Paging through a 1925 issue of The Billboard magazine (what else to do on a Wednesday afternoon!) I came across this very interesting advertisement:
Now this particular ad isn't for Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, it's actually an ad for using the Deagan Una-Fon aimed at movie theaters and film distributors that using The Kid as an example campaign.
So what's the deal you may wonder. Just looks like a car with some ads for The Kid pasted across the exterior.
That's not really an attention getter in itself though, is it? It's that contraption in the back seat, the one that the ad advises "played same as piano" that's going to get folks looking up from the sidewalk. That big thing is the Deagan Uni-Fon, or Unifon, or Unafon, as I've seen various spellings. Here's a quick listen:
John Calhoun Deagan was a concert clarinetist born in Hector, N.Y. in 1853. Founder of the J.C. Deagan company referenced in the advertisement, Deagan's interest was sound and he is recognized for contributions including the first scientifically tuned glockenspiel and the development of other musical instruments such as the xylophone, organ chimes, various bells, and the marimba. Deagan was based in St. Louis and then San Francisco and Los Angeles before relocating to the Deagan building in Chicago in either 1907 or 1912 depending upon the source. Shortly after the business was incorporated, first as J.C. Deagan Musical Bells with the name shortened to simply J.C. Deagan, Inc. in 1916. John Calhoun Deagan was President of the company until his death in 1934.
While J.C. Deagan, Inc. has its own website there were but few Una-Fon resources available online. I was thrilled to find the YouTube clip which reinforced the Una-Fon as sort of a giant, portable xylophone in my mind, though perhaps the best description of the sound was provided a couple of years ago by an Art Reblitz in the Mechanical Music Digest Archives. Mr. Reblitz described the tone of the Una-Fon as "loud and clear, but with an unusual subtone reinforced by the resonators" and goes on to say that they were typically used in parades.
An interesting connection to our 1925 Una-Fon advertisement at the top of this post was found in an interview with Gilberto Serna in the Spring/Summer 2007 edition of World & Percussion Rhythm. In the interview Serna, who had worked for the Deagan company, mentioned that Chaplin had actually used the Una-Fon. He said, "Charlie Chaplin lived at Winnemac and Glenwood here in Chicago and went to the University here in the 1930's ... There is a photo of Charlie Chaplin playing it. They were advertising his movies with it."
Proof of that is up above.
The vintage ad below, courtesy Phillip L. Block, gives a clearer view of the Una-Fon:
So you can see the erect portion is the tall piece shown in the car, while the man sitting in the backseat plays the keyboard, which apparently anyone who played a piano or an organ could manage to do.
It's just a shame that the Billboard ad doesn't give us a glimpse at both sizes. After all $375 will get you some Uni-Fon promotion, but for $500 you can get it in a Ford!
I'm not so much interested in the instrument itself, but in its use as an advertising tool. I'd never run into the Deagan Una-Fon until the ad above caught my eye. Was it commonly used to advertise films to a local audience? If so, for how long? Was J.C. Deagan's interesting advertising tool heavily used or was this an idea that Chaplin tried to help along but which flamed out quickly? As someone who deals in much smaller ephemeral advertising items from the period I'd be interested to know what you know about the Deagan Uni-Fon's efforts at film promotion.