According to Wikipedia, “a player piano (also known as Pianola or autopiano) is a self-playing piano, containing a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano action via pre-programmed music perforated paper.” The holes in the paper generated notes on the piano, with each hole representing a different action. An entire song was put on a long strip of paper which was called a roll.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, pianos began to be mass-produced and many more families could afford to have one. At the same time, the player piano became very popular because a family could enjoy piano music without knowing how to play. Most of the early rolls were classical music by famous pianists, simply for listening; but with the popular music of the time, words were added to the rolls so people could sing along with the piano and soon, popular music rolls were much more in demand. People enjoyed this pastime.
During World War I (1915-1919), songs such as “Over There” and “My Buddy” were very popular on the homefront, and some battleships actually had player pianos on board to entertain the troops.
Businesses were quick to take advantage of the player piano’s popularity as well, and soon places like ice cream parlors, pool rooms and speakeasies had coin-operated player pianos which took nickels and dimes. Thus the term nickelodeon, a forerunner to the juke box.
The peak year for player pianos and rolls was 1924. By this time, radio had entered the picture and phonograph record technology was improving. This weakened player piano sales, but it was the 1929 stock market crash that virtually put an end to the production of player pianos.
Nestled among several pianos and other musical instruments in the Canal Museum is an upright player piano, built in 1917 by Kohler and Campbell of New York (one of the better manufacturers of pianos at that time and still in business today). Unfortunately, this player piano no longer works. We were recently contacted by a man who would like to see a working player piano in an area museum because according to him, there presently are none. He has examined ours and declared it “fixable.” We would like to encourage music lovers to help us raise the funds to get this wonderful old player piano rebuilt and playing again. This author has fond memories of standing around a player piano with a group of friends and singing. Perhaps you do too!
The museum is open every Saturday & Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. and every Thursday from nine to noon. We are located on the west side of Main St. between 2nd and 3rd St. and right along the Miami-Erie Canal. Come visit us soon.
Reprinted from the Delphos Herald, March 12, 2011.