Mar 8, 2015

The Autorino Autoharp...

The "Swoopy" Michael Autorino Autoharp
In the early days of using the internet, in the days of dial-up connections, there was a users group called the "Cyberpluckers."  It was a group of Autoharp enthusiasts who exchanged ideas, news, encouragement, and questions.  I became a member of that group.  I couldn't precisely identify the date I first got involved, but I'd guess that it was in the early 1990's.  I stayed involved for two or three years until the internal sniping and bickering became too unpleasant to bear, at which time I quit monitoring the on-line activity.  My recollection is that it was hosted by Texas autoharp performer Lindsay Haisley, who was something of an internet whiz and is still a wonderfully talented performer.  My association with the Cyberpluckers did have one very favorable result -- I became the owner of a rare and beautiful custom instrument.

In 1991, I opened an office in Germantown, Maryland for my employer, Camber Corporation.  A well-known autoharp enthusiast named Eileen Roys held an annual open house for autoharp players at her home on Kent Island, Maryland, only a couple hours' drive away.  I had known Eileen for several years, having met her through the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia.  She had invited me to the open house each year, but I had been unable to attend.  But this time was different.  I was near enough to attend.  So it was, that in February, 1992, I found myself at Eileen's open house.  There were probably fifty autoharp players in that one location -- something I had never witnessed (before or since!).  I happened to sit down next to a fellow named Drew Smith, a well-known performer from Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey.  Drew and his lady friend had ridden down from New Jersey on a Harley-Davidson!  That's dedication.

Drew Smith
When Drew Smith took his autoharp out of its case, I noticed that it was like none other that I had ever seen.  At the time, I recall thinking, "It's swoopy."  The edges were all curved in graceful concave arcs.  The edges of the frame and the back of the instrument were beautiful walnut.  The soundboard appeared to be quarter-sawn spruce.  I asked Drew what kind of instrument it was.

Drew informed me that the autoharp had been built by a now-deceased builder named Michael Autorino.  He said that Autorino had lived and worked out of a shop in Montgomery, New York.  He was a minister (I seem to recall Methodist) who built instruments -- dulcimers (both mountain and hammer), psalteries, and autoharps -- all to help support his life and ministry.  Drew also showed me the clever tuning system designed by Autorino.  The tuning pegs are hidden under a trap door at the bottom of the autoharp,  The strings are oriented upside down when compared to a conventional instrument.  This substantially cleans up the appearance of the instrument.  And in the hands of Drew Smith, the autoharp really sang!  Drew plays in a rather unconventional style with an index finger pick that is much longer than any others I've seen.  What he accomplishes with that "spear" is absolutely astounding!

Fast forward a few months.  I'm perusing the Cyberplucker forum when I see an inquiry, "Has anyone ever heard of Michael Autorino?"  I recalled the name from my conversation several months earlier with Drew.  I responded to the individual who had posted the query.  It turns out he was a beginning autoharp player who had seen a consignment autoharp at a music store in southern Connecticut.  It was a Michael Autorino harp but the young man couldn't tell me anything about the type of wood or the condition.  He did provide me with the name and phone number of the music store.  I called them and was informed that they still had the autoharp, it included a hard shell case, it was made of walnut, was in excellent used condition, and had no cracks.  I bought it over the phone for the asking price of $350.00 plus shipping.  When the autoharp arrived a couple of weeks later, I was sure I had done the right thing.  It is a beautiful instrument with a lovely sound.

I restrung the instrument, made new chord bars with fresh damping felts, and have spent countless hours enjoying it.  I've run across a couple of other Autorino harp owners in the last 20 years, but they are few and far between.

A search for the terms "Autorino" and "Autoharp" on Google turns up an interesting newspaper article.  This appeared in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal on November 2, 1983.

"Woodworker Makes Music
DELAND -- A woodworking specialist from New York has opened The Butternut Shoppe in the McPhail Industrial Building on Langley Avenue at the Deland Airport.  Owner Mike Autorino makes dulcimers, psalterys, a custom autoharp called an Autorino harp, and other traditional American musical instruments.  He also manufactures custom cabinets and countertops.  Autorino came here with 18 years experience in his business."
The tuners, hidden beneath the trap door

Lucille Reilly, a well-known dulcimer and autoharp player speaks of buying her first hammered dulcimer which she "purchased in 1978 from Michael Autorino (1917-1987)."  That is the only reference I have located that would indicate when Mr. Autorino passed on.  Regardless, he left a legacy of treasured instruments for those of us fortunate enough to own one.

1 comment:

Lucille Reilly said...

WOW! I just asked about "Autorinoharps" on Cyberpluckers today, 11/11/16, and someone there sent me your blog link. Let's talk! You can find me at Lucille Reilly