EDEN, N.Y. — The name of the place says it all: The Original Kazoo Co. And, boy, do its owners mean original.
The same belt and pulley machines that stamped and shaped the world's first metal kazoos circa 1900 still stamp and shape kazoos today. The machines are still in the same building, making the same ker-thwunk sound as they perforate, fold and shape.
The finished product hasn't changed, either. The palm-sized, submarine-shaped musical instrument still makes a tinny vibration when someone hums into it.
If there was ever the temptation to modernize the kazoo-making operation as the business changed hands over the years, it didn't last.
"It really would kind of spoil the fun of coming here if you couldn't see things as they were," Karen Smith said as she scanned the factory floor, now more working museum than manufacturing facility. "It's wonderful for our country to know that long ago, they invented this way of manufacturing and it still works today."
The Original Kazoo Co. operates on Main Street in a farm town southwest of Buffalo known as much for its yearly corn festival as kazoos.
The plant opened in 1907 as a sheet metal workshop, producing stove and furnace parts and peanut vending machines. It began making kazoos in 1916 after its owner was approached about creating a metal version of the wooden instrument that had been around since the 1840s.
Inside her gift shop, Smith demonstrates the songs heard most often when adult visitors get hold of a kazoo: "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
"'Jingle Bells,'" she said. "It doesn't matter if it's July or August, they're all playing 'Jingle Bells.' It's amazing."
The place gets its share of tours by students and senior citizens, all eager to try out the product. To say it gets pretty noisy is "putting it mildly," shop forewoman Sue Cruz said with a laugh.
What has changed over the years is ownership. Today, the site is operated by Suburban Adult Services Inc., a nonprofit organization serving mentally and physically disabled adults. It inherited the factory in 2002 as a donation from Robert and David Berghash, after the Berghashes sold the rights to make the standard kazoo to its largest distributor, Woodstock Percussion in New York's Hudson Valley.
As part of the deal, the original factory stayed in Eden and is allowed to make and sell 5,000 standard kazoos a year. They sell in the gift shop for $1.99.
The part-time work force of about 15 people from Suburban Adult Services spends the rest of the time making kazoo trumpets, french horns, trombones and other specialty kazoos that are sold on site and to distributors.
The deal also included rights to the name, Original American Kazoo Co., so the Eden operation became the Original Kazoo Co.
"It's someplace I enjoy walking into," Tony Annunziato, associate executive director of SASI, said of the shop, where more than 20 machines are run by a 10-horsepower motor spinning overhead shafts and leather belts. "It's a nice atmosphere. You don't see that in industry."
The operation gets visitors and orders from around the world, including a recent request for 200 kazoos destined for an orphanage in South Africa.
"Music transcends all language and kazoo really provides that to everyone," Smith said. "You don't have to be a practiced musician in order to participate."
There is a technique, albeit simple, to playing: Hum, don't blow. Some people struggle with that, Smith said.
The key is the small circular Mylar resonator covering a hole on the top of the kazoo, which is vibrated by the humming.
"If you were to blow into a kazoo, absolutely nothing would happen," Smith said.
The kazoo is believed to be the only musical instrument to be invented and produced in the United States. Today, the Eden factory produces the only American-made metal version.