Wes' World: Six Men and a Boy!

I don't remember when I saw my first working player piano but the one we've always had is the one my father purchased back in the 1950s from a couple of old maid twin school teachers who dressed alike and just died at the age of 104 not too long ago. One of them won it in a contest in 1914 and by the 1950s they were willing to sell it and get an entertainment unit. My father spotted it and wanted it and bought it on the spot whereby my folks proceeded to lug it around for 30 years from location to location when at last in Arizona as a precocious (ie weird) child I cajoled and insisted they get it fixed so it worked. We found a guy who did them in his spare time as a hobby and just before we moved in 1990 he got part of the mechanism working again. The whole thing about player pianos is that much like a screen door on a submarine the least little leak is detrimental to a totally air tight system and so, it didn't work....well.....when we got it back as there was more to be done.

We moved back to ND with our semi working player and found a guy in Jamestown that had been working on them for 30 years at that time. He finished it and there started my hobby with player pianos and their music. It is an acquired taste I am sure but I enjoy the mechanicals of them and the genius of these forerunners of the modern computer with their pre-digital programs of binary code.

Many years ago my father had purchased a 2nd player piano after he rescued the innards some piano tuner had removed from a piano and left it to sit on the boulevard and like a lost doggie, it followed him home. Dad first got the innards and later got the piano. These things are not like baseball cards and to move them it takes many friends and to move it again it takes many OTHER friends. With a player it takes six men and a boy as the mechanism makes it that much more of a challenge. This 2nd player piano they loaned to their church in Larimore and there it sat in the basement 30 years until the day they called and told us to come get it.

This put us into a panic as we didn’t have room for a 3rdplayer piano. I say 3rd as in high school when I was venturing into the idea of collecting stuff, stamps, coins, seashells, all manner of strange things (like a harpsichord but not girls as they’re too expensive) I managed to follow in my father’s footsteps and buy my OWN player piano. Why? Because it was there and they only wanted $150 for it and apparently insanity runs in my family.

What a deal! It was advertised in the Fargo Forum and when we went to look at it it was a beautiful walnut with a nice sound to it. I wanted to learn how to fix these things and so this would be my chance. We bought it and when we went back to get it they had some friends and family on hand to help us get it out of the house…almost. They forgot that when they remodeled a few years before that they didn’t take into account that the piano would have to be removed from the room someday should they sell it. This necessitated LIFTING the thing bodily OVER a stair railing to make a corner. Or almost make a corner as one guy let his corner slip and it banged a hole into their newly finished sheetrock…(oh sheet…rock)

We got the thing home and unloaded in the garage and I started the process of cleaning it up and out of the collected accumulated dust of the ages. No mice or anything just lots and lots of dust. Our friend from Jamestown who fixed our other piano came to look and marvel at our latest find and he brought with him the guy from Bismarck. The guy from Bismarck was exceedingly envious and remarked how he wished he owned this piano. (Here is where I need to build my Wayback Machine and go tell myself to sell sell sell the thing and be glad for the opportunity) But I stubbornly proceeded to try to restore it myself.

It was here that I made the discovery that this company, while renowned for its quality and precision there were a few years where they dabbled with a completely foolproof 100% perfect seal system that was now extremely rare and also extremely impossible to fix as they GLUED the thing together rather than assembled it with hundreds of little screws. Oh crap. It was glued and I was screwed.

Here is where geography comes in handy as the only approved recommended method for taking these things apart is to live in an extreme northern climate where it gets to -30 degrees below zero. One then takes the offending “stack” outside and leaves it out overnight to assume the proper temperature and then proceeds to clamp the thing to the ground and prepares to whump the thing soundly with a large and heavy sledgehammer in an effort to shatter the glue like glass and begin the restoration….if it doesn’t also shatter the wood.

Yup, you guessed it, the wood shattered as well and it was pretty much over then and there. I’d killed it! Drat.

