The Search For Symphonions: A Brief History Of Patrick Swayze, Submerged Towns, Giant Phalluses, And Haunted Ice-Sculptures, or, How To Transform Yourself Into A Mole

 

JEN AND I are out on Lake Lure, paddling a canoe through the mossy coves, taking in the surrounding crags, and afterwards we decide to have a look inside the Dirty Dancing hotel. If you ever spend much time in Western North Carolina, at some point you will be made aware that Dirty Dancing was filmed in the town of Lake Lure, at The 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa. (Also, Stephen King’s Firestarter was filmed in the vicinity of the lake, as well as My Fellow Americans, A Breed Apart, and Thunder Road.) The connection to Dirty Dancing lends the Inn an aura of Hollywood glamour that contrasts sharply with the nearby strip, where gray-haired bikers chug up and down on heavy black hogs with compromised mufflers; where stick-figure minivan families in day-glo sports gear cruise past tiki-bars and sno-cone stalls, past tourist shops crammed with floppy hillbilly hats and fringed pioneer vests, past apple butter stands guarded by crude chainsaw carvings of black bears.

The Inn is a Mediterranean style country villa with a red tiled roof and a succession of arched breezeways. It overlooks the beach, which, if you squint, resembles Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and if you stop squinting resembles it somewhat less. Honey Boo-Boo mamas struggle to smear SPF 20 on sugar-coated chubbybabies as they scamper and shriek in Kool-Aid-colored swimsuits, as good old beer-belly dads thumb foam Budweiser koozies on nearby lawn chairs and holler about NASCAR.

The Dirty Dancing hotel is the most famous cinematic landmark in Western North Carolina—sure, one of Asheville’s parking garages appears in Robert Redford’s The Clearing, the kitchen where Anthony Hopkins seared bits of Ray Liotta’s brain is in a condo downtown, The Last of The Mohicans was filmed in the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains, and Richie Rich, and Being There, and Hannibal were all filmed at least in part at the Biltmore Estate—but ask the old timers about Dirty Dancing, and they speak in reverent tones. It was a big deal.

I have never seen Dirty Dancing, so I have what is perhaps an imprecise idea of what the film is about. But I’m good at reading titles and inferring subject matter accordingly. So I think it’s about some kind of dancing that’s sexually suggestive (in a way that must be fairly tame considering 1987 from the jaded vantage of twerkin’ 2013,) but it’s also a love story. And it has Patrick Swayze in it—Swayze! The lovelorn tremble in their fleecy baby pink sweatpants at the mere mention of Swayze. They see his ghost beckoning from the covers of tabloids in the checkout line. They imagine they’re out on the town with Swayze, and he’s opening doors and kissing fingers, and he’s got reservations at a Guy Fieri restaurant, and VIP passes to a Jeff Foxworthy show. He asks me questions about myself and seems genuinely interested in my responses.

Maybe I should watch it.

Anyway, in spite of its renown, and the fact that Jen and I both grew up locally, neither of us have ever set foot in the place. So after we land the canoe on the beach we make our way inside to have a look.

VESTIBULE OF CURIOSITIES

There’s a bridal party milling around the lobby: ruddy, hung-over posse of the groom huddled in the corner blinking red-rimmed eyes, cramped into ill-fitting tuxes two sizes too small; and everywhere eager bridesmaids flitting about, fixing sashes and bows, putting fussy finishing touches on everything, like those chirpy little birds and mice that dress Cinderella for the ball.

Lining the room is an eccentric collection of early automated instruments. There are player pianos, and gramophones, and machines as big as wardrobes with burnished clockwork viscera, with great shining metallic discs gleaming behind hinged glass doors. I’ve never seen anything like them. On many of these devices is painted the word Symphonion. I drag Jen around the lobby. “Wow, look at these things! These are like . . . what are these things? They’re like giant music boxes! Look, they play discs with holes in them, and when they rotate, the little pegs fit into the holes and they make the sound . . . like player piano rolls!” I have to know more, so I approach the front desk. The receptionist looks like a hipster Lily Tomlin—skinny yoke cardigan, black-framed cat glasses and Betty Page bangs.

“May I help you?”

“These things, these Symphonions,” I ask, “do they ever play them?”

She tugs at the sleeve of her cardigan. “Honestly, I don’t know.” We share an awkward silence. Even though I’ve asked her a simple question and she’s given me a simple response, I get the feeling we’ve misunderstood each other. I consider the ways in which my question might have been misunderstood.

