In October, 2002, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with the
renowned mechanical piano restorer, Douglas Heffer, while I was in
Paris. I was first introduced to Monsieur Heffer and his lovely wife,
Regine, by Philippe Rouille during a previous trip. The meeting was
brief, but I was nonetheless impressed by Monsieur Heffer's extensive
knowledge of reproducing and player pianos. During my most recent
trip, I was able to spend more time with Heffer and see additional
aspects of his work.
Monsieur Heffer's workshop or, atelier, is in the historic Montmartre
area of Paris. The atelier is small by American standards, however,
this does not detract from the quality of work performed. Heffer is
Swedish by birth but has lived in Paris for many years. He is friendly
and willing to meet with visitors despite his very busy schedule. He
has worked on a wide variety of European, British and American player
and reproducing pianos for almost 40 years. Quite a lot of these
pianos are rare or one-of-a-kind; many restorers will never see such
pianos during their lifetimes.
Douglas Heffer also worked at the Q.R.S. company for about one year
from 1969-1970 when Ramsi Tick was the president. It became a wonderful
experience, from both human and technical aspects. As a result of his
diverse experience, he has gained a truly unique insight of reproducing
Watching Heffer work is quite enjoyable as he goes about his routine.
He does things almost by intuition, quietly moving from one task to the
next in a natural flow. I happened to be there on a day when he was
using hot hide glue. I've read many discussions about this aggravating
glue how much to use, why you should use it, the problems involved,
etc. Rebuilders, especially novice ones, seem to struggle with this
adhesive. Not Monsieur Heffer. I watched him as he glued and then
clamped parts together one after the other. No worry, no complaints,
go on to the next one. After all the discussions, it was a refreshing,
and almost amusing change to see someone using hot hide glue so easily.
This is the atelier of a true artisan!
On another day I was there while he was training an apprentice. He
worked easily with this young man, patiently explaining each step and
why it should be done that way. He answered questions, demonstrated
techniques, and encouraged hands-on experience.
Another aspect of Heffer's work that impressed me was his ability to
innovate. A problem frequently faced by vintage piano restorers is the
lack of replacement parts. This means that a restorer must fashion his
or her own parts. Heffer skillfully recreates these parts in his shop.
More impressively, he often improves on the original parts. He showed
me part of a Duo-Art expression system that he was working on.
Experience told him that although the original design was very good,
he needed to do some improvements to stabilize the expressions. Heffer
was able to diagnose the problem and create an improvement to make it
run smoothly. Another example of one of his designs is a very quiet
vacuum blower box for player or reproducing pianos, which now allows
music lovers to listen to a Chopin nocturne without a disturbing
But the major development or design by Heffer which I saw was his
Duo-Art push-up piano. It is the only one in France, and one of only
a handful in the world. The push-up demonstration was included as part
of the all-Paris "Nuit Blanche" celebration in October. The literal
translation of Nuit Blanche is "White Night" but it is more accurately
translated as "Sleepless Night." This term derives from the fact that
the celebration ran through the entire night from 8:00 p.m. until 8:00
a.m. the next morning.
Heffer demonstrated his Duo-Art push-up at the Paris city hall, Hotel
de Ville, a venue that is not normally open to the public. As an
American, it was an extra special treat for me to be admitted inside
this Paris landmark. Although the lights inside Hotel de Ville were
dimmed, one could still see the magnificent ornate architecture of the
The crowd was enormous, especially during the early part of the evening
when Douglas' wife Regine and I attended. Heffer's push-up was
described in the Nuit Blanche program as follows:
" ... Douglas Heffer vient glisser devant le piano un Duo-Art des
Annees Folles, sorte de robot pneumatique reproduisant les
interpretations des virtuoses enregistrees sur papier perfore."
"... Douglas Heffer is going to slide (push up) before the piano
a Duo-Art of the "Roaring Twenties", a sort of pneumatic robot
reproducing interpretations by virtuosos recorded on perforated paper."
Many splendid musicians of all styles of music performed at Hotel de
Ville in the various salons throughout the night. As the people
drifted through the salons, many of them stopped to observe and listen
to Heffer's Duo-Art push-up. Some were curious about this fascinating
mechanism and asked questions. For me, the fact that a mechanical
piano was being demonstrated in public was an event in itself. The
fact that the demonstration took place in Paris made it even more
Monsieur Heffer had an "assistant" helping him at Hotel de Ville that
night, Benjamin Intartaglia, a ragtimer and MMD subscriber. It was a
delight to meet this young man and see his enthusiasm about mechanical
Now, a dramatic postscript to this marvelous celebration. Regine and
I left the Hotel de Ville before midnight while Douglas and Benjamin
remained with the Duo-Art push-up. A few hours after we left, the
mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, visited the Hotel de Ville. While he
was greeting his constituents, Mayor Delanoe was suddenly attacked and
stabbed by a crazed man "who was said to have a long record of mental
illness and minor acts of violence." The mayor survived the attack and
recovered after a short hospitalization. Despite this "minor setback",
as a politician would describe it, the Nuit Blanche event was a
I have forwarded pictures of Douglas Heffer's Duo-Art push-up to the
MMD Archives. They can be seen at the MMD Pictures site,
I found my visit with Douglas Heffer a stimulating learning experience.
If you are fortunate enough to travel to Paris some day, I would
recommend planning time for a visit with this extraordinary man.
Player Piano and Mechanical Music Exchange