Magnatone Guitars!

New for Fall 2013, a complete guide to Magnatone guitars and the stories behind them!

1938-1960 Steel Guitars

1956-1963 Bigsby/Barth Era

1964-1966 Starstream Era


F. Roy Chilton

Frederick Roy Chilton was born in England and grew up in Alameda California. Before the war, he was a musician and music teacher. As an enlisted man, in the United States Army, Chilton served for the duration of the war as bandmaster for various US Army bands.

After the war, Chilton returned to the Bay area and opened Stanroy Music with fellow Army band musician, Stan Goldman. The business was successful, but the partnership didn't last, and Goldman bought him out around 1950. Chilton relocated to Seattle, where he started the west coast wholesale music distribution company, Keyco, Inc..

In 1954, he moved to the Los Angeles area. Chilton went to work for Joe Benaron at Pacific Mercury Television as the general merchandise manager.
 [1]  Benaron was one of those "came to town with five dollars in my pocket" stories. In the mid fifties, he had a television company with multiple factories, a couple furniture companies, and he was about to launch a rather large organ manufacturing company, that would eventually make him the sole import of Vox equipment from England. Benaron had just struck a deal to manufacture organs with Thomas George, an organ engineer who had spent his early engineering years at Hammond Organ. Benaron put Chilton in charge of product development as well as the product launch of the Thomas Organ, Co.. Within a year, the organ company had risen to No.2 in the home electric organ market in terms of national sales.

In early 1957, Chilton organized a group of investors to purchase the Magna Electronics Company. Among the investors were two Pacific-Mercury employees of note: Arnold R. Buckles and Ted Horwith. Buckles was the production manager for Pac-Merc's Los Angeles plant. Horwith had been the secretary-treasurer for Pac-Merc until sometime in 1956, when he left to become director of finance for Mattel,Inc.

The new owners elected Chilton, President; Joseph Walsh, vice president of sales; and Arnold R. Buckles, vice president of production. Chilton brought others from Thomas Organ, like Don Bonham a Pac-Merc engineer who invented and patented a very unique vibrato circuit that Magna who immediately apply to guitar amplifiers as well a new organ Tone Cabinet.

Both Thomas Organ and Magna Electronics did very well under Chilton's leadership. Around this time Chilton started to spend time in Colorado. He persuaded Eugene Sanders, president of Four Corners Uranium Corp., to invest in Magna. Four Corners provided a cash injection to help Magna move to a bigger facility and expand production and, in return, became a 42% shareholder of Magna in early 1958.

Now, better capitalized, Chilton and Buckles increased production, expanded product lines, and hired more engineers and plant workers. Magna employee count numbered 100 by late 1958.

The next big change for Magna would its purchase by New York financier Arnold Bernhard in 1959 Bernhard had saved Estey Organ Co. from financial disaster in 1955, but had been unable to turn the company around. With no knowledge of music instrument industry, Bernhard hoped the success Chilton had with Thomas and Magna would carry over if Estey bought Magna, and made Chilton president of Estey. The details of this purchase as far as who sold what, and how much of it was cash and how much was Estey stock is unknown.

After the purchase, the Estey Board of Directors elected Chilton president of Estey Organ Corp. (there is detail about this at the history page). Chilton ran both east and west coast operations from his Torrance office, however, there wasn't much to the east coast operations of Estey at this point. Estey bought Magna specifically to manufacture their electric organs, and the last of the pipe organs was produced in Vermont around 1960. Following that, the Vermont operation closed for good. The electric organ production moved to Torrance, but unfortunately, Estey's two main engineers and the principal designers of those organs, Harald Bode and Les Nicholas left Estey, rather than move west. Chilton hired more people in support of the added production, and some west coast engineers, no doubt, had to be added as well.

Unfortunately, organ production struggled and the financial problems that Estey had prior to buying Magna continued. In 1961, Estey was merged with ORCOA with the principle motive being to provide a way out for Estey's chief investor, Arnold Bernhard. The executives of that company were installed at the head of the new operation.

It is unclear if Chilton's departure was prior to the merger, or if he stepped down as president when ORCOA took over operations.

Magna Electronics thrived under Chilton's leadership, but being saddled with Estey and its debts might have made managing the operation too difficult a task. His successors didn't fare well either.

Chilton remained in Torrance. His wife, Shirley, was a prominent executive in Southern California, and attained the unique distinction of being the first woman executive in history to be an elected official of a corporation with New York Stock Exchange membership.

Chilton continued to be an inventive businessman in the music instrument trade. Formed around September 1969, the Optigan Corp., which was wholy owned by Mattel, Inc., made Chilton president and had an initial product launch in Oct, 1971. Press releases at the time suggested the unique keyboard entertainment system, which had pre-recorded sounds for various musical notes, evolved out of Mattel's R&D efforts talking toys. There some sort of a split between Chilton and Optigan around 1970, because Chilton began a similar company that had a similar product called the TalentMaker. In 1973, he was awarded a patent for a fingerprinting apparatus, and about the same time the Chilton Corp. , a division of General Electro Music, produced the TalentMaker.

There is some mystery surrounding the owners of Magna during the 1957 to 1958 period. Ownership between Four Corners Uranium and Magna might have been a little reciprocal. I don't know who all the board directors were for Four Corners, but Joseph Walsh, VP for Magna, was one of them. Also, Ted Horwith was, for many years, the director of Finance for Mattel, Inc..

Several years later, the Mattel subsidiary, Optigan, produced its organs in Harmony PA. Also, the ultimate owner of the the Estey brand was Miner Industries. I can't find what ultimately became of Four Corners Uranium Corp. other than it became Four Corners Oil & Minerals in 1960. Whether it had any ties to Miner Industries remains a topic for research.


[1]: "JR. Achievement Program Plan Sets Up For Valley" Van Nuys News, Aug 12, 1954.




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