The J.C. Deagan Company of Chicago

Note: This page presents the "Chicago Stories" segment on the rise and fall of the J.C. Deagan comany that aired on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight program on March 31st. 2005. The video features Jim Strain of Northern Michigan University, Gilberto Serna of Century Mallets, Gordern Peters, Brian Dusell and Bill Ludwig with cameo appearances by Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. The best resource for additional information on the Deagan company and its contribution to music-making is the website of the Percussive Arts Society of Lawton, Oklahoma.

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Above: A performer's-eye view of a 1935 "King George" model marimba, designed by Clair Omar Musser. Only 102 of these instruments were built.

Left: John Calhoun Deagan (1853-1934) founded the Deagan company in Saint Louis in 1880 and moved the firm to Chicago early in the twentieth century. A professional clarinetist, Deagan was fascinated with the science of acoustics and the theory and practice of tuning (in 1910 he pushed, successfully, for the adoption of A=440 as the standard pitch for American orchestras).

Right: The Deagan building at Ravenswood and Berteau in Chicago. The Deagan Chicago factory building dates from around 1912, though the Deagan company has long sinced ceased to exist as a local, family-owned firm (Yamaha now owns the Deagan trademark) and Deagan instruments are no longer manufactured here.

Left: Gilberto Serna, a former Deagan master tuner, still works on the second floor of the Deagan building, repairing and restoring old Deagan instruments. He has an international reputation for his skills and his love for the old Deagan instruments. You can visit his website at Century Mallet Instrument Service.

Right: The modern xylophone as we know it was a Deagan creation. But Deagan also manufactured high quality marimbas, vibraphones, cathedral chimes and a wide variety of bells, many of which are still highly prized by symphony orchestras world-wide.

Left: Jim Strain, professor of percussion at Northern Michigan and his students have mastered the somewhat archaic style of playing vaudeville artists adopted for their Deagan instruments. Click here to listen to Jim and his students play Fred Hamm's 1924 classic "Bye-Bye Blues". Jim plays a Deagan xylophone; his students provide marimba accompaniment.

Right: Clair Omar Musser, a former vaudeville artist, designed marimbas for the Deagan company. Noting the scarcity of original concert compositions for the marimba, he composed his own. Click here to listen to Jim Strain performing a Musser marimba prelude (Opus 11 number 7).

Left: Musser's International Marimba Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1935 for an ill-fated European tour. The group's luggage (including twenty tons of marimbas) was impounded in Paris after the 100 marimbists under Musser's direction ran out of money. The Deagan company had to wire them $10,000 to get their impedimenta out of hock.

Right: The perforated roll mechanism for a set of Deagan tower chimes. Coupled to a clock, the chimes could be programmed to play at specific times. The chimes could also be coupled to a church organ console or an independent keyboard. (This installation in in Chicago's Saint Ignatius parish church).

Left: A set of Deagan tower chimes, typically installed in a church belfry. The striking mechanism was coupled, via electrical relays, with the roll mechanism. Deagan built somewhat more than four hundred tower chime sets. Click here to find out if there's a set near you. And visit the website of Top Rung Tower Chime and Organ Service to learn about Bill Pugh, who travels nationwide to restore these old Deagan wonders.

Special thanks: Rich Samuels wishes to thank the following who contributed to the production of his Deagan piece: Cameramen Roy Alan and Tim Boyd and editor Bob Furem of WTTW; WNMU-TV field crew members Mike Lakenen, Jack Guard, Katie Wagner and Sonya Chrisman; musicians Jim Strain, Clay Condon, Jennifer Howell, Christine Battjes, Steven Loszewicz, Erik Moiso, Nancy Redfern, Barbara Rhyneer and Carrie Violo. Thanks also to the Percussive Arts Society, Gilerto Serna, David Eyler and Dana Kimble for providing archival material.

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