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The Fascinating History of Paul Eakins, Sadie Mae, and Disney

Author: Kendall Foreman

Photo of the band organ known as Sadie Mae after being restored by Paul Eakins.  It is a large, ornate organ painted in blue, red and pink with many carvings.
Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

Could there be a higher pinnacle for a collector than sharing those items which he or she has lovingly curated with the world and having crowds enjoy his or her compilation? Being able to exhibit those treasured pieces might only be surpassed by being recognized and sought out for the expertise acquired after years of experience with said collection. Such is the case with one man, Paul Eakins, one of his musical machines — Sadie Mae, and the Walt Disney Company.

Sadie Mae’s Origins

Sadie Mae is a world traveler. She crossed the Atlantic Ocean and traversed much of the contiguous United States. She spent time in a museum and even had plans to be part of a daily show in Walt Disney World…. but that is getting a bit ahead of the story.

It is believed that Sadie Mae, a military trumpet organ, has her origins in Paris, France. She dates back to the late 1800s, and eventually found a home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on a carousel with two other organs called Big Bertha and Madam Laura. Back in her earliest days, her 300+ pipes producing the sound of piccolos, open flutes, stopped flutes, trombones, trumpets, clarinets, flageolets, octave violins, bass, and cellos along with her snare drum, bass drum, bells and cymbals were powered by a man operating a hand crank, but later she was outfitted to run on electricity.

After more than five decades of playing for children in Michigan, Sadie Mae was purchased and placed in storage in Gulf Shores, Alabama. It was there that she fell into disrepair. In fact, many would have looked at her and thought her musical days were over, but not Paul Eakins.

A Man and His Collection

Paul did not start out restoring antique band organs. He originally owned a heating and cooling business but was advised to make a change for health reasons. While on a family trip out west, he visited a bar in Lincoln, New Mexico, where he saw an old nickelodeon that no longer played. He thought that perhaps, if he had the opportunity to open up one like it, he could figure out how to make it play again. Paul’s curiosity turned into a hobby and then a profession as he and his wife, Laura, began acquiring both music and arcade machines and restoring them. The collection grew in size to the point that they opened a museum in Sikeston, Missouri, called the Gay 90s Village Museum.

A photo of Paul Eakins sitting in front of Sadie Mae, his favorite organ in his collection.
Paul Eakins with his favorite band organ. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

When Paul found Sadie Mae in 1963, he recalled that she “was really in a mess” and that she had to be brought home in baskets and cardboard boxes. It took approximately 42 months to restore the band organ, but afterwards, she looked and sounded amazing. Paul took her on tours and shows across the country, and she was a hit at The Big E, also known as the Eastern States Exposition. It was there that she was featured on television and viewers were able to get a glimpse into how she worked. It was appearances like this one, as well as Paul turning up on the popular game show “I’ve Got a Secret” with a Seeburg H Orchestrion and being featured on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, that gained him a reputation as an expert in his field.

Their Reputation Precedes Them

When someone makes multiple television appearances, oftentimes big names take notice. So in 1970, when Disneyland had need of a nickelodeon, the Walt Disney Company came to Paul Eakins for a Wurlitzer Fascinator. But this would not be the only time Disney would come calling.

A photo of a receipt from when Disney purchased a Wurlitzer Fascinator Nickelodeon from Paul Eakins.  It shows that the sale price was $5,900.00 and that it was purchased on December 23, 1970
Receipt for the sale of a Wurlitzer Fascinator to Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

In the mid-1970s, America was on the cusp of celebrating its bicentennial, and Disneyland was preparing for a grand celebration. The main centerpiece of the festivities was to be a brand new parade called America on Parade. Disney Legend, Bob Jani was the director of entertainment at that time, and he wanted the music to have a very unique sound – like an antique music box. It was then that Jani had an interesting stroke of genius. American classic songs could be recorded on a band organ and then combined with a Moog synthesizer. The sounds of the Moog synthesizer were already well known to Disney’s guests, as they had been utilized in the Main Street Electrical Parade soundtrack. With the plan in mind, Paul Eakins and Sadie Mae were asked to provide the band organ tracks.

