By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
Uke Tales is an exploration of some of the author’s ukulele collection, which numbers 400+ instruments, and other instruments that have an interesting story.
After considering the amount of candy consumed during and after All Hallows’ Eve, I wondered if any of the ukuleles in my collection possess some sort of ghostly or ghoulish theme. A quick survey didn’t turn up any blood-curdling candidates—nary a scary uke. But I did spot one instrument that fits the Halloween theme, albeit in an unexpected way: The Barricini “Barri-uke.”
At first glance, this strange looking concert-scale uke appears to be a mere toy, with a one-piece plastic neck/fretboard/headstock attached to a round metal body that’s 10-3/8” in diameter and barely an inch deep. Further adding to its toy-like appearance, the black painted body is stenciled with scads of colorful 1950s-era characters, some dancing, some playing sports or their round-bodied ukes.
But wait, there’s more: the Barri-uke’s thin metal body opens like a cookie tin to reveal it’s true dual purpose: The tin originally came packed with Barricini chocolates! The idea was that after you consumed the confections, you could seal the body back up and play it like a regular uke. A small instruction and song booklet, titled “Serenade in Sweets,” came with the Barri-uke. Its introduction proudly announces, “Be the center of attraction and the life of the party. You can have happy and wholesome fun when the gang gathers with the two-purpose Barri-uke—serve the candy, then entertain your friends with their favorite melodies.”
Unfortunately, the Barri-ukes second purpose isn’t much up to the task. In fact, it’s almost impossible to fret the strings and strumming them only produces a kind of hollow, wobbly sound (perhaps the sugar rush from gobbling a handful of chocolate treats lowers one’s sonic standards?).
When I acquired the instrument you see here, the tin was empty, save a couple of paper doilies and the included booklet. I have no idea how good its original chocolate contents might have tasted. A little online research revealed that the Barricini candy company once had dozens of retail stores in the New York City area and was a well-regarded producer of kosher confections. Judging by the instrument’s construction and graphic paint job, the Barri-uke was likely produced and sold some time in the mid-to-late 1950s.
This wacky candy-tin-come-ukulele was designed by Robert M. Karoff, a well-known creator of all manner of novelty items. His “Karoff Originals” included unique home wares, such as a home bar that looks like a half barrel and another that resembles a stack of books. Karoff also produced unusual folding trays and rolling carts for serving food and drinks. Quite a few of his novel designs received U.S. patents.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.
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