“I mean, is there ever a time when you can come and listen to them playing them? I mean, I know they play themselves . . .”

The wedding party hubbub seems to grow louder in my ears. I’m suddenly aware of how sweaty I am; I’ve been rowing a boat in the hot sun. I’m wearing a baseball cap and a wife-beater and I’m heavily tattooed for some stupid reason. Why would somebody who looks like me be asking about music boxes?

“They do give tours occasionally,” she says, “but I’m not sure when those are.”

I think she’s being intentionally evasive, but I’m often wrong about people. Maybe the Symphonions are a mystery to her, too.

“They’re just fascinating, you know? I mean wow, huh?”

She nods. “Sure.”

I thank her and we leave the inn.

THE SEARCH

I work the graveyard shift at a hotel in Asheville three nights a week, and with the exception of hobos battling invisible demons in the back alley, or the occasional shitfaced domestic squabble, it’s a pretty laid-back gig. I do an hour or two of paperwork and the rest of the night is mine. I brew a pot of coffee and get my laptop out.

SYMPHONIONS I

In 1885, Oscar Paul Lochmann invents the first music box that plays interchangeable discs—a revolutionary departure from the cylinder-based music boxes of the day. Lochmann calls his device the Symphonion, and later that year in Gohis, Germany, he and his partners Gustave Brachhausen and Paul Riessner establish a company to produce them: Symphonion Fabrik. The Symphonions are popular; they are cheaper to manufacture than the old cylinder music boxes and more affordable.

In 1889, believing they can make a better music box than Lochmann, Brachhausen and Riessner establish a competing company in Leipzig, which they name Polyphon. The two companies are fierce competitors and remain at war for decades. While other brands also vie for a share of the emerging market—Calliope, Monopol, Komet, Gloria, Celesta, and Triumph—none can compete with the giants, Symphonion and Polyphon.

I find a couple of Symphonion videos on YouTube. They sound warped, with a loping mechanical rhythm, as if the springs that turn the disks have been stretched out of shape. I’m curious: where did the ones at the Inn come from? The receptionist didn’t know. Maybe nobody knew. The Inn’s website didn’t provide any answers either. It did say that workers had discovered a number of antiques during recent renovations. Maybe the machines had been languishing in some cobwebbed attic since the Twenties?

I decide to do an article. I send an email to the contact address for the inn:

Dear Manager,

Hello. My name is Lawrence Benner, and I am a writer. During a recent visit to your hotel (my fiancée and I are from Asheville, and we have always wanted to see the Dirty Dancing hotel–wow, it’s great!)  we saw that you have a lobby full of old automated music machines. Is there anyone on staff who knows the history of the Symphonions? How they came to the Inn? Where they came from? Or, is there anyone locally who knows about them? I would really like to talk with anyone who might know their history. I want to do a story on the machines, which I find fantastic, and which are very rare, and I will describe the hotel in a very positive light, of course. Also, would it be possible to take some pictures?

Thank you for your consideration,

Lawrence Benner

It was a little toadying, the sentences were run-on, and I used very too often. But it wasn’t as stupid as it might have been.

I continue my research while awaiting a response.

SYMPHONIONS II

In 1890, when the United States increases tariffs on imported goods, Brachhausen leaves Leipzig, his partner Riessner, and the Polyphon factory to build a new company in Rahway, New Jersey: The Regina Music Box Company. For the remaining years of the Symphonion’s popularity, the top manufacturers will be Symphonion, Polyphon, and the upstart Regina.

In America, Brachhausen is a business wizard. He patents a spring-wound motor and an automatic disc changer, and he moves the bedplate from the bottom of the machine to the top to increase the volume. He establishes a nationwide distribution network by offering a fifty-percent wholesale price to department stores, and he convinces Octave Felicien Chaillet—the Symphonion Fabrik’s principal arranger—to leave Lochmann and come to America, where he composes and arranges thousands of discs for Regina.

THE EXCHANGE

The lobby doorbell rings. It’s past three a.m. and I’ve got the sliding glass street doors locked so nobody can get in. Standing in the entrance is a guy with a permanent five-o’clock shadow and a waxy complexion. His eyes are pinned. It’s the junkie who’s been stopping by to use the bathroom on his way home from somewhere for the past couple of weeks. I usually don’t open the door for anybody after three, but he’s a persuasive guy, with a smile that makes you feel well-liked. I spring the latch, and he’s already talking to me like we’re in the middle of a conversation:

“. . . so she’s over at the Grove Park, and she’s, like, asking me ‘Why aren’t you at the hotel?’”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” I tell him.

