The first thing you notice at Nate Otto’s Anoka house is the hearse in the driveway, a 1967 Olds 98 with tattered curtains and a rusted body. Inside is a small, 100-year-old reed organ built for a church. It holds a 1970s-era device: a row of mechanical fingers controlled by signals recorded on a cassette tape deck.
When Otto turns on the hearse’s cassette deck and pumps air through the organ, the instrument groans to life, the keys moving on their own in a ghostly performance of a song not quite right for church or hearse: Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag.”
It’s just a hint of what’s in Otto’s yard, house and garage: self-playing, old-style musical robots called player pianos. Some sound and look as good as they did a century ago. Some are awaiting repair. Some are being sacrificed for their parts.
Otto, a baby-faced 29-year-old, has decided that it’s his job to bring player pianos back to life.
“I feel obligated to keep these things going,” he said. “I’m the only one doing it.”
As the owner and sole employee of Rum River Restoration (rumriver restoration.com), Otto believes he’s the only full-time player piano restorer in the state. He specializes in Jazz Age relics that once were ubiquitous in America, but now are largely forgotten — except by collectors and the rare appreciators of nostalgia, music and mechanical ingenuity.
Otto is a millennial who believes in doing things the old-fashioned way, a purist who strives to make player piano restorations as authentic as possible.
He doesn’t use Phillips head screws to fix century-old vintage instruments because the screws weren’t invented until the 1930s. Faulty pneumatic lines in player pianos could be replaced with modern auto radiator hose, but Otto prefers to use period-correct, twill-wrapped hose even though it costs $20 a foot.
“I’m trying to avoid digital things as much as possible,” said Otto, who doesn’t own a television. “I tend to have an affinity for things that aren’t practical.”
Before he got into player pianos, Otto repaired small engines. But he’s a mechanic with the soul of an artist.
He adopts old pianos headed for the landfill and turns them into garden sculptures. He’s got 4½ pianos slowly returning to nature in his garden, including an old vine-covered, square grand piano, turned on its side and partly embedded into the trunk of a dead tree.
Otto views the player pianos that he fixes as kinetic art pieces, steampunk mechanical wonders that use air pressure to move clockwork gears, crankshafts, pushrods, levers and strikers, all controlled by a scrolling roll of perforated paper.
“Although you’re staring at holes in paper, there’s something addictive just watching it,” Otto said.
It’s an early system of automation similar to the perforations in paper or punch cards once used to control looms and calculating machines.
“The player piano is basically one of the earliest home computers,” said Randy Hammond, a Brooklyn Center man who has hired Otto to repair some of the four player pianos he owns.
Typical player pianos are interactive, allowing users to manipulate control levers and foot pedals to help interpret the music, controlling the tempo and dynamics of a song. Some pianos have what users call a “honky tonk” lever, which gives the song a rinky-tink quality.
“They say the piano roll just remembers the notes. The rest is up to you,” Otto said.
Home entertainment system
The classic player piano, or pianola, was first developed at the end of the 19th century. It was a piano, usually an upright, that could be played normally. But it also had a pneumatic mechanism driven by a foot-operated air pump that activated valves and bellows to strike the piano keys automatically.
The melody being played was determined by the scrolling roll of paper with a pattern of perforations that controlled which keys were struck. You could change the song by simply putting in a different roll of paper.
In the days before the record player became popular, it was revolutionary. Instead of having to attend a performance or learn to play music yourself, you could now listen to a host of tunes at home with your self-playing piano.
Coin-operated player pianos called nickelodeons (essentially the first jukeboxes) could be found in restaurants, saloons, speakeasies, even brothels. Equipped with percussion instruments, player pianos provided musical accompaniment at silent movies. People used player pianos as mechanical music teachers, learning to play songs by imitating the machine. And when lyrics were printed on the rolls, people would sing along like an early form of karaoke.
