- Historic Sites
Day of the Player Piano
It didn’t last long. But we never got over it.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
The player piano came of age in America ninety years ago, and it caused an almighty stir. Within four decades it appeared to be dead. The craze dwindled, and in 1932 not a single player was shipped from the factories. But although player pianos have been manufactured only desultorily since, the machine established itself so firmly during its brief lifetime that it is impossible to find someone today who doesn’t know what a player piano is, who doesn’t remember what fun they were. Rolls for the pianos have been manufactured continuously since the 1890s, and new ones are still being made. The Vestal Press has long had a successful book in print on how to restore player pianos, and an enterprising firm in Kansas is busy supplying spare parts for them. People still find them a great pleasure, repairing them, rebuilding them, adding more piano rolls to their libraries (the market in secondhand rolls is brisk).
Many of the pianos themselves fetch high prices, for so many of the hundreds of thousands made are gone. Some simply were discarded, but thousands of others suffered an ignominious surgery. Lost in a limbo brought on by the growing popularity of radio before the Second World War, they were bought by the freight carloads for peanuts, divested of their automatic innards, and shipped to Southern states, where they were resold as ordinary upright pianos to people for whom the ownership of a piano was still an emblem of middle-class dignity but who had never been able to afford one before. A piano that worked, bought for as little as thirty dollars, was heaven, whether you could play it or not.
Piano ownership had connoted gentility for generations before the arrival of the player piano. Throughout the nineteenth century, well-bred young women “took.” “Taking” meant piano lessons: learning to arch the fingers properly not to stoop the back, and to master all the crossing of the hands necessary to accomplish such dainty and showy works as Ethelbert Nevin’s “Narcissus,” surely one of the world’s most insipid compositions.
But learning to play was never easy. Those of us who are not musicians, offered a sight of any mildly elaborate piano score, recoil in shock from a sheaf of coded material so dense that the page seems almost black; this must somehow be transferred from the printed score to the keyboard, to be played with both hands. It is small wonder, then, that the advent of the self-playing piano seemed miraculous. The years of hard study and endless practice were replaced in a moment by the marvel of a machine that could play a piano far better than any amateur and, moreover, play it again and again for as long as anyone could stand it.
The machine that blew across the country, starting in the late 1890s, like a blizzard over a Nebraska plain was not, in fact, a player piano. It was called a “piano player,” and it was on wheels. You rolled it up to your piano keyboard, adjusted several knobs for height, then sat in front of it (some distance by now from the piano itself) and pumped two treadles that worked its pneumatic insides. A traveling perforated paper roll of anything from forty-four to sixty-five notes’ compass actuated felt-tipped wooden rods that dropped down on the piano keys and played them.
There were a number of early attempts at mechanical piano players, including a fine one called a “Pianista” invented by a Frenchman named Fourneaux, which was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, but it was very expensive. The Italians had for many years exhibited the street piano, a rudimentary instrument on a wheeled cart, worked by a wood cylinder turned by a crank; pins in the cylinder slammed hammers loudly against the strings. Mussolini, furious over the erosion of Italian dignity by the hordes of Italian operators of street pianos in several countries, attempted to recall them all to Italy and tried to abolish the trade. He didn’t succeed. In 1944, about the time he was being hanged by his heels, an enterprising fellow with a street piano and a wide grin greeted Allied troops arriving in Naples with a bloodcurdling homemade version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In 1891 a Texas newspaper described a wheel-up player and remarked that it “enables the cook to furnish music for her mistress’s guests with exactly the same technic that is required to mash up coffee for their dinner delectation.” There was no dearth of such instruments throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century. A lot of people were bent on producing a piano that could play by itself, and a number of machines were built to do just that. But it took a special combination of skill, timing, perspicacity, and a certain Barnum-like quality to bring the self-playing piano into its own.
These all occurred when a man named Edwin S. Votey developed a pretty good pneumatic piano player, applied for a patent in 1897, and interested the Aeolian Company in it. The company put the instrument on the market in 1898. It became one of the great success stories of advertising.
Arthur Loesser, in his fine social history called Men, Women and Pianos, writes: “Some unnamed poetic genius, however, created a name for it so potent that Americans surrendered to it in battalions and regiments. … ‘Pianola’ was, clearly, a piano and something more … a musical word for a musical object: quite perfect. Used in an aggressive advertising campaign, it was an invincible weapon … the public took it up, spelled it with a small ‘p,’ and made it into a generic name for all player pianos.”