“But you’re—” he squints at my nametag “I mean, you ARE Larry, aren’t you?”

I squint at the name tag too.

“Yes. I AM Larry.”

But I’m not in the mood for absurdity. I’m tired. I want to take a nap in a chair. So I hustle him off to the crapper, buzz him in, and when he comes out again I’m waiting by the street door (I find I can get rid of the night wanderers more easily if I stand by the door like I’m waiting to let them out.) But he isn’t having it. “Larry,” he says, striding across the busy paisley carpeting – Larry – like we’ve known each other forever, and this is the persuasive tone he uses when I’m being unreasonable. He makes a beeline for one of the overstuffed chairs and sits, waving me over, but I stay standing by the door.

“Got to lock up.”

“But Larry,” and he starts digging around in his pocket, “come here man.” I think he’s going to offer me some drugs, which I have no real problem with, in theory – except I don’t do drugs anymore, and anyway then I’d owe him, and he’d start showing up every night begging for bagels – so I say “No, really, that’s not necessary.”

“Larry,” he says, “I just want to give back, you know?”

“I’ve got to lock up, man.”

“It really is cool of you, letting me use the bathroom and all.”

Then he pulls something out of his pocket and acts like he’d hand it to me if only I was close enough. I stay put; he has no choice but to get up and come over to the door. There it is in his hand, the thing he’s been digging around for. He holds it out: a McDonald’s gift card.

“Come on Larry. Don’t you want the gift card? There’s still six dollars on it.”

Even though I didn’t want his drugs, I still feel disappointed.

BRANCHING OUT

Several days pass and I receive no reply from the Inn. I’m not surprised: it’s the busy season, and my inquiry represents nothing if not more work. Undaunted, I email several other people. I email the former mayor of Lake Lure, Jim Proctor, who has recently published a picture book on the town’s history. He writes back the next day informing me that he doesn’t know where the Symphonions came from, and that I would be better off talking to someone from the Inn. I write back thanking him. I send a message to the Town of Lake Lure, and one to the Rutherford County Historical Society. Finally, I repost my original email in the comments section of The 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa Facebook page.

By this time I’ve discovered that the Dirty Dancing hotel wasn’t even in Dirty Dancing. The producers wanted to use it as a set piece, but the Inn’s owners didn’t approve of the film’s salacious subject matter and rejected the idea. The Inn was used to house the cast and crew, but the shoot took place at a nearby boy’s camp.

THE SUBMERGED CITY

Lake Lure is a manmade lake of 720 acres that covers a valley where the mining town of Buffalo, North Carolina once stood. In the twenties, when Dr. Lucius B. Morse and his older brothers – twins Hiram and Asahel – bought Chimney Rock (a three-hundred-and-fifteen foot circumcised phallus of stone thrusting up over the valley, transfixed by urethral elevator shaft) they had the idea to develop a resort town featuring a large central lake rimmed with grand hotels. They bought Buffalo and the surrounding area, evicted everybody who lived there, and built a damn across the Rocky Broad River. In two years the valley had flooded, covering the town under a hundred feet of murky green water. Although some structures were demolished, the church and the schoolhouse and several other buildings still stand at the bottom of the lake. According to local legend, if you go out on a boat in the dead of night you can hear the peal of church bells from beneath the waves.

SYMPHONIONS III

Gramophone Records become a major player early in the Twentieth century, and Symphonion and Polyphon suffer huge losses. Regina tries to adapt, introducing a gramophone record player, the Reginaphone, but sales plummet. Knauth, Nachod & Kuhne, the firm that had originally financed the construction of the Regina factory, steps in to protect their investment. They diversify the product line, demote Brachhausen to factory manager and remove “Music Box” from the company name. Regina goes bankrupt in 1922. It is sold to Electrolux, and under the new management goes on to become a world leader in the production of vacuum cleaners, most notably the Regina Elektrikbroom.

By the beginning of the twenties, the Regina Music Box Company had produced over one hundred thousand interchangeable-disc music boxes, most of which are destroyed in scrap-metal drives during the First and Second World Wars. Only a few survive.

