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.
Watch the video:
Learn more about Deagan:
A performer's-eye view of a 1935 "King George" model
marimba, designed by Clair Omar Musser. Only 102 of these instruments
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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