By 1914 there were more than forty companies scrambling to get into the player business: Amphion, Auto-Piano, Autotone, Air-O-Player, Manualo, Angelus.Cecilian, Apollo, Euphona, Aristano, Symphonola, Harmonola, Peerless, Simplex, Humana—and a 1906 confection that barely skirted the trademark laws: Pianova. “But,” observed Loesser, “to the man in the street, they were all pianolas.”
Edwin Votey’s connection with the Aeolian Company hadn’t happened accidentally; he’d been associated with it for some time, building pipe organs with mechanisms that could play the keyboards automatically. By 1883, William and Harry Tremaine, the father and son who guided the company through its fifty-four tumultuous years of business, had made an upright parlor reed organ of a type then familiar to everyone, except that this one could also play forty-six notes automatically with a paper roll. This little organ was so successful that its beautiful name, Aeolian, was adopted by the Tremaines’ company. The Aeolian was followed swiftly by a bigger reed organ called the Aeolian Grand, and then, in 1897, by the Aeolian Orchestrelle, which was available in many versions from the size of an upright piano to a magnificent behemoth nine feet high. Mark Twain owned one that he loved and listened to every night. When Twain’s daughter Jean died suddenly in 1909, Albert Bigelow Paine sadly played rolls selected by Mark Twain on the organ at her funeral. (The Orchestrelle is still playing at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.)
William Tremaine did so well that he expanded from reed to pipe organs and in time bought part of the Farrand & Votey pipe organ company of Detroit, acquiring Edwin Votey in the deal, and began producing his own organs at Aeolian (now Garwood), New Jersey. When in 1897 Votey came up with his piano player mechanism, Aeolian sensed a coup, made him a vice-president of the company, dreamed up the name Pianola, and directed him to start production in his Detroit workshops. The fad was launched.
Remember that Votey’s player, popular though it was, had to be wheeled up to the piano it played, thereby putting a lot of machinery between the operator and the keyboard. Very soon after its initial success Aeolian realized—as some of its competitors already had—that there was a lot more money to be made if the player could be combined with the piano it played on. This meant that to be in the forefront of things, you had to buy a new piano with the player mechanism built into it. For some odd reason this new combination was called a player piano instead of a piano player, but that didn’t matter; after Aeolian’s fabulous success it was always known as a pianola.
Most of the early player pianos used rolls of not more than sixty-five notes until, in 1910, the piano makers realized once more that they’d all make more money if they standardized their instruments so everybody’s piano could play anybody’s roll. An industry conference that year, in Buffalo, New York, established eighty-eight notes (the full keyboard) as the compass from then on with a roll running from top to bottom.
The machine that took the country by storm was not, in fact, a “player piano“; it was a “piano player.”
In the larger stores you handed your choice of roll to a lady seated at a player piano, and she would obligingly put one in, play enough to give you a sense of the tune, then rewind it and hand it back. The rolls sold briskly. The period before the First World War was the brightest in the piano’s history: in 1909 there were 294 piano makers in the United States. Ten years later, players outsold standard pianos.
A lot of things had coalesced to make all this happen, and Votey’s player was only one of them. At the tail end of the nineteenth century, two kinds of music had become remarkably popular: Sousa’s marches—which gave birth to the ubiquitous two-step—and ragtime. The player organs tried without much success to cope with the new music, but the piano, on which ragtime was composed and which far more people owned than organs, came out the winner. Moreover, with the playing mechanism now hidden in the bowels of the piano, the freed keys fell and rose magically and the music could be seen as if played by a ghostly performer. It was twice as much fun, now, to play faster music. “Kitten on the Keys,” a fast jazz piece written in 1921 by Zez Confrey that had the right hand playing triplets, which was marvelous to watch, and everyone bought a roll.
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.
Meanwhile, something much loftier was beginning to encroach on the scene. In 1904 a respected old German firm in Freiburg, M. Weite & Söhn, introduced to the market a player piano with a difference: its rolls were made not by a mechanical perforating device from the score but as a result of a careful transcription of an actual performance by an artist. When the keyboard of Welte’s master piano was played, little carbon rods beneath each key dipped into pools of mercury, and the resulting electric contact caused marks to be made on a moving paper roll, registering the duration of notes played as well as pedalwork. The artist’s shading was noted on a copy of the score by a musician listening closely to the performance. These indications were then added to the master roll when it was perforated, in the form of extra holes that controlled the power of the vacuum operating the small bellows doing the mechanical playing. It was a complex but workable system, and the performing artist was able to edit the final result before the roll was released to the public (missed notes supplied, wrong notes corrected, greater emphasis here, less there). Weite called this “reproducing” machine Mignon, and the Welte-Mignon had the distinction of being the first popular self-playing piano whose rolls were actually “made” by the great pianists of the day. Freiburg suffered heavy bombing during the Second World War, and the Weite factory was ruined. Weite had, however, thoughtfully hidden its three thousand master rolls and the playing gear in the Black Forest. These were bought, after the war, by a Californian enthusiast named Richard Simonton, who transcribed them to phonograph records. Hearing the Weite instrument play a roll recorded by Claude Debussy is a remarkable experience; accustomed as we became to Leopold Stokowski’s wispy mauve-and-pink interpretations of Debussy, it is a surprise to find the old master lively, brilliant, and anything but wispy when he played his own music.
