Organ grinders are few and far between

Posted 3/24/21

Although there are not many anymore, there are still organ grinders in the U.S.

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Organ grinders are few and far between

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OKEECHOBEE — Although there are few left in the U.S., organ grinders are still among us. Jesse and Danielle Moore spent last week working at the Okeechobee County Fair, entertaining and educating adults and children every day.

The Moores entertain at fairs, festivals, zoos, meet and greets, school programs, private parties, corporate events, luncheons, company picnics, etc. Based out of Ohio, they spend most of the summer there touring the many fairs. The rest of the year is spent traveling the country performing all over the U.S. Danielle is not normally a huge fan of crowds and usually sticks to the smaller venues, but Jesse loves large groups, so he takes the lead when they are at those type of events.

The couple have been organ grinding for about eight years. Jesse has always loved animals and has had monkeys for about 12 years now. He started out racing dirt bikes around the age of 5 and continued as he went through school. After graduation, he planned to become a veterinarian and already had a scholarship in the works. Instead, he decided he was already working with animals and liked things the way they were. “I just got lucky enough to work with some really great animal trainers while I was growing up,” he said. When he retired from riding, the couple transitioned to becoming full-time entertainers.

Danielle was in nursing school before the couple decided to make entertaining their life’s work.

The Moores have a business partner in Tennessee who used to do organ grinding, and she taught them enough to get them started. “We took it, put a new-school spin on it, and brought it back to the midway,” he said.

They have an old-school organ box which they play to bring in tips. Their monkeys, whichever one is on duty, will work the audience, tipping his hat for cash. The monkeys will kiss or shake your hand and pose with you for a picture. The monkeys know how the organ works but are unable to spin it fast enough to actually make music, Jesse explained.

The Moores got their organ from a man who makes them himself, and they have had it for about five years. Jesse said they are very hard to find now, but you can import them from Germany if you want to spend $8,000-$10,000.

Not only do the Moores entertain, but they also educate, even teaching veterinarians how to handle primates. They have done some small commercials and have a DVD out on Amazon called the Little Ponderosa Zoo.

The Moores brought four monkeys with them to the Okeechobee Fair, but have others at private sanctuaries. They decide what to do with the monkeys based on their personalities. Some love working the crowds and traveling. Some are afraid of people and would not do well in this setting. “It’s like having kids. Some of them are fine, and some have issues,” said Jesse.

All of the Moores’ monkeys are Capuchin, but there are 14 different sub-species of Capuchins. They have some black and white Capuchins. They also have some black caps and some cinnamon Capuchins. Normally, they only have the black and whites with them when they travel. The types have different traits. The black and whites are usually a little more stubborn, and they each have different vocals. Danielle is partial to the black caps, and Jesse likes the black and whites. In captivity, the monkeys live 30-50 years. In the wild, it would usually be about 25 years. This is because they don’t have to fight for food, and they are not fighting for dominance. “They are spoiled,” laughed Danielle.

At the fair last week, Jesse played music to attract crowds. Once someone stopped, usually more people would gather around. They were able to try out the organ and take a picture with the monkey, shake hands with the monkey and even get a kiss. The couple enjoy educating anyone who is willing to listen about primates, and everyone usually leaves knowing more than when they arrived.

Street organs first made their appearance approximately 300 years ago, and according to the website of another organ grinder, Terry Bender, they were invented to teach canaries to sing. “The organ grinder himself has been the subject of adoration as well as contempt. Until the invention of the phonograph and radio, the organ grinder brought the only music that many people, especially the poorer folks in cities, heard. That is why illustrations of organ grinders often show children or adults dancing around him. It might not have been great music, by today’s audio standards, but it was a rare and desired commodity for many in those days. People gave the organ grinder coins to show their appreciation,” states Bender. Monkeys were used in their acts in order to attract attention. Any animal probably would have worked, but the monkeys’ posable thumbs made them ideal choices.

Leaving the Okeechobee County Fair, the Moores headed toward Destin, Fla., where they will be doing some educational programs. The following week, they head to Jacksonville.

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