he gift that keeps on giving can arrive in many forms and have many meanings. For 82-year-old Henry M. Ritz '38, it was a music box he received a half century ago. From that first magical, mechanical device has grown an impressive collection that numbers more than 150 music boxes from around the world.
"It was something that just grew on me," says the retired president, treasurer and CEO of R&R Plumbing Supply Corp. in Worcester. "When R&R moved from Mechanic Street to Worcester Center Boulevard, I received a cigarette holder that played music. That started me off. Thereafter, on my birthday or Father's Day, my friends, my relatives and my children would give me music boxes."
The bulk of the Ritz collection is housed in a large, lighted cabinet in the basement of his home. Music boxes of every shape, color and nationality are crowded yet neatly arranged on shelves behind a glass encasement. A trolley car clangs out "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." A miniature Russian church plays the ancient folk song "Troika." A tiny gramophone twinkles "The Way We Were," and a Parisian kiosk plastered with French posters renders "La Moulin Rouge."
There are music boxes disguised as pocketbooks, radios, wristwatches and musical instruments. There are many wine and liquor bottles: an amber one plays "Little Brown Jug," while another spills out "How Dry I Am." One box, designed to look like a package of Ritz Crackers, has no doubt launched a thousand conversations at the Ritz household as it tapped out "Puttin' on the Ritz."
Other boxes set in motion twirling dancers, chirping birds and blowing whistles. There are musical buildings, alarm clocks, pin cushions, cigarette lighters, perfume atomizers, makeup cases, baseballs, footballs and banks. A birthday cake, in celebratory fashion, tinkles "Happy Birthday."
It's been said that when a music box is played in a room full of people, "everything else will stop." Ritz agrees. "It has a special tone," he says. "You can turn on a radio and people won't stop. A CD? People won't stop. But a music box? They do. It's like you are going to a circus and hearing a calliope."
"Music box," according to the Musical Box Society, an international educational organization, is a popular term "covering all types of automatically played musical machines, from small table-top instruments that use a cylinder or disc to play tunes on a steel musical comb, to large orchestrions [mechanical band pianos] and carousel organs which have the musical capability of a symphony orchestra or a military brass band!"
The Encyclopedia of Collectibles dates the oldest music boxes to the last quarter of the 18th Century, "when watchmakers, mostly in Switzerland, began installing small spring-powered musical movements in watches, snuff boxes and other baubles. The bells that were the principal sound component in the earliest objects were relatively bulky; it was to afford greater miniaturization that combs of tuned steel teeth were developed as the basic musical element."
The oldest music boxes have their tunes inscribed on metal cylinders. In the late 19th century, cylinders were superseded by metal disks, which could be stamped out by machine and were, thus, less expensive to produce. Ritz' collection contains both kinds of boxes, as well as orchestrions and carousel organs.
The international look of the collection is a result of the many overseas trips Henry Ritz has made with Roslyn, his wife of 58 years and daughter of Jessie Morton Schorr '16. The couple have three children and five grandchildren. "Every place we went, I would buy a music box representing the country we visited.
"A lot of people ask me: 'What do you think it is worth?'" Ritz says about the collection. "That answer is: 'What is it worth to you?' It may be worth $20 to you and $100 to me. Take the antique box. I wouldn't sell that for several thousand dollars. Now, whether anybody would pay that much is problematical."
In fact, the antique box is one of Ritz's favorites. He keeps it upstairs in the living room along with a few other choice pieces. He found it, not in Europe, but in a secondhand store in Worcester. Made sometime around 1890, it plays six different French tunes. A hand-written label still clearly lists each piece. When Ritz found this rare mechanical music box it was sorely in need of repair. He fixed it himself.
"I used to take them apart and put them together again," Ritz says. "They always needed fixing and lubricating. I was able to do that."
Ritz is no longer able to work on his beloved music boxes. Having suffered strokes in 1981 and 1988, he must use a wheelchair to get around. Still, he remains active and his spirit is undiminished.
"You are looking at an inspiration," Roslyn says, placing her hand on her husband's shoulder. "Even though it is 10 years now since he had his second stroke, he tries everything he can to live a normal life. He advises others who have had a stroke. He will write a letter to someone and tell them not to lose faith, to keep on trying as hard as they can, to do their therapy, help themselves, so that they can live a productive life."
Living a productive life is something Henry Ritz has always tried to do. Born in Worcester in 1916, the son of Samuel and Minnie Ritz, he graduated from Worcester's Classical High School in 1934 and the following year enrolled as an electrical engineering major at WPI.
"I lost my father in my senior year and I had to quit school," he says. It was a time when R&R's annual sales were, as Ritz puts it, "equal to what we do in two days now." For five years, he worked at R&R during the day and took courses at night at a satellite campus of Northeastern University in Worcester, earning a degree in business and engineering.
Started in 1905, R&R took its name from its founders, Samuel Ritz and Joseph Rutman, father of Walter Rutman '30. The company started out on Water Street and moved to Mechanic Street in 1929. In 1950, it moved to Worcester Center Boulevard, where its brightly colored neon sign, with its dripping faucet, become a local landmark. Three years ago, the site was taken by the city to make way for the massive Medical Center project now under construction in downtown Worcester. Since then, R&R has called Chandler Street home.
In 1987, at the age of 71, Henry Ritz turned the company over to his son Jesse. "Jesse's doing very well," he says. "I'm very proud of him. He was just selected president of the Jewish Community Center in Worcester."
Ritz says he also plans on turning the music box collection over to Jesse. "He has the room for it," he says. "You have to have a lot of wall space to show all those music boxes. He is the only one of the three children who has the proper space."
After nearly a half-century of amassing his collection and enjoying countless hours with his music boxes, Ritz is now a collector who wishes only to give and not receive. "I have no place to put them," he says, laughing. "I give them as gifts to grandchildren for birthdays. I would buy surplus ones and give them out as gifts: key-chains, cigarette lighters, dolls, animals...."
It's obvious how much pleasure Ritz finds in sharing the joys of music boxes. "I can't tell you how pleased Ray Morin was when I gave him a cigarette lighter that played his theme song," Ritz said, referring to the late dean of Worcester music critics whose music box played, "Für Elise" by Beethoven.
Through the years Ritz has given many lectures about his music boxes. He's spoken to many Worcester social groups and on occasion has placed his collection on display at the Worcester Public Library and similar venues. In his talks he would often note how the royalty of Europe took great pride in their music boxes. It was a form of appreciation to give each other such enchanting gifts. In his own way, Henry Ritz has continued this grand tradition of giving gifts for the generations.
-Williamson is a freelance writer and musician living in Worcester.
Last Updated: 11/20/98 8:49:54 EST