D. L. Bullock remarked of Louise Schott:
> She was probably the finest worker there ever was in rebuilding
> player stuff. She just sat at her table each day, all day,
> watching her soap operas on TV and rebuilding thousands of valves,
> pouches and pneumatics. She did not dismantle the piano, but we
> just did that and handed her the parts. At one end of the table
> she put the finished parts all perfectly regulated within a few
> thousandths and without any micrometers.
This description is very reminiscent of the present-day Pianola Shop in
Islingword Road, Brighton, England, run by Dave Dibley. Dave is a
perfectly good piano rebuilder -- he once did a first-class job on a
Bechstein grand I sold for an aunt -- but there's no point in doing the
hard bit if someone else can be persuaded to do it.
When you enter the shop it always has something really good on offer in
the carpeted front area -- a Hupfeld player grand, maybe, or a Marshall
& Rose upright Angelus. There will be a few new QRS and Universal rolls
artistically arranged in little stacks. Dave will give you ten minutes
of ear (and ten minutes is not much ear by his standards -- you always
arrange that he phones you) for letting such a good opportunity to
purchase slip by.
Then you penetrate to the back shop and here, usually, are some less
elevated instruments, including some that won't play and probably one or
two you rather hope won't be given the chance to. Finally you make it
downstairs into the basement for a cup of tea and there, bearing the
demeanour of a man on hard labour, is Dave's father Tom Dibley, at a
bench slowly repairing a stack.
The last three times I've been there Tom has been there, slow and
thoughtful, repairing a stack. But he must be in his eighties. In fact
he's a well known expert on the predecessor to the clarinet and has a
large collection of shawms and serpents at his home -- once when Dave was
out, we played a Mozart clarinet concerto movement with me on a 65-note
accompaniment roll. The mystery is that he lives in Deal which is a
70-mile journey away by three local trains -- yet he's always there.
Does Dave use blackmail, or is Tom just bored at home ?
The Pianola Shop's batteries are kept charged by Dave's piano-moving
business. Brighton has a touch of the San Franciscos and is heavy with
artists and pianos, so this is a good line to be in, for which Dave
employs a van, a shoe and blankets for grands and four Pakistani lads who
seem to work shifts. Anything wrong with any of the pianos, he moves in
and quotes for repairs and tuning. And if it's a rather nice player, the
piano move will turn into a swap and it'll end up in his front shop.
Although he has a much-valued Artrio-Angelus reproducing grand at home,
Dave's hobby is not pianos but veteran telephones. Not far from Tom's
house, at St Nicholas at Wade, again 70 miles away, he has saved the
village's Strowger telephone building and re-equipped it with the genuine
step-by-step equipment, following the cable holes and markings in the
floor. But Dibley Central has only two phones on it.
David started off under the lash of Mary Belton's tongue in The Original
Pianola Shop a few streets away. Mary, a spectacular chain-smoker, was
by turns irascible and consumed with laughter, resourceful yet
surprisingly ignorant of the inner workings of the player. She just
faithfully copied what she found, and dreadful curses would descend on
the hapless "lad" -- taken on for barely enough money to buy a sandwich
at lunch time -- who had recovered all the pneumatics of a player and
failed to produce music at the end of it.
This writer was a regular customer, valued for his taste in otherwise
immobile classical and salon rolls. (Eddie, her husband who ran the roll
business, would muse: "Why can't someone on television discover
something dreadful about Chaminade ?") I sometimes got winched into
these acrimonious post-mortems as a second opinion -- often the original
makers had placed tubes wrongly.
The lads were treated not unlike probationary slaves, and Dave was one of
them. But he ended up with the goodwill when she retired, and the formal
training in piano rebuilding gave him a capability for good work which
player establishments aren't always well known for.
Even though I worry about Tom, I find The Pianola Shop a pleasing
throwback to past times, and I always visit if I'm that way.