But there were two problems.

First, Sadie Mae is quite large. The idea of moving the band organ to Los Angeles to record was unfeasible. Instead, the decision was made to carefully transfer her to nearby Nashville, Tennessee, where the recording could be done at the Grand Ole Opry. From there, the tracks would be sent to Los Angeles and Bob Jani along with Don Dorsey (Disney audio engineer and design director) and Jack Wagner (the voice of Disneyland and Walt Disney World) would be able to create the final synthesized soundtrack.

Then, before any music could be recorded, there was another issue to resolve. To tell the tale of America, 16 classic songs such as “Yankee Doodle” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” were requested. While many of these songs were in Sadie Mae’s repertoire, there were some that were not. To complicate matters, there was only one man in the world capable of making the cardboard punch books that are fed through Sadie Mae. The skills of Arthur Prinson, of Antwerp, Belgium, were necessary to craft the special cardboard books that allow Sadie Mae to play in a fashion somewhat similar to a roll in a player piano. (To see Paul Eakins loading a punch book into Sadie Mae, click here.) Disney was willing to undertake the cost for those additional books, as can be seen in the actual contract entered into between Paul Eakins and Walt Disney Productions below.

A scan of the fifth page of the contract between Paul Eakins and Walt Disney Productions for the use of Sadie Mae in recording tracks for the America on Parade bicentennial parade.
All contract pages courtesy Carlisle Music Co.

In January 1975, Sadie Mae was ready for her journey to Nashville. There, each of the tracks was recorded, which can be seen in this video. Once completed, they were sent across the country, and it was not long before Jack Wagner sent Paul Eakins a recording giving him an idea of what the final music would sound like based on the previous work done on the Main Street Electrical Parade. Jack Wagner’s iconic voice from this recording can be heard here as he gives Paul that update.

As with many Disney Parks’ celebrations, the bicentennial started early when America on Parade came down Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. on June 12, 1975, and Walt Disney World’s on June 6, 1975. Sadie Mae’s synthesized music could be heard while the People of America, eight-foot-tall doll characters, could be seen populating a number of unique floats depicting everything from Sundays in the park to American innovations to significant moments in United States history.

Disney Makes an Acquisition

As America on Parade rolled on, Paul Eakins decided that it was perhaps time to retire. This is a hard decision for any collector, but it is made somewhat easier when he or she is assured that the items they have lovingly amassed will be enjoyed in new ways.

Paul and Laura Eakins’ grandson, Chris Carlisle, recalls being a child when Roy E. Disney, Walt’s Disney’s nephew, came to view the collection. Not long after that visit, the majority of the collection was purchased with plans to use many of the Eakins’ musical and arcade machines throughout Walt Disney World. This was no small undertaking. As can be seen below, the purchase price for Sadie Mae alone exceeded $50,000. It took fourteen semi trucks to load everything that Disney had acquired. Following the transfer, Bob Jani shared a list with the Eakins of where the various machines could be found throughout the Florida property.

A scan of the document listing several of the musical and arcade machines which Disney purchased from Paul Eakins.  It shows items ranging in value from $1,250.00 all the way up to $57,686.00
Purchase prices for multiple pieces when Disney acquired most of the Eakins’ collection. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.
A scan of a document sent by Bob Jani to Paul Eakins listing all of the locations in Walt Disney World where items from his collection could be found.  Some of the locations include the Walt Disney World Train Station, the Mile Long Bar, Pecos Bill's, the Irving and Fowler Riverboats, and several others
List of where machines from the Eakins’ collection could be found in Walt Disney World. Photo courtesy of Carlisle Music Co.

Number one on the list above was a Seeburg K.T. Special Orchestrion that could still be seen playing in the Walt Disney World Railroad Station on Main Street, U.S.A until at least 2016. Also, a Wurlitzer Model C Orchestrion, known as Mr. Sam, sat on stage at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue when it was open seasonally. It can be seen below in a photo from 2010. But even this list is not exhaustive, as Big Bertha, one of Sadie Mae’s Michigan carousel mates, can still be found to this day mounted in the wall of 1900 Park Fare at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. However, perhaps the most glaring omission from this list is Sadie Mae. If Disney had invested such a large sum in the band organ, why was she not being displayed?