The success of the Welte-Mignon in Europe and America ensured that American makers would catch up as soon as possible, and in 1913 Aeolian proudly unveiled its Duo-Art reproducing piano. Like the Welte-Mignon, the Duo-Art re-created as accurately as possible the artist’s original performance; it was capable of sixteen degrees of dynamic intensity (although a British critic claimed that the ear could distinguish only seven). Aeolian entered into a contract with Steinway under which Duo-Art mechanisms were installed under Steinway grand pianos and even in Steinway uprights. Though a Steinway Duo-Art grand piano cost more than four thousand dollars in 1920, the company was hard pressed to fill orders.
There is a certain straining of the imagination required here to understand the fascination the player piano exerted on the twenties. The piano was unquestionably the most popular instrument then (as probably the guitar is now), so there was a lot of interest in hearing it. The phonograph had come along, but until the advent of electric recording records of piano music were miserable. Any player piano was superior; it played for you right in your own home, lively and bright and satisfying. To emphasize the potency of this vibrant, intimate music, Aeolian offered an expensive cabinet called a “Concertola” into which the owner could put a number of rolls, which were then operated by a remote-control, electric push-button device. The rolls, one by one, threaded themselves, played the piano, then rewound themselves and rotated to the next roll. Advertisements of the time show a number of handsome, thoughtful people solemnly listening to roll after roll on the Duo-Art as the evening went by.
The advent of the reproducing piano caused a considerable stir in the musical world. The Wagner biographer and music critic Ernest Newman listened to a performance in London in which passages of a Liszt rhapsody were played on a Duo-Art in Aeolian Hall, alternately by a pianist and by a roll he’d made. “With one’s eyes closed,” Newman remarked afterward, “it was impossible to say which was which.” So great was the excitement that musicians began to take the player piano seriously as a teaching medium. Aeolian helpfully provided Audiographic rolls for the Duo-Art that included all sorts of information: bar lines, phrasing marks, indications of the formal development of the music, even literary explanations—all “signed” by the famous artist who’d made them. It was a far cry from “Kitten on the Keys.”
One excellent side result of this interest in the player piano was that really fine jazz musicians were hired to make piano rolls, and not only the expensive reproducing rolls. Thomas (Fats) Waller and Jelly Roll Morton made a number of splendid rolls. In the early days of ragtime, a good many composers turned their music over to the new piano roll companies, and some fine early ragtime tunes that never made it to a printed score have survived on piano rolls.
By 1927, when radios were becoming commonplace, the excitement of the player piano had waned. By 1929 both the giants, Aeolian and the American Piano Company, were in financial trouble. Aeolian was in hock to Steinway for several millions of dollars’ worth of grand pianos ready for Duo-Art installation that nobody wanted; Steinway was not inclined to be understanding, but eventually a settlement was reached. However, before anyone could do anything at all, the stock market crash of 1929 dealt the final blow to these expensive instruments. By the early 1930s Aeolian’s organ business had become Aeolian-Skinner, and the piano business merged to become the Aeolian-American Corporation.
The “reproducing” piano made it possible to hear a piece just the way the artist actually played it.
In the years following the Second World War, there have been several attempts to revive the player piano. None were able to restore the instrument to anything like its old prominence. It probably never will be, now, though the sound of old machines can still revive the excitement we knew when players were popular and everyone wanted to own the latest rolls. As Arthur Loesser dolefully observes, “Many persons still wear vests, read books, write their own Christmas greetings, go to the theater, and play the piano.” So, too, there are many people who still put a roll on the old Pianola and listen to it lovingly; it may be a lively performance of “Charlie, My Boy,” or an expensive Duo-Art rendition of that lovely old song “Just a Memory,” but inevitably there will be recall of the days when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and an apocryphal story said he’d carried a kitten in his pocket, when ladies drove electric cars like tall china cabinets in which they sat in the back seat and steered with a tiller, when all the girls tried to copy Clara Bow’s bee-stung lips, and half the pianos in the land were joyously rattling out “Ain’t We Got Fun?”