Silent Film Family Has the Best Musical Fence in Portland

The Thanhouser family provides a soundtrack for their neighborhood.

The Thanhouser family is best known for its silent accomplishments. Founded in 1909, the Thanhouser Company is considered one of the forebears of independent cinema in America, inspiring a 2015 documentary that's on the festival circuit. The family still maintains one the nation's most important collections of silent film.

But the Thanhouser home on Northeast 41st Avenue north of Thompson Street is more of a musical. Six miniature music boxes attached to a fence in the house's front garden play tunes like "Twinkle Twinkle" or "You Are My Sunshine" for any passersby curious enough to stop and wind the mini cranks.

The music boxes have a more recent inspiration than the family's old films.

"We're Burners," says 67-year-old Ned Thanhouser, "My wife has done Burning Man for 15 years, so we love involving people in interactive installations."

The father of five started by taping one box, which played The Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night," to a fence post. When inclement weather destroyed that box, he trolled Antique Alley down the street and retrofitted six boxes with waterproof plastic covers that screw into the fence post, all of which are publicly accessible from the street. He's always looking out for more.

As for the family's silent films, Thanhouser says, "They were never silent. There was always a live score. Here, we have music with no movies."

Best of Portland Issue 2016.


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