Wendell Jacob’s a bit of a storyteller.
Ask him about the old gasoline pump at his house and, perhaps a few hours later, you might be listening to the longtime Davis resident talk about the time when the Atlantic Refining Co. and Richfield Oil Corp. merged, forming the Atlantic Richfield Co., or what’s commonly known as Arco.
It’s for that love of stories that Jacob, born in Davis in 1929, began maybe the most unique collection in town: In his possession, Jacob has a dozen antique organs, pianos, keyboards and other musical contraptions.
Somewhere deep in the wood of each lies some great history, and Jacob would love to tell you about it.
“There’s a story behind every one of them,” Jacob said. “I’m kind of a storyteller and I have dinners here, and people say, ‘I had no idea, no idea that that’s what that was. Or that’s the way they (it worked).’ ”
There’s the Hammond Model 1 organ, the first of its kind; a combinette, which on bi-levels features a piano and an organ; and a two-pedaled pipe organ that he calls a “glorified accordion.” Jacob even owns a Fender Rhodes Stage Piano and a little parlor chord organ for people like him, he says, who can’t really play.
All of them are different. All of them are in working order. And all have their own interesting backstory.
“I always enjoyed music, and I’ve always enjoyed having unusual artifacts,” Jacob said.
Perhaps none of the pieces in his possession, however, is more interesting, or more impressive, than the crown jewel of the collection — an M.P. Moller pipe organ.
Of course, it, too, has an interesting story.
The pipe organ
Jacob was out to dinner with a few friends, and a few people he didn’t know, when the conversation turned to a woman who owned this old pipe organ. Apparently, she had plans to take it apart and sell it in pieces.
The folks around the table turned to Jacob, who already had a few instruments in his collection, and talked him into buying it from the woman so the old thing would be kept together. Jacob said, “OK.”
The pipe organ, he would learn, came from the lobby of the Fox Theater in San Francisco, which was torn down in 1963.
“Magnificent theater,” Jacob said. “5,000 seats, one screen. Balconies and balconies and balconies, a big vaudeville house, built in the late ’20s. It had a big Wurlitzer organ in the auditorium, among the largest that Wurlitzer ever built.
“(But) in the lobby, because the theater was so big, people used to accumulate in the lobby waiting for the picture to end and then they would (listen to) this instrument.”
Where the pipe organ came from has its own story, but where it operates now may be just as fascinating, at least locally.
It wasn’t until after Jacob purchased the instrument — and spent a hot day in the summer sun deconstructing the thing, lying on his back on the ground removing each individual pipe and wind line — that he learned that he couldn’t fit the console, or the organ part where the keyboards rest, into his house.
“We tipped it up on end, tried to walk it through, like you do,” Jacob said. “It would not go through.”
Instead, Jacob decided to build an entire addition onto his garage, with the pipe organ as the focal point of the new room. And the renovation has transformed his quiet house in Davis into a full-blown concert hall.
With songs programmed into a computer, allowing the organ to play by itself, Jacob now hosts parties where people can come and listen to the music. Occasionally, he will invite accomplished organists to come play it live. Other times, Jacob even shows silent films with the organ as the accompaniment.
Not only does the room fit the pipe organ, meanwhile, but the building, now a palace of artifact, accommodates his entire collection.
Jacob was glad it happened this way, he said, especially because it let him move all the organs out of his house.
After the pipe organ, Jacob would say his second favorite in the collection is a colorful ragtime piano that he’s restored. The piano hails from Cattlemens restaurant in Petaluma and looks and sounds like it’s straight out of a saloon in the Old West.
Of course, there’s a story about how it came into Jacob’s possession as well.
“This fellow, Mark Wetch, he played it every night in the bar and I used to go over and listen to him,” Jacob said. “He was very entertaining, very good, he put on a show. He wore a little black hat — a little derby hat — had a little black mustache, sort of acted a little bit like Charlie Chaplin, and he played ragtime music.
“I was over there one time, and he says, ‘Wendell? I’m going to sell my piano, I’m changing my music, I’m not going to play ragtime anymore.’ ”
And so Jacob offered to buy it from him. After the pipe organ, he says, people who come to visit say they enjoy that piece the most.
Beyond the pipe organ and the ragtime piano, Jacob would pick the band organ as his next favorite. Perhaps the loudest of the bunch, a band organ is the musical contraption normally found at the center of a merry-go-round.
When he turns it on in the room built for the pipe organ, it booms like thunder.
As for how he picked it up? Ask Wendell.
“I knew this fellow down in El Cerrito, a good friend, and he said, ‘Wendell? My wife and I are getting a divorce. I am asset-rich and cash-poor. She wants cash. I’ve offered her the band organ but she says she won’t take it, she wants cash.’
“So he said, ‘Would you loan me enough money that I could pay her off? I’ll pledge the band organ as collateral. I will either work hard and earn enough money and pay you back, or I will find a place that I can sell the organ … get the money and pay you back. Or, if I can’t do either of the first two, you own the band organ, it’s yours.’
“So about a year went by,” Jacob says, “and all of a sudden he calls me and says, ‘I haven’t been able to sell it, I haven’t been able to earn enough money to pay you, so where do you want me to deliver the band organ?’ ”
In all fairness, Jacob looks upon all the pieces in his collection fondly.
And while he says he doesn’t play a lick, the enjoyment he gets from demonstrating how the machines work or listening to the tunes while the instruments play themselves, is enough.
In addition to the instruments, meanwhile, Jacob also owns an old Ford Model T, an old tractor and two old film projectors.
Just like his collection of musical instruments, and just like the man himself, each piece is one-of-a-kind, and they all have their stories.
— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash