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The Kazoo Monopoly

The kazoo, like the Chiclets box and the comb covered with wax paper, is a mirliton, a musical instrument in which air vibrates a membrane. It was invented, as far as is known, by Alabama Vest, a slave in Macon, Georgia, who thought it up around 1840. It is said to be the only purely American musical instrument.

The kazoo was a growth industry in 1916, when what is now called the Original American Kazoo Company started manufacturing it in the village of Eden, New York, twenty miles south of Buffalo. The firm also made metal dog beds, among other things, but before long kazoos were taking over. Today the factory still makes kazoos, and nothing else; in fact, the same tworoom shop makes every metal kazoo on earth—two and a half million of them a year—and it makes them on the same machines as when it started.

The instrument is not much harder to make than to play. “If you can hum, you can play a kazoo,” points out David Berghash, president of the company. And you can make kazoos if you have a couple of dozen 1916 Niagara jack presses fitted with the right dies. “These machines have paid for themselves a hundred thousand times,” Berghash says, walking through the shop. “That’s why we have no competition anywhere. It would cost too much to start up new presses.”

It’s hard to see the plant as the worldwide center for any industry. On a typical day some of the eleven employees are working at a few of the machines, which are driven by belts powered by a single ten-horsepower motor. The manufacturing process consists almost entirely of cutting, bending, and crimping small pieces of inexpensive sheet steel. “Our full capacity is about twelve thousand kazoos a day. We don’t even need a whole year to make a year’s supply,” Berghash says.

We watch an employee named Verna Lynn feed metal pieces into one of the machines and stamp them, amid the pleasant sounds of leather belts spinning overhead and the clanking of other presses. She lays a slip of metal about one inch by five inches onto a sort of tray at center and then presses red buttons at both sides of the machine; the piece slides down and becomes the bottom half of a kazoo.

“Those red buttons are a new addition,” Berghash says. “My family firm bought the company in 1985, and our business had been dentures and mouth guards, so we knew about the FDA, but we didn’t know about OSHA. Well, it turned out all these old machines were OSHA illegal. You had a foot clutch, and once you pressed it the machine would cycle and cycle. Now you press both those buttons, keeping your hands clear, and the machine stamps once and stops. It cost us $5,000 a machine to retrofit, but we had no choice. To replace them, you’d have to order a ten-ton multistage die, and that would cost several times as much.

“And there’s nothing wrong with the machines anyway. We’ve never had to retire one, though we just finished redoing all the clutch pins, which were originals from 1916.”

As we talk, a busload of elderly visitors comes out of the gift store at the front of the building for a tour of the factory, which is open to the public every day except holidays. They peer at a display case containing big mocksaxophone and mock-trumpet kazoos from the 1920s, when people would form kazoo jazz bands at parties, and mock-liquor-bottle kazoos from 1934, made to ring in the end of Prohibition.

At a table in the middle of the room, two men work together making a wooden frame twice the size of a cigar box. “That’s experimental work,” Berghash says. “They’re designing a better jig to make the resonators with.” The resonator is the membrane that turns your hum into a piercing buzz. Until 1978 it was made of sheep gut; since then it has been inexpensive Mylar, but it is still assembled by hand. A worker takes a piece of fiberboard with halfinch holes punched in it, glues a sheet of Mylar over it, and then punches out doughnuts of fiberboard with the Mylar stretched across. Each doughnut is one resonator.

“We’re constantly looking to improve the manufacturing process, to remove bottlenecks,” Berghash says. “This is a business like any other. For instance, we have one new machine here that folds together the top and bottom halves of the instruments. It does six kazoos at a time, and it paid for itself in six months. There’s no welding; everything is crimped together.

“Actually, we do weld the big ones, the bugle and the trumpet and the horn, and we make a few hundred thousand of those a year.” The trumpet kazoo, ten inches long, looks almost like a real trumpet, with three valves with plastic keys at the top. How do you play that? “You just hum,” Berghash says. “The differences between kazoos are 100 percent cosmetic. If you can hum, you can play any kazoo.”