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The daily grind, without a monkey

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - The music seeps out as he strolls, turning the crank, his stuffed monkey perched on board.

He plays medleys from "The Sound of Music" and "Oklahoma." He plays music from the early 20th century, a mix of classic and popular.

And though Palmer Mai has studied the history of organ grinders and knows the stories of those wandering old troubadours who played their street organs with their monkeys, he isn't a wanderer and he doesn't have a real monkey.

"Think liability," he says.

Mai, a retired executive from Southwestern Bell, started the organ grinder bit about the same year he retired, but he's been playing the instrument for about 20 years, and he's been a lover of music long before that.

"It all started out with piano lessons when I was a kid," Mai says.

He eventually got interested in the street organ, and started playing at festivals and fairs around St. Louis, as well as nursing homes.

Mai figures he's been playing at St. Charles Festival of the Little Hills for close to 10 yeas.



Festival of the Little Hills was founded in 1969 to celebrate the founding of St. Charles 200 years before. This year, St. Charles will celebrate 200 years since their incorporation as a village.

Festival of the Little Hills is a free event that features crafts, food and entertainment.

The festival, which begins at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21, and ends at 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, usually attracts around 300,000 people.


"He's just so cute and it's so unique," says Sue Garland, an executive board member with the festival, where Mai will play this weekend.

And when kids see him coming, their eyes light up, Garland says.

Mai's circuit takes about three hours, and that's about all he can take.

"It can get a little heavy after three hours," he says of his 20-pound organ, which came from a small town in England.

But during those three hours, Mai's strolling and stopping to visit, all the while turing the crank at the right tempo as his street organ follows music on a microchip inside.

The 76-year-old Kirkwood resident also has two player pianos at his home and collects rolls for them, as well as American popular sheet music.

And as he strolls through St. Charles this weekend, (Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) Palmer already knows the effect his music will have.

"When people see me coming," he says, "they smile."