I figure that’s how I’ll get into the story. Once the Inn responded to my emails, as it seemed inevitable that they would – it was just taking a little while because of the busy season, the swell of tourists, the abundance of weddings – once I was able to sit down with someone and find out where the Symphonions at the Inn had come from, I would be able to trace the story from the source: Leipzig to Lake Lure.

To me the most interesting part was the cutthroat relationship between the men who had built the original Symphonion Fabrik and the subsequent war of the music boxes. My impression of Brachhausen was that he was an unscrupulous opportunist; Riessner, a follower, Brachhausen’s tool. Poor Lochmann seemed the only sympathetic player – a guileless inventor betrayed by friends.

And then there was Brachhausen at the end of his life, after having connived his way to the top, after having created – improbably – a music box empire, to be demoted and disgraced, his company edged out of business by the gramophone and ultimately repurposed to make vacuum cleaners. I imagined him embittered and penniless, walking out onto the street through the swinging door of a soup kitchen, keeping his eyes fixed on the sidewalk as he passed by display window after hateful display window of Regina Elektrikbrooms.

MOIST BUFFALO

Waiting for a response, I kill time with nonsense. I’ve become fascinated by the submerged town of Buffalo. There is no documentation I can find, no specifics about Buffalo – history, demographics, culture – nothing. I examine old census data, peruse photo archives. There was evidently population sufficient to merit a schoolhouse and a church, but no memories of students or faithful remain. I fantasize about leading scuba missions to the bottom of the lake, shining my waterproof flashlight through layers of silt and murk, startling trout and copperheads from the shadows, finally arriving at the sodden bell-tower.

At night I dream that Patrick Swayze wanders the watery streets of Buffalo, a lonesome soul, lost to the cold currents of time.

FURTHER DIGRESSION

Several more days pass. My internet research has run its course. I have exhausted all possible combinations of search terms: Lake Lure Inn History, Lake Lure Symphonion, Lake Lure Inn Symphonion, Symphonion Lake Lure, Lake Lure History, Chimney Rock History, Early Automated Music Boxes Lake Lure, Music Box Lake Lure Inn, etc., etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. Without being able to talk to someone about the Symphonions – someone who knows the actual story – I have nothing. I begin to suspect I’ve been getting the runaround. What did the people of Lake Lure have to hide?

And the more I dig, the more weird shit I find out. Lake Lure resembles The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks – an extradimensional zone in the forest, a pixie ring.

THE LITTLE PEOPLE

Nearby Hickory Nut Gorge was believed by the Tomahitan Indians to be the home of malevolent “little people.” The gorge was the only route through the mountains into the lowlands beyond, and to the sea coast where tobacco was plentiful. The tribesmen had heard of tobacco from a wandering stranger, and they very much wanted to try it, so a Tomahitan mystic transformed himself into a mole. He passed undetected through the gorge and brought some tobacco back, but he wasn’t able to carry much. Next he made the journey as a hummingbird, but was only marginally more successful than the first time. Finally he went as a violent whirlwind that ripped the surrounding mountains to pieces, leaving them stripped and broken, and killing off all the little people in a rain of debris.

Which seems like overkill.

But who were these little people? Gnomes? Fairies? Grays? I had grown up in the area, and as a teenager I had seen inexplicable things. Once tripping on acid at the abandoned amusement park I had seen flying saucers.

THE HAUNTED ICE SCULPTURE

I stumble across a website devoted to a picture of a ghost that Inn Events Manager Patrick Bryant inadvertently snapped in 2010 while trying to get a shot of an ice sculpture (a lyre supporting interconnected hearts inscribed with the names Josie and Rick,) that had been carved for a vow-renewal ceremony. Behind the sculpture you can make out the transparent figure of a young boy. The authenticity of the photo has been eagerly debated by members of the international ghost-hunting community ever since.

THE TUNNEL TO THE TAQUERIA

Lengthening the parade of oddities, I find a newspaper article about a tunnel that leads from the Inn to the arcade building across the street, to the El Lago taqueria, a tunnel excavated to provide a secret passage that famous guests could use without being mobbed by fans and paparazzi.

My research into Symphonions has devolved into a catalog of peculiar minutiae.

OPTIMISM, RAPIDLY FADING

Another week passes without a word. I have given up.

