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Keyes craftsman creates no-man bands for celebrities, businesses around the world

Keyes craftsman creates no-man bands for celebrities, businesses around the world

Ragtime creations are handcrafted in Ken Caulkins’ Keyes workshop — even down to the ornamental stained glass on most player pianos.


POSTED February 7, 2012 9:56 p.m.

What happens when you combine a love of music with engineering know-how and an innovative spirit? The unique creations of Keyes craftsman Ken Caulkins.

Caulkins has been making automated musical instruments for over 40 years. The Denair High grad began his career by converting antique pianos to player pianos. Today Caulkins’ business Ragtime produces digital and automated musical machines of every sort. From the traditional calliope, a staple of early circus shows, to custom made 52-piece acoustic orchestras that perform on command, Caulkins’ workshop makes the fanciful reality.

“I played the piano, but I decided I didn’t want to be a musician. I wanted to build stuff,” Caulkins said of his unique musical career.

Each of Caulkins’ creations come to life in his Keyes workshop that boasts a full cabinet shop, welding room, stain glass studio and instrument assembly. He holds multiple patents — including one that lists his son, Jeff, as co-inventor.

“Jeff gave me the idea for an automated guitar when he was 5 years old,” Caulkins said. “We were making player pianos and he said we should automate string instruments. He said, ‘Dad, we can use the computer.’’

Caulkins begins his automations with real musical instruments — many of which are made by hand in his workshop. He and his crew then attach the electronics and install the Ragtime computer software that makes the magic happen. A digital screen in the front of the automations allows users to select songs and then with a push of button, a live performance —sans musicians — is underway.

These true “music boxes” have caught the fancy of many famous people over the years. Ragtime sold two automated guitars to Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison, and other music boxes to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the King of Pop Michael Jackson.

One of Caulkins’ favorite celebrity jobs was a birthday present purchased by Peter Jackson for his wife Fran Walsh in December 2002. Jackson flew Caulkins and his daughter to his house in New Zealand, just in time for the Wellington premiere of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

“It was amazing,” Caulkins said of the trip.

While Ragtime’s famous clientele keeps things interesting for Caulkins, his creations can also be found in different venues in 48 countries. Ragtime’s Steel Drum Hut can be seen at the main gate of the Piscilago Waterpark just outside Bogota, Columbia. Caulkins’ newest product, BailaMaria, which features dozens of instruments mounted to a gazebo-like ceiling, can be seen in a mall in Ekaterinburg, Russia and at Mallorca, Spain theme park The House of Katmandu. Caulkins just finished up another BailaMaria, which will be headed to a new theme park in India.

Along with the large-scale entertainment sector, Ragtime has been creating dollar nickelodeons that will be placed in new arcades in the front of Walmart stores. The project isn’t as glamorous as building a custom Country Special music box for Earnhardt, Jr.’s  private Old West Town in North Carolina, but the mass distribution of these unique amusements could make Caulkins a few extra bucks.

“I used to build things because I love to build them,” Caulkins said. “Now I’ve decided I’ve got to make money.”

To see Caulkins’ creations in action, visit his website at ragtimewest.com.

To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail khacker@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.

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