A photo of the interior of the Diamond Horseshoe in Frontierland at Magic Kingdom Park.  At the front of the restaurant there is a stage where a Seeburg K.T. Special Orchestrion that was known as Mr. Sam can be seen sitting center stage.
Mr. Sam onstage at the Diamond Horseshoe Revue. Photo from the author’s personal collection.

Big Plans for Sadie

In the mid-1970s, Disneyland’s younger sibling was proving to be a huge success. Walt Disney World’s resorts and campground were operating at near capacity, and the Walt Disney Company was looking at new ways to leverage the concept of the “Vacation Kingdom of the World”. Disney did not want guests to view Walt Disney World as a place where families would come to visit a theme park for one day and then depart. They wanted them to come and stay for multiple days, taking advantage of all the opportunities that the acreage of the Florida Project allowed.

With this idea in mind, several Imagineers were tasked with fleshing out ideas for expanding what was being offered at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. The annual report from 1973 states that there were plans for a railroad system expansion and a western town and stockade area. It was in this new development area that two incredibly unique concepts would have been located and where Sadie Mae would have found a new home.

The first plan was for a walkthrough attraction known under various names including Fort Wilderness Funhouse, The Roost, and Adventure House. Part funhouse, part interactive audio-animatronic experience, this concept went through many iterations from 1975-1976; however, the version that is best documented includes artwork and ideas from Disney Legend, Marc Davis. Marc was known for his work as an animator as well as an Imagineer, having contributed to classic attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and many others. His extensive portfolio, including concept art for the Fort Wilderness Funhouse, can be seen in the two volume book by Christopher Merritt and Pete Doctor titled “Marc Davis in His Own Words: Imagineering the Disney Theme Parks.”

It is in this tome that readers can discover Disney’s plans for Sadie Mae. Nestled in the pages of Volume 2, is concept art for a venue called Sadie Mae’s Palace. In both words and sketches, it can be seen that Paul Eakins’ favorite organ would have sat center stage in a large theater that would have served up drinks and a show. Therein, a master of ceremonies would have interacted with audio-animatronic animals, many of which would have been inspired by Marc Davis’ work on America Sings. It is clear that these Vaudeville-style acts would have complemented Sadie Mae quite nicely.

Sadly, neither the Fort Wilderness Funhouse or Sadie Mae’s Palace ever came to fruition, and it is unknown whether the Walt Disney Company ever made further use of Sadie Mae, until a fateful day in 1997.

Time for a New Home

During the second half of what has come to be known as the “Disney Decade”, it was decided that the time had come to part ways with much of the Eakins’ collection. In 1997, an auction was arranged and the group was split up. Sadie Mae was sold to a gentleman in St. Louis who kept her for only a short time before she moved once again.

Ever the world traveler, Sadie Mae found her current home at the American Treasure Tour Museum in Oaks, Pennsylvania. This expansive 100,000 square-foot building is filled with “an eclectic collection of Americana.” Sadie Mae is most certainly an impressive piece of Americana. Having journeyed across the ocean, she was cherished by the Eakins, loved by the masses, heard by millions in Disney parks on both United States coasts, and is still looking lovely over 130 years later.

A photo of Sadie Mae as she looks today the American Treasure Tour Museum.  She looks very similar to how she did when she was first restored by Paul Eakins.
Sadie Mae at the American Treasure Tour Museum. Photo courtesy of the American Treasure Tour Museum Director, Virginia Frey.

A Special Thank You

Sadie Mae’s legacy lives on outside of Pennsylvania as well. Paul and Laura Eakins grandson, Chris Carlisle, continues on in the tradition of restoring these amazing musical machines. It is due to his kindness that this article has been completed. Thank you, Chris, for being so generous and willing to share your grandparents’ story!

(Mr. Sam photo from the author’s personal collection. Current photo of Sadie Mae from the collection of the American Treasure Tour Museum. All other photos and scans from the personal collection of Chris Carlisle of Carlisle Music Co.)

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.