04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
When Beverly Sills needed a partner for Rossini's The Barber of Seville eight years ago, she went straight to Rita Ford. No, Rita is not an operatic impresario. She is founder and owner of one of the oldest and most complete music box shops in the world.
Whether it's a gilded cage with mechanical yellow canary (like the one Sills bought), an ornate merry-go-round emitting Richard Rodgers' Carousel Waltz, or perhaps a miniature piano plunking out a Scott Joplin rag, music lovers are sure to find something to steal their hearts among the 500 such items in Ford's crowded Manhattan store. They range in price from a $13.50 plastic piano to a $75,000 music box that plays Marching Through Georgia and The Stars and Stripes Forever. "I really don't know why I like music boxes," says the 70ish widow. "It must be the Italian in me that enjoys the sound of music."
Over the last 30 years Ford has sold thousands of boxes, carousels and what aficionados call automata—tiny figures like organ grinders and monkey cellists that move while they make music. Her all-time favorite is an early-19th-century figure of a girl that can smoke a cigarette twice as fast as a human being. (Last year Ford sold the piece, which is equipped with bellows to draw in the smoke, for $12,000.) Artist Jamie Wyeth paid $2,000 for an automaton called "The Man in the Moon." Wyeth was so taken with his toy—which plays Debussy's Clair de Lune while a clown strums his guitar and sticks out his tongue—that he made it the subject of his 1978 painting Automaton.
Ford also does custom work for special clients. Johnny Cash ordered Stevie Wonder a musical watch that plays You Are the Sunshine of My Life, and friends gave Danny Thomas a box that pumps out Danny Boy. Robert Redford purchased a jeweled case for his daughter Amy that plays—what else?—Once in Love With Amy.
Born in Fano, Italy, Rita (née Romagna) emigrated with her family to Fishers Island, N.Y. when she was 6. She met her future husband, Albert, on a boat trip to Cuba in 1936. Rita traces her interest in music boxes to 1952, when she paid $50 for her first musical find, an 1850 rosewood piece from Switzerland. That same year she opened an antique shop in New York City. "One box became two and then three," says Rita. "I was happy because I finally found something I could collect."
These days the music box expert lives in a one-bedroom apartment not far from her shop. She often dines with her sister, Rena, who lives two floors above her. Does Ford unwind by listening to tunes piped out by her own small private collection? Not exactly. Rita confesses that she's more likely to turn on TV and watch Dynasty.