Day of the Player Piano

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The player piano’s great popularity inevitably made it sophisticated to decry the machine in print. Somerset Maugham’s 1921 short story “Rain” opened with “… Since some of the passengers were leaving the ship next day at Pago-Pago they had had a little dance that evening and in his ears hammered still the harsh notes of the mechanical piano.” But Maugham did not seem to like music much in any case. Beverley Nichols, in a book called Laughter On The Stairs, wrote: “I never met the late Mr. Stebbing; … all I know about him is that … he encouraged his dogs to chase cats, and that he played Liszt on an old pianola for half an hour every morning after breakfast, not because he liked music but because the action of pedalling was stimulating to his intestines.” Even John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga recognized the player piano, in a somewhat lofty and backhanded way. It reminded the protagonist, Soames Forsyte, of the “musical box of his nursery days … the thing had always made him miserable when his mother set it going on Sunday afternoons. Here it was again, the same thing, only larger, more expensive, and now it played 'The Wild, Wild Women’ and 'The Policeman’s Holiday,’ and he was no longer in black velvet with a sky blue collar.”

For those who hated the pianola, things got worse. As early as 1898 a New York firm called Roth & Engelhardt had introduced a forty-four-note player piano that was driven by an electric motor rather than by feet pumping bellows and that you could start by dropping a nickel in a slot. Similar machines sprang up everywhere in places of public amusement. Since there was little to advertise if you simply built another coin-operated player, makers almost immediately began to add effects. Soon electric pianos were offering a “mandolin” effect; extra holes in the roll activated a mechanism that dropped a long wood bar dangling canvas strips tipped with brass rivets between hammers and strings. The result bore no resemblance to a mandolin, but the ricky-ticky sound was forever after inextricably tied to the nickelodeon. (The term nickelodeon was first applied to tiny halls showing very early movies, to which admission cost a nickel; the term did not attach itself to the pianos that often accompanied the movies there until long after the nickelodeons had vanished.) Makers of coin-operated pianos added mechanical xylophones, drums, traps, and tambourines. Seeburg of Chicago fitted in several ranks of organ pipes. The Mills Company built a mechanically played violin accompanied by an electric player piano. It sounded fine—when both were freshly tuned.

 

The music rolls for these instruments became longer and longer, often holding fifteen or more selections. Because the pause during rewinding meant a loss of income, the Link Piano Company built a clever mechanical piano that used an endless roll. (Edwin Link, whose piano had a very effective pumping system, later restructured a good deal of the works as the Link trainer, the famous machine on which thousands of Second World War airmen got their first exhilarating sensation of flight.)

The builders of nickelodeons took at least as much care with their pianos’ cases as they did with their innards. The pianos grew ever more gaudy and showy: stained glass (they called it “art glass”); electric lights backed by shiny tin stars; then stained glass with blinking lights behind it; revolving stained glass; and decorative illusory images of forest fires, waterfalls, and snow scenes animated by moving films behind painted glass, all of this in a forest of carved-wood caryatids and scrollwork. The jukebox of a later day was restrained by comparison.

The coin-operated piano occupied a fond niche in the American psyche; it turned up regularly in films. A scene in the 1932 Marx Brothers movie Horsefeathers is shouted against an unending nickelodeon. A favorite cliché in gangster pictures was to have an actor, after being shot, fall against a piano and set it going, the rackety jazz providing a nice counterpoint to the pathos of death. In a 1938 film, Algiers, there was an inventive variation: The escaping informer fell against the piano, starting it up, and then was shot. Ginger Rogers’s 1942 movie Roxie Hart (in which she performed a memorable Black Bottom for the appreciative members of the press while she was ostensibly in jail) finished with a splendid performance of “Brokenhearted” on a coin-operated piano.

For those who hated the pianola, things got worse: as early as 1898 a New York firm produced an electric piano that played when you dropped in a nickel.

Loud though they were, nickelodeons had their heyday on the eve of the Prohibition era. They sold well during the early 1920s, but by the end of the decade the industry was in a steep decline, and the 1930s saw the old pianos junked or retired to fading amusement arcades.