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MMD > Archives > March 2001 > 2001.03.05 > 06Prev  Next

Demise of the Player Piano
By Douglas Henderson

Hello MMD readers,  As many of my roll customers know (and those who
visited our museum here in Wiscasset during the 23 years when I was
giving most of the Guided Tours) I entered the player-piano sphere
via the route of audio, specifically 78 records (still popular in
1952), classical and traditional jazz on 45s, Edison cylinder records
and Edison Diamond Discs.  Collecting old records and the machines
to play them began about 1948.

What I experienced, in those days when rolls sold for 5 cents to 25
cents in second hand stores around the San Francisco Bay Area, was
extreme disappointment with the commercial rolls of the 'Twenties and
the 'Thirties.  For example, I had something like Frank Crummit on
Victor Records doing "The Prune Song", only to find a mega-boring QRS
roll later on, by J. L. Cook, which was not only pedestrian but
repetitious and completely without imagination.  The same existed for
Orthophonic records by George Olsen and his Music ("Hi-Diddle-Diddle")
or any number of old 78s which featured syncopated, imaginative popular
music -- only to be lackluster arrangements in the music roll versions.

Some of the rolls that turned out to be 'nothing', after experiencing
the original audio, were: "Where'd You Get Those Eyes", "Song Of The
Wanderer", "Among My Souvenirs", "Love Letters In The Sand",
"Collegiate", "Me And My Shadow" and "A Precious Little Thing Called
Love".  When I added 'reproducing' pianos to my collection, having
started with 88-Note players, nothing improved, and many were just the
same arrangements with less expression than I had been adding, having
played the Victor, Brunswick and Columbia Records over and over, prior
to buying the original player roll versions.

When starting with the Duo-Art in the mid-'Fifties, the disappointments
continued, especially in the classical music repertoire.  Erratic
versions of Chopin's "Etude In E Major", hiccupping arrangements of
"Le Secret", and mushy Busoni transcriptions of Bach were among the
letdowns which awaited me when the prospects of semi-automatic
expression and an electric pump were added to the performances.
(I say "semi-autmatic" since 'reproducing' pianos require, as does
the 88-mote pedal player, somebody at the bench to monitor the roll
speed, if one's really listening to the music.  The tempo is 'off'
after approximately two minutes of play.)

My belief about the demise of the player-piano is that the roll
libraries did not keep pace with the performances on radio and
electrically-recorded phonograph discs.  Not only was audio they
cheaper, but it was better.

The B Ampico, especially, put out long-played medleys of dinner music
and what I call "perforated elevator fare", managing to ruin the
essence of numbers like "You And The Night And The Music", "The Peanut
Vendor", "Sophisticated Lady", "Moanin' Low" and others of the period.
Recently I bought a well-made copy of "You're The Top" for my Ampico,
and while the recut roll was perfect, Frank Milne's arrangement (forget
what the box label said!) was totally off-the-mark with respect to the
spirit of this memorable Cole Porter number.  My friends and I dubbed
it "You're The Bottom" -- of the barrel, that is -- for a music roll

The piano industry took a two-fold viewpoint here, I believe.  First,
they decided early on that radio was going to replace the Pianola, so
they just cut arranging expenses, added repetitions of the material and
churned out rolls with as little staccato as possible, following set
formulae, which is why anybody can detect a brand in short order just
by listening to a few bars.  Second, in order to "compete" with the
electronic media, the trend was to put out longer playing rolls, so
that meant a slower paper travel speed in many instances, and a string
of disrelated tunes, which slogged along from one to the next, never
building to a conclusion and not even trying to get the attention of
the listener.  The electric player, especially, was trying to be the
equivalent of the PA [public address] system for the hotel lobby and
other situations where background music could prevail.

Thus, my opinion is that the lack of development and lowering standards
by the music roll industry after 1924, when radio had entered the
scene, contributed heavily to the demise of the instrument.

If I could be disappointed spending 25 cents or less, for perfect
condition, original copies of old player rolls, think how many original
music store customers walked past the Ampico, Duo-Art and pedal players
to reach the Viva-Tonals, Orthophonic phonographs and especially the
Atwater-Kent radios.

Any discussion of the declining player action industry should include
the rolls, which presented one "missed" musical opportunity after
another in most cases.  Selections like "Night And Day" or "Face The
Music And Dance", were they on rolls instead of movie soundtracks or
phonograph records, would probably have never become popular.  Rolls
were such a "me too" after-the-fact imitation in that period of exciting
popular music, for those who enjoyed live performances or the aspect
of improved audio.

Regards from Maine,

Douglas Henderson - Artcraft Music Rolls
PO Box 295, Wiscasset, ME 04578
(207) 882-7420

PS: Check out this photographic website, which shows a commercial
roll versus one of our new releases.  You don't need to play the two
rolls to see that one is organ-like and comatose -- homogeneous
perforations are the problem with the 'Brand X' arrangement of 1933,
for they introduce no musical excitement (at any dynamic).  See

(Message sent Mon 5 Mar 2001, 12:20:17 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Demise, Piano, Player

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