Past Treasure of the Month – January 2012
The Rosenberg Library presented a vintage Play-A-Sax as the January Treasure of the Month.
Manufactured by the QRS-Devry Corporation in the 1930s, the Play-A-Sax (also spelled Playasax) was touted as “the musical instrument that everyone can play.” The twelve inch tall novelty instrument fused the technology of a player piano with a harmonica.
Also on display were directions on how to use it and three music roles for the instrument. This fascinating relic was donated to the library in 1995 by Marjorie Runge Kelso of Galveston.
The Chicago based QRS-Devry Corporation was founded in 1900 by Melville Clark who played an important role in developing the player piano. From 1900 until the 1930s QRS sold millions of rolls of music, but the Great Depression coupled with the rise of affordable home radios meant disaster for the industry.
Production of piano rolls peaked around 1927 and many of QRS’s competitors soon went out of business. Today it is the only major company that still manufactures piano rolls for player pianos.
Henry O. Drotning of New York patented the Play-A-Sax in April 1930. Drotning was a prolific inventor who had over thirty patents to his name. Later in his career he switched his focus from making innovations in musical toys to the dynamic world of photography. In the 1940s he went on to work for Kodak where his background in toys helped him create the stylish Brownie Reflex camera. He also developed improvements for shutters and safeguards to prevent the double exposure of film.
The Play-A-Sax is very easy to operate. The ‘musician’ first loads a music roll on the side, draws it around the front of the sax, and then inserts the loose end of the paper into a slot. Once loaded with the music roll, the player then blows into the mouthpiece while cranking the small handle at the end. The crank feeds the music roll which manipulates the sixteen openings to produce different notes. An audio sample from a Play-A-Sax can be heard online at
The QRS-Devry Corporation also produced a variation of the Play-A-Sax called the Clarola. Made to look like a clarinet, the Clarola had a different mouthpiece and horn but used the same type of music rolls, crank, and body as its saxophone counterpart. The company marketed the two toys to children, but tried to convince parents that they were not just typical (annoying) noise makers. Noting in one Play-A-Sax advertisement, “It catches the child’s fancy and furnishes him with the genuine fun of playing real music. It plays the grownups’ favorite selections and does it with “pep” and accuracy.” In the early 1930s, QRS-Devry sold the Play-A-Sax for $2.89 (over $40 today accounting for inflation) and the Clarola for $1.89 (about $30 in today’s dollars). Additional music rolls could be purchased in packages of three for $0.39 (about $6.50 in today’s dollars) or $0.15 each (about $2 in today’s dollars).
The music rolls are 4 ¼” wide perforated paper. The titles of the rolls on display are “Irish Washerwoman,” “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover,” “Merry Widow Waltz,” and “Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me.” In addition to the Play-A-Sax and the Clarola, the QRS rolls could also be used with the Melody player music box, the PlaRola, and the Fireside Player. Other companies developed similar music roll harmonicas, the most famous of which was the Rolmonica.
Today the Play-A-Sax is a forgotten toy of a bygone era. However a small market of antiques dealers, saxophone enthusiasts, and harmonica buffs are captivated by this interesting piece of machinery. Whether it’s the craftsmanship, novelty, or elegant engineering this toy still has a special place in the hearts of some collectors. Occasionally Play-A-Saxs come up for sale on eBay or other online auction houses, but they are becoming increasingly rare.