Because they can be run by foot power, player pianos were bought by rural households without electricity. Polar explorer Robert Scott even brought one to expeditions to the Antarctic to entertain his men.
They were so popular that noted composers started writing songs specifically for the player piano and famous musicians including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, George Gershwin and Scott Joplin recorded performances used to make player piano rolls. Libraries were created to house and circulate piano rolls, which sold by the millions.
The device was credited with helping to transform American musical tastes, spreading edgy new genres such as jazz and ragtime to middle-class audiences. In their heyday, most of the pianos made in the country were player pianos.
By the 1920s, however, the rise of amplified radios and record players provided an even easier way to listen to music, crippling the sales of player pianos. The market for the instruments finally collapsed with the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression.
A knack for restoration
But there have always been a few people so fascinated with the old machines that they learned the skills necessary to keep them running.
Otto became one after his grandparents’ player piano broke about 10 years ago and he decided to try to fix it. He practiced by working on a junked player piano he found on Craigslist. Eventually he succeeded in restoring the family heirloom.
Along the way, he met Don Barton, a man so devoted to player pianos that he tried to set a world record by playing one for 36 hours straight.
Barton started repairing player pianos in 1972 at Leonard’s Player Piano Co. in Minneapolis, once the premier player piano business in the Upper Midwest. In 1985, he started his own shop, Barton Player Piano, which became the only place in the Twin Cities to get a player piano fixed after Leonard’s closed.
Otto apprenticed with Barton, working for six or seven years as a part-time employee.
“Don saw I had a knack with it,” Otto said. “I just love the work. It combines my love for art and things mechanical.”
When Barton, 71, retired last year, Otto stepped in to fill the void, setting up shop for himself last September, working out of his garage and a workshop in his home.
“One of my favorite smells is old piano,” he said, describing the scent of varnished wood permeating his garage.
Keeping a player piano going today is a little like restoring an old car: It takes time, love, money, expertise and commitment.
Gary Goldsmith, treasurer of the Minnesota chapter of the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors’ Association, said there may be thousands of player pianos in the state, but he estimated only a few hundred are still in operating condition. More are ending up in landfills than being restored, he said.
“They’re everywhere,” said Caleb Spooner, a piano technician (spoonerthetuner.com) from St. Louis Park who said he’s the only person in the state who tunes player pianos. But Spooner said people tend to ask him how they can get rid of an old piano rather than fix it.
Otto, however, said he has no shortage of work.
“I get about a call a week,” he said, adding that he has a six-month backlog of work.
The invisible player
To see a player piano come to life is unlike listening to a record, CD or an audio file. You’re able to watch the keys dancing under the unseen fingers of an invisible entertainer. You’re hearing live music, a performance of an acoustic instrument — one that plays itself.
“Very few people could match the quality of the performance of the machine,” said Brian Dolan, a University of California, San Francisco, professor who has written a book about the social and cultural history of the player piano.
“I can’t play a note,” said Hammond, who estimates he owns about 3,000 songs on piano rolls that his player pianos can perform. “I’ve got neighbors who think I’m a concert pianist.”
That experience can be expensive.
A full rebuild of a player piano mechanism might take 100 to 150 hours of labor and cost $5,000 to $8,000 on average, Otto said.
“It’s very labor-intensive,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m doing the most work on these things since they were made.”
But it’s worth it for some people to once again hear an instrument that brought generations of family members together in the parlor to listen, sing and dance.
“It was probably the best money we spent in a long time,” said Priscilla Lehman of Chippewa Falls, Wis., referring to the nearly $10,000 she spent having Otto restore the player piano her family has used since 1987 to play everything from the Beatles to songs from “The Little Mermaid.”
When someone has a birthday, family tradition calls upon the player piano to perform “Happy Birthday.”
“It’s an absolute joy to use,” Lehman said.
Otto said, “Really the value is sentimental value, the emotional value. There’s an element of resurrection. It’s a time capsule in a way.”