Unexpectedly I receive an email from Valerie Hoffman, Communications Coordinator and Website Administrator for The Town of Lake Lure. I have become habituated to being rebuffed; I am taken off-guard. And her letter, while not informative, is kindly-intended. It can’t be ignored. Fortunately, her advice is all too familiar: ask the former mayor Jim Proctor about the Symphonions, or the people at the Inn. She also forwards the email address of Patrick Bryant, the Events Manager at the Inn, the man who took the picture of the haunted ice-sculpture. I send an email thanking her, and reluctantly send Bryant an email as well, hoping he won’t respond. Valerie has been so obliging I’d be a dick not to at least try to get in touch with him. It will be my third attempt to contact the Inn.

Another week goes by and Bryant never responds. Although I’m relieved that I won’t have to pretend I think his ghost picture is real, I’m actually kind of pissed off about it. I begin to stalk The 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa Facebook page, searching for something – I don’t know what – as if there might be an answer in the stiffly-posed engagement photos exuberant newlyweds have posted there. Him: terrified behind an idiot grin; her: a praying mantis poised to sever his head and pulp it up in her hideous mandibles – posed by the whitewashed lattice of an arbor, where the pink climbing roses drape just so . . ..

It is during this stalking of the Inn Facebook page that I discover that there’s an entire notes section devoted to the Symphonions there – several well-researched pages, in fact. The mystery is solved: the inn was purchased in 2005 and the new owners collect antique automated music machines.

My article is rendered irrelevant.

MINOR KEY REVELATION

The lobby doorbell rings. I’d been expecting a late check-in, but when I go to unlock the street doors it’s the junkie again, looking like a Frenchman this time, with a black beret pulled down over his ears shower-cap style. He’s got another guy with him, a lanky, red-cheeked young dude in a baseball cap.

“Larry. Hey. Larry. Can we use the bathroom?”

They’re a mismatched pair, types that would only hang out together if drugs were involved. The lanky dude looks like an overgrown kid, like he has a part-time job in a warehouse unloading trucks, like he goes to softball games and shouts encouraging slogans. The other guy looks like he should be stealing change out of his blue-skinned girlfriend’s purse at the crack of dawn.

But I don’t care about anything anymore, so I say “Yeah” and I let them in.

They spend way too much time in the bathroom, and I’m about to go hammer on the door when they wade out into the lobby again, flushed and grinning. They seem confused, like they hadn’t expected the bathroom to teleport them here of all places, but they adapt quickly. The junkie notices our history wall over by the wheelchair ramp, with its framed black and white reproductions of photos taken during the construction of the hotel, and he plunges in.

“Wow. WOW. Oh my God, do you realize that this building was built—this was BUILT in the Twenties, and look, look- look at those guys there building it, all those . . . all those fuckers are dead now, man!” He’s eating it with his eyes, and the baseball cap kid’s nodding like his neck is on a spring: right-right-right-jazz-age-construction-right. They’re glittering, giddy.

The doorbell rings again. It’s my late check-in, Daniel Ward, a generic businessman with designer roll-on luggage and serious wire-framed glasses.

“Don’t mind them,” I tell him, in response to dubious eye.

“Oh my god! Do you realize there’s a display case filled with antiquities over here? Is that a hairbrush inlaid with mother-of-pearl?”

“It really is a fascinating historical exhibit,” I inform Ward.

The parallel to my own situation is not lost on me: maybe we’re all destined to stumble into some hotel lobby and examine antiquities a little too enthusiastically. To be a nuisance. To strive to know but to remain in the dark.

I get Ward up to his room; I get the guys back out the door.

After work, I go through the McDonald’s drive-thru and get an Egg McMuffin with the gift card the junkie gave me. It’s 7 a.m. The sky is streaked with incandescent salmon-colored clouds. By the dumpsters a couple of crows scuffle over a discarded sesame-seed bun.

 

dirty_dancing

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray in Lake Lure.

About Lawrence Benner

Lawrence Benner squandered his early years as a punk guitarist and chapbook-slinging street poet in the Mission District of San Francisco. He did a decade as a subway musician in ex-Communist East Germany, worked as a zusammenfassung schreiber for the legendary Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, and went on to write, produce, and direct three failed low-budget films for the independent production company Buried Pictures. (In reference to his 2002 film, Ether, actor Willem Dafoe scribbled, "Liked it" on a yellow Post-it note.) Mr. Benner has been a Weeklings contributing editor since 2012, and when he isn’t writing this bio, he can be found hard at work on his debut novel, Memorial World. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his common-law wife and three insubordinate cats.
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