by Gayle Turim
(reprinted with permission from GRIT - American Life and Traditions, Volume 114, Number 22, September 22, 1996)
You can almost hear the hum of prosperity in the 80-year-old factory on Main Street in Eden, New York, a town of about 3000 located on the outskirts of Buffalo. If the hum's not the result of the economic well-being the plant has enjoyed since the Brimms Company took over in 1985, then it's definitely the factory's single product: kazoos.
Two-and-a-half million kazoos, including kazoos of metal, kazoos plated in gold, kazoos of plastic, kazoos in the classic submarine form, and kazoos shaped as bugles, trumpets, and other instruments somewhat higher on the musical-evolution ladder, will emerge from the factory this year.
Yet who is to say what instrument is superior to another, especially when it comes to the sheer enjoyment it provides? David Berghash, the 36-year-old president of Brimms, will do whatever it takes to give the kazoo its due.
"The kazoo is an all-American product," Berghash boasts, "and there are approximately 15,000 kazoo bands in this country, mainly in the South. Their members just knock themselves out playing, having a great time. Some bands are even in parades. Sometimes they make pilgrimages here to see where their kazoos are built."
The kazoo's origin is southern, at least in the legend that is taken as fact. In the 1840's, an African-American, Alabama Vest, designed an instrument with similarites to the voice disguiser called a mirliton that was used by some African tribal doctors. A clockmaster of Vest's aquaintance, Thaddeus von Clegg, created a model based on Vest's work that was exhibited at the Georgia State Fair in 1852. The novelty attracted the attention of a toy manufacturer, who bought the right to market the unique instrument as the "Down South Submarine." The name kazoo was not yet used.
A half-century later, in 1902, Harry Richardson applied for a patent for a similar instrument called a kazoo. Around 1916, with the backing of Emil Sorg and Michael McIntyre, Richardson shifted some of the manufacturing capacity in his sheet metal shop to kazoo; they joined a product line that, at the time, included dog beds, tackle boxes, and furnace parts.
McIntyre eventually became the sole owner of what became known as the Original American Kazoo Company. But, according to Berghash, the firm changed hands six times and was failing in 1895, when Brimms bought it. Brimms's now-kazoo-inclusive toy division (other divisions produce such items as denture repair kits) has been called KazooCo ever since.
Also built at the Eden factory was the world's largest kazoo: "six feet five inches high and three four inches across, and weighing 43 pounds," its proud owner, Barbara Stewart, recites. "It has five mouthpieces for the the five of us in the world's largest kazoo quintet." She founded the group, called Kazoophony, in 1973 with an ear to the accomplishments of such humorous yet technically excellent musical acts such as Victor Borge and P.D.Q. Bach.
"I've been a classical musician all my life, and among the five of us, we have 114 years of formal training," notes Stewart, who lives near Rochester, New York. It's important to bring music, great music, to people who want it. Small children, for instance, respond so well to classical music if they haven't already gotten the message that they're not supposed to like it."
Using the five-mouthpiece kazoo as well as individual ones, the Kazoophonists include in their repertoire such numbers as, "The Plight of the Kazoomblebee," "Amadeus Goes Country," and a salute to John Philip Sousa.
Stewart's talents also have a literary bent, and her book How to Kazoo, first published in 1983, has sold more than 250,000 copies. Each, naturally enough, comes with a kazoo, so the proud new kazooist can practice the book's tips, such as keeping the lips soft and flexible while playing and being sure to articulate clearly. With practice, Stewart promises that even casual kazooists can create near-concert-quality music.
Kazoos can create memories, too. The "New Voices" column in the Tallahasee (Florida) Democrat recently feature the kazoo-inspired musings of 29-year-old Mark Patrick Costello.
"Every Sunday night in the Costello home was kazoo night," Costello begins. "My dad's...kazoo music made a lazy Sunday even lazier and seemed to act as a tranquilizer that slowly eased the family to bed."
Costello, raised in Virginia, describes his other interests in pop and rock music but continues, "As I grew into my dad's kazoo world...My appreciation for the kazoo truly coincided with my departure for college...The toy instrument is a substitute...for so many gratifying things that my parents passed on to me."
"I can see myself a few years down the road," he goes on, "with children of my own, continuing the Costello Sunday-night tradition. I will allow my kids to listen to whatever music they like, but I hope the kazoo music I play will somehow touch them."
While Costello's father's intense kazooing reach one child at a time, entertainer Rick Hubbard, seeks to captivate hundreds with every performance of his kazoo and other musical skills. Each Hubbard show finale - which has been preceded by bubble-blowing, maracas-shaking, and other fun activities - is the distribution of a free plastic kazoo to every audience member.
Then, Hubbard invites all the children to march in an impromtu All-Kid Kazoo Band and play a grand send-off song. As many as 2,000 youngsters have been in one band, and Hubbard says proudly, "I'm the only person who has ever put together a kazoo band at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C."
A North Carolina native who's now based in South Carolina, Hubbard, 42, played the kazoo as a child and found the instrument useful in his college and post-college rock 'n' roll days. "When I was doing the coffeehouse circuit, one of the songs very popular at the time was 'Lucky Man' by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It was one of the first songs on the radio using the Moog synthesizer, and no one could afford one; it cost about $10,000. I found I could relicate the sound on a kazoo, so I was sort of noted for that," he laughs.
Hubbard realized early on that he was doing something important when a parent came up to him after a show and said that her seven-year-old son had always been very shy. She had brought him to the show, but he would not participate. Then, at the end and without her prompting, the boy went up and joined the kazoo band. He came back and told his mother, "I did it! I did it!"
"That was a major event in this family," Hubbard recalls, still with some wonder that he was the catylyst for it. "My dad, who's a psychologist, explained to me that it's all about self-esteem, generated from being a part of something, feeling good about yourself."
In the same vein, Hubbard and Berghash both note that because kazoo-playing requires relatively little training to achieve a relatively high level of expertise, kazoo bands are perfect for any age.
With kazooists creating a steady buzz around the country, Berghash, Stewart, and Hubbard need not worry that kazooing will come to a humble end anytime soon. In fact, to borrow the exclamation of exhuberance coined by Hubbard to rouse his young audiences, the future of the little instrument is just "kazoobie!" indeed.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contributing editor Gayle Turim lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information about the Eden Factory, contact:
Brimms, Inc. 425 Fillmore Ave. Tonawanda, NY 14250; (716) 694-7100
For more information about GRIT magazine call: 1-800-678-4883