My niece wanted to take piano lessons and so the thing was moved to their home but that idea was dropped pretty quickly and it was relegated to a corner of their living room. I hit upon an idea to try to salvage my toothpickular booboo with an elaborate method involving popsicle sticks, different sized drinking straws and wood putty to recreate the missing wood. It actually worked but not before my sister-in-law wanted the piano OUT of her house and rolled it out onto an outside porch to sit dejectedly under a tarp for happier days to return.

And now the church called wanting our OTHER piano vacated from their basement in no later than a month. On top of this, the museum had been donated another player piano from a church in town that while beautiful to look at with expensive wood and carvings was pretty much a PSO (Technical term for Piano Shaped Object AKA Firewood) due to a major subsidence of its soundboard. A terminal condition.

As it happens the guy in Bismarck would take the two pianos but I had to bring them to him. I got the required six men and a boy to help load up the two pianos into the trailer and it was off to Bismarck to dump them onto his doorstep and out of my hair once and for all. I don’t exactly remember the trip or the job of unloading them, I am sure there was something but it either didn’t register at the time or I have psychologically blocked them and might be the reason I still wake up screaming some nights.

Two pianos gone but it meant we had to go get the other player up north and then figure out what to do with it when we got it back home. It was then that I hit upon an idea that THIS was the piano I would learn how to restore them on. A call was made and a deal was struck with our friend in Jamestown for me to apprentice with him in the fine (lost) art of player piano restoration. I would take off a couple days a week over the summer and go learn step by step how to fix the things.

As luck would have it it was actually a good piano for both its instrument and its mechanism as in the player piano world there are either Cadillacs and Pintos and after 100 years a few still worth fixing and many more others only for making bon fires out of. This one, despite the “lovely” dark brown paint that someone (me) would have to strip off, would actually be a good piano if done right. The pressure was on.

The restoration was actually fun and informative. I wouldn’t do it for a living by any means but it gave me enough knowledge to be dangerous on how to keep the things going and maybe someday in the future re-restore them as they round their 2ndcentury. My friend was a retired brick layer and his joke about how his work as such lent very well into player pianos was in it taught him how to count. “One, two, three, another one, another one, another one…..another one…etc.” You see it is a very technical piece of equipment unseen inside that makes these things work and since there are 88 notes on the piano everything is done 88 times, or 89 or 90 or more depending on how many times something is done wrong and has to be redone. Lots and lots of little pieces and parts to be kept track of and taken off and put back on in a certain order or else it simply won’t work and all would be for naught. “For lack of a horseshoe the battle was lost, so true for lack of a screw the damn thing wouldn’t play.”

While we were at it I learned regulation of the mechanism, also done 88 x X and then there was that little matter of refinishing the piano itself stripping down the fecal-matter brown paint to the flared mahogany hidden beneath. Why someone would paint something like that is beyond me but I spend a lot of time fixing other people’s “improvements.” But in the end I must say it was indeed a beautiful piece of furniture I had accomplished.

It took me the summer but I at last had a magnificent first effort under my belt to show that indeed I was an apt apprentice capable of good things if I applied myself.

Now what to do with the thing. I have one at home but another was verboten. I could have sold it but at the time it would be like parting with a child. Instead I struck a deal with the President’s House on campus for it to be housed there for their listening and dancing pleasure. Great idea but over the years since the steam heat has dried it out and caused the soundboard to crack a bit here and there and it is in need of professional (expensive) attention.

Meanwhile my friend in Jamestown passed away a few years ago leaving me as one of the sole player piano “experts” left in the area. Once in a while I have someone call me wanting me to come take a look at their machine. My friend wanted me to buy him out lock stock and barrel for $10,000 but at the time I lacked the time, money, place otherwise I might have gone and done it. A little more recently I acquired the sanity to be glad I did say no to such an endeavor.

We have a player piano on display at the museum and kids come in all the time to play a new favorite OLD song using a 90 year old piece of technology. We must be doing something right!