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 20, 1892
“Avalon” [Bamboo Chimes] – Los Angeles Herald, June 29, 1897
“Tubular Tower Chimes for Churches, Colleges, Halls, etc.” – The American Contractor, March 2, 1918
“Deagan, J. C., Inc.” – Purchaser’s Guide to the Music Industries, 1922
The Slingerland Book, by Rob Cook, 2004
Grainger the Modernist: A Study of the American Reception of In a Nutshell (1916) – by Suzanne Robinson and Kay Dreyfus, 2015
“Xylophone Contest” – Billboard, Vol. 20, 1908
“Ringing and Ringling: ShowmensBells, Chimes and Related Novelty Instruments,” by Fred Dahlinger, Jr., Carousel Organ, Issue No. 20, July 2004
“Factory of J. C. Deagan, Inc., Speeds Production to Meet Growing Domestic and Foreign Demands” – The Music Trades, Sept 13, 1919
“Music for the Picture” – Clarence Sinn, Moving Picture World, June 1913
“Music and the Picture” – Exhibitor’s Times, July 12, 1913
“Mallets! The J. C. Deagan Company of Chicago” – richsamuels.com
“J. C. Deagan Rites to be Wednesday” – Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1934
Fundamentals in Pitch and Tuning Musical Instruments, by John C. Deagan, 1916
“Musical Electric Bells for Coliseum” – Arizona Republic, June 24, 1911
“Deagan Building in Ravenswood Hits Right Note” – DNAInfo.com
“Music Pitch,” by J. C. Deagan, Arkansas City Daily News, July 3, 1915
“Tribune Chimes’ Clarity Draws Listener Praise” – Chicago Tribune, Dec 25, 1949
“Summer Resorts – Avalon” [Jefferson’s Claude Plays Sleigh Bells] – Los Angeles Herald, Aug 27, 1897
“John Calhoun Deagan” – Percussive Arts Society
“A=440 Pitch Adopted,” by J. C. Deagan, The Musical Quarterly, October 1918
“Deagan Musical Dinner Chime Music” – Digital Commons