Player Pianos and Nickelodeons

Player PianosThe player piano was the most common automatic musical instrument in use in the first three decades of the 20th century and could be found in thousands of private homes. It was operated pneumatically, by means of perforated paper rolls which activated the hammer mechanisms.

Player Pianos

The player piano was the most common automatic musical instrument in use in the first three decades of the 20th century and could be found in thousands of private homes. It was operated pneumatically, by means of perforated paper rolls which activated the hammer mechanisms. The most highly developed example of this type was the reproducing piano, usually a grand, the rolls of which could repeat a pianist's performance 'photographically,' reproducing nuances of dynamics and variations of tempo exactly. Noted examples of the reproducing piano were the 'Welte-Mignon,' the 'Ampico' (American Piano Co), and the 'Duo-Art' (Aeolian Co).

Only a few Canadian manufacturers made their own player pianos. Many simply converted their regular models by inserting player mechanisms purchased from other companies. The major manufacturer of mechanisms was the Otto Higel Co, which began making player actions in 1906. Among Canadian companies which produced player pianos were the Bell Piano and Organ Co, Heintzman, Martin-Orme, Mason & Risch, and R.S. Williams. Doherty Pianos manufactured the Doherty Attachable Piano which converted any standard piano into a player, and the Legge Organ Co built a self-player organ which operated on hand-recorded rolls. Higel established a roll-perforating operation in Toronto and produced a variety of rolls, many of which have survived in good condition.

Canadian pianists whose performances were reproduced on player rolls include Ellen Ballon, Mona Bates, Jeannette Durno, Willie Eckstein, Gertrude Huntly Green, Vera Guilaroff, Wilfrid Pelletier, Reginald Stewart, Harry Thomas, and Louis Waizman.

Most player piano mechanisms wore out during the 1940s and 1950s. Rather than being repaired, the majority (approximately 80 per cent) were converted into conventional pianos. By the early 1960s a few enthusiasts had developed acceptable methods of restoration. As the complete process is a lengthy and sometimes expensive one, many owners do their own restoration. In 1978 Doyle Lane moved his collection of player pianos from Vancouver to Hillsborough, NC.

See also Piano building.

Nickelodeons

The coin-operated nickelodeon, a variant of the player piano, was popular in Canada. Standard nickelodeons were installed in restaurants, cafés, ice cream parlours, drugstores, pool halls, and saloons from coast to coast. The term 'nickelodeon' began with 5-cent silent films, but quickly became associated with any form of entertainment that could be purchased for a nickel. The fully automatic electric nickelodeon was the forerunner of the jukebox. It was characterized by colourful art glass windows above the keyboard. Wurlitzer and Seeburg were the prime manufacturers. Interesting variations on the standard nickelodeon were the Violano Virtuoso, which contained a mechanically played violin with its own piano accompaniment; the Seeburg KT, an orchestrion which simulated piano, tambourine, mandolin, castanets, and xylophone; and the piano-nickelodeon, which could be played both manually and mechanically. Few of these variations were seen in Canada. The Violano in the Smythe collection was recovered from the Olympia Café in Brandon, Man. The Camrose Café in Camrose, Alta, was known to have an orchestrion which occupied the entire rear wall. Harry Hurtig of Thunder Bay, Ont, operated 35 nickelodeons in that area, including six Violanos - none remains today.

In the late 1970s the only known noteworthy examples of nickelodeons (fewer than 15) in Canada were in the Smythe collection (Winnipeg) and the Vinen collection (St Thomas, Ont). In 1980 isolated instruments were known to exist in Provost, Alta, Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

See also Barrel organs; Instrument collections; Music boxes.


Further Reading

  • Bowers, David G. Put Another Nickel in (New York 1968)

    Givens, Larry. Re-enacting the Artist (New York 1970)

    Ord-Hume, Arthur W.J.G. Player Piano (London 1970)

    Carson, Susan. 'Play it again, Sam, Terry, Piero, Alice,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 18 Dec 1976

    Roehl, Harvey N. Player Piano Treasury (New York 1976)

    Lower, Thelma Reid. 'Mechanical memories,' Music Market Canada, vol 1, Dec 1977

    Zyvatkauskas, Betty. 'Funeral organ brought back to lusty life,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 9 Apr 1988

    Issues of the Canadian Music Trades Journal, Toronto (1900-33)