Reminiscence of my father excerpted from my mother's memoir
"Joy Spring" and published here on the occasion of his 23nd Yahrzeit
Before we had the baby grand piano we had a player-piano. I said I always wanted a player-piano even when I was a child, but my mother and father said if we got a player-piano we would never learn how to play, so we had a real piano. I played piano for eight or ten years. My father and mother loved music, and we always had a record player. Always had music in the house.
Dad worked for Mr. Neiten at Girard Trust and Dad called me one day, and he said: "What is it that you want more than anything?" I'm always saying, "Oh, if I had this, if I had that"… you know, I'm always talking, but it doesn't mean anything. So he said, "Would you like a player-piano?"[i] And I said, "You're kidding me?"
"You know there's one in the Girard Trust and nobody wants it. And it's a P & E Cunningham. It's a very good brand."
I looked it up in the Yellow Pages; P & E Cunningham[ii] – which was a top echelon piano company. So I called them up as they happened to be in Philadelphia. And they said, we can't guarantee whether it's going to play or not, because the pneumatic tubing was from the war years and they don't make it any more; there's rubber, you know. When Dad brought it in the truck of one of his clients, they put it in the garage and said they'll come back the next day to put it in the house. I went in the garage – it came with piano rolls which were all opera, and I put in a roll in and it played. That was a tremendous day.
When we went to New York every year or so to see a show, we would stop at Macy's and there was a five-and-ten store there where we could buy piano rolls. We had the best parties with our piano. I used to sing along with it. My neighbors would tell me I'm always singing. When people run away from their house, I can't understand that. I like being in my house and to amuse myself I used to sing all the time. Voice I don't have, but I sang anyway. I loved that piano, I really truly did. It was great.
When we moved to Ventnor, we had to get rid of the piano. They had a terrible time taking it out, you couldn't imagine. They had to break the front of the piano off because the player-piano has an extended part for the keys. It had that bar there for the lever. I still like a player-piano. When I go to our friends’, the Wolfs', in Wilmington they have a an electric player-piano. They unplug it and I play it. You pump it with your legs. Yeah.
[i]The player piano. For those who are not familiar with this instrument, it is best described simply as a self-playing piano. The notes to be played are represented by tiny perforations on interchangeable rolls of paper, while the player mechanism is powered entirely by suction, generated by the operation of two foot pedals. The operator, or 'pianolist', achieves dynamic shading of the music by varying the degree of pressure applied to the foot pedals. In addition, a set of hand-operated levers mounted just below the front of the keyboard provide accentuation, tempo control, activation of the sustain and soft pedals and selection of play and rewind modes. In the hands of an accomplished operator, a convincingly lifelike musical performance is achievable. The player piano enjoyed its peak of popularity between 1900 and 1930, after which time the wireless, which was significantly cheaper and more versatile, became the main source of home entertainment. As the vast majority of player pianos are now at least seventy years old and many are sadly dilapidated, enthusiasts all over the world are devoting much time and effort to the restoration of these remarkable instrument. The paper music rolls are still available in abundance, both old and new and almost all musical tastes are catered for. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, a substantial number of famous pianists committed their performances to music roll, by means of special recording pianos. The rolls recorded by George Gershwin for example are still popular today and although original examples are now scarce, specialists meet the demand from collectors by producing excellent new copies. A player piano can of course be played by hand in the normal way, as the piano action and keyboard are entirely conventional. In fact, it is usually possible to play the keyboard while the roll mechanism is in operation, should any additional notes or harmonies be desired! The term 'Pianola' was originally a trademark, first used by the Aeolian Company just over a hundred years ago, but in more recent times has become a generic reference to the self-playing piano.
[ii] Cunningham Piano Company was started in 1891 by Patrick J. Cunningham, an Irish immigrant with a craft and a dream. Through his leadership, commitment to quality, and a keen business sense Cunningham Piano Company quickly became one of Philadelphia's most respected makers of pianos. Throughout his tenure as President of the company, Patrick J. Cunningham saw his company expand and thrive, gaining awards for both quality and design. However, The Great Depression was a huge detriment to all businesses and just before the beginning of World War II, Cunningham Piano Company ceased production and their staff focused on helping the war effort. After the war concluded, Cunningham Piano Company concentrated on piano restoration.