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Music boxes of old play San Antonio history

A Deluxe Model Violano Virtuoso at Villa Finale, a National Trust Historic Site and museum in San Antonio
David Martin Davies
A Deluxe Model Violano Virtuoso at Villa Finale, a National Trust Historic Site and museum in San Antonio

Just off of downtown San Antonio in the Historic King William neighborhood is a house overflowing with history and antique music. It’s Villa Finale, Italian for “final home,” which the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named a historic site.

This is where San Antonio preservationist Walter Nold Mathis created a pocket of frozen time. The 1876 mansion is densely packed with an impressive assemblage of decorative fine art from centuries past.

Off the main staircase is a wooden contraption the size of a closet.

 “This is Deluxe Model Violano Virtuoso. It's a deluxe model because it has two violins in front and in the back is a full piano board,” said Sylvia M. Gonzalez-Pizaña, the manager of collections and interpretation at Villa Finale: Museum and Gardens.

With a flick of a switch, a paper roll unspooled and the 1925 jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” was reproduced.

This precursor to the jukebox used to jam at the legendary Albert Friedrich’s Buckhorn Saloon. But when Prohibition was enacted, the saloon shut down, and the music machine was bought by the Koehler family of the Pearl Brewery.

“And at some point, they found out that Mathis had purchased this big house, Villa Finale, and they told him, 'Hey, do you want this music box?' Mathis, who was an avid collector, said, 'Of course.' Did he realize it was this big? Probably not,” Gonzalez-Pizaña explained.

The Mills Novelty Company proclaimed this was one of the “greatest achievements in the history of music” and manufactured about 5,000 of them.

The machines excite the eye as much as the ear. Behind the glass there is a dance of brass levers, struts and metal rods. The strings of the violin are played by a rotating baton operated by small motors.

Different notes are achieved with metal tabs and electro-magnets fingering the neck. The notes of the piano are also operated by electro-magnets. The music is programmed on a paper roll which automatically rewinds.

Yet, somehow, the stories of the house itself are even more amazing than the rare music engine.

“What’s great about this machine is that it has a tie-in with our site, Villa Finale. Billy Keilman was a direct competitor with the Buckhorn. He had another place called the Horn Palace,” Gonzalez-Pizaña said.

In his teens, Keilman ran away to join Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, who were mustering in San Antonio to fight in the Spanish-American War. After fighting in Cuba, he came home and joined the San Antonio Police.

But in 1910 he quit the force, forged his father’s name and bought a brothel called the Beauty Saloon. Keilman became known as the King Pimp of San Antonio and ran the city’s infamous red light district.

“Well, Billy Keilman was almost murdered at the Horn Palace, and he had to sell the business. So what did he do? He moved here to Villa Finale with his wife — his second wife, who was a local madam. So, Billy Keliman bootlegged liquor out of the basement of this house while his wife ran her business upstairs,” Gonzalez-Pizaña explained.

Villa Finale’s front parlor is now more respectable. In the middle of the art covered, cream colored walls and red curtains, Mathis placed a grand piano.

“This is a 1921 Bechstein reproducing piano,” Gonzalez-Pizaña said.

As a Chopin waltz comes forth, the black and white keys move up and down, as if a phantom piano player was performing. A mesmerizing sight, a mechanical ballet.

“Sometimes what Mathis would do, he had the piano going while he was at home, and he had the windows open, and sometimes people would be walking down King William Street and say, 'Walter Mathis can sure play the piano.' But, no, it was just this machine,” Gonzalez-Pizaña said.

Upstairs there’s another musical mechanism — a wooden box the size of a home computer.

“This has got to be my favorite piece in the entire house. This is a Victorian Swiss music box that plays Scottish songs and plays what they call Chinese Bells,” she said.

With clockwork precision, two animated dolls dressed in ancient Chinese royal court costumes raise tiny mallets and then strike bells to accompany the plucked teeth of a singing metal comb.

Down the hall in Mathis’ bedroom is another music box.

“This one is really special because it belonged to the Mathis family. One of Mathis’ ancestors was John Smith, who was the last messenger to leave the Alamo," she said.

Surrounding the glittering music box is an array of vintage family photographs showing the multiple generations of a family that contributed one way or another to the love of music, art and history contained in San Antonio's Villa Finale.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi