Piano Man

The music room in the Edgertons’ Darien house is a vast cathedral-ceilinged space, filled with vintage theater and opera posters, a comfy sofa or two, and a wonderfully entertaining array of mechanical musical instruments (“mechanical” meaning anything that plays by itself). The collection includes two reproducing grand pianos from the 1920s; player pianos, player organs and nickelodeons; fairground and carousel organs and music boxes; a French barrel organ that cries out for an organ grinder and a monkey; and numerous oddities and delights representing two centuries of popular culture, musical taste and the technology of the day.

The tiniest is an antique French music box that fits neatly in the palm of your hand; the largest is a thirteen-foot-long, 352-pipe Gavioli fairground organ, a masterpiece of fanciful wood-carving and ornamentation, which takes center stage at the end of the room. This room is also a terrific place to party, which is why the desk of every piano — indeed, virtually every polished surface — sports a card that reads “No glasses here, please.”

Bill Edgerton’s forty-year passion for these rarities began purely by chance. “I did not grow up in a musical house,” he says. “Neither of my parents was musical, but they felt when my brother and I were young that there should be music in the house. So they bought a secondhand grand, which happened to be a Duo-Art [Steinway’s reproducing piano]. And over the years I kept it playing when the rubber tubing started to fall off by getting underneath it with rubber bands, trying to put it back together.”

Rubber tubing because player pianos — an umbrella term covering automatic pianos, reproducing pianos, and nickelodeons — worked on a pneumatic system in which air pressure activated the mechanism. Pumping two foot pedals kept the bellows filled in the standard upright player piano; the more sophisticated reproducing piano, which was manufactured by top companies like Steinway and Knabe, was motor driven. (All were traditional acoustic pianos to which the player mechanism was added.) Paper rolls activated the notes, with a punched hole corresponding to each note played. There were also player organs, like the ornately embellished 1899 example in Edgerton’s collection, which were essentially mechanized versions of the Victorian parlor pump organ.

Today a player piano is a curiosity, but it was once as intrinsic to America’s cultural life as the morning newspaper. They were everywhere: not just in homes but in restaurants and saloons and penny arcades, department stores and even concert halls. When he was ten, George Gershwin taught himself to play by slowly pumping the roll on a neighbor’s player piano and putting his fingers over the keys as they depressed. When a piano for brother Ira was delivered to the Gershwin apartment, young Georgie promptly sat down, tore through a popular song, and, as the saying goes, never looked back. 

The player system was developed at the turn of the last century, when there were some 700 piano companies worldwide, hit its apex in the 1920s, and was a casualty of the Depression. “It was also knocked out by improvements in audio performances, juke boxes, phonographs,” Bill notes. “You could hear the real thing. However, not until the 1990s were electronics able to equal the quality level that was built into the pneumatic instruments that had been engineered eighty years before.”

Bill does the lion’s share of the restoration work himself, in a spacious and well-appointed workroom that is every carpenter’s dream. Past projects include a 1908 mahogany player piano that plays 65-note rolls. (A reproducing piano, by contrast, plays 80 of a piano’s 88 notes.) “You can tell a 65-note roll immediately because the holes are bigger,” he says. “The 65-note player pianos are good for stuff that by the twenties no one was interested in hearing anymore, like ragtime and Broadway shows. Ever heard of ‘Yankee Grit’? It was on Broadway at the turn of the century. This march and two-step roll may be the only record left of it. Ragtime didn’t last very long — other things came along. The only way to get true ragtime is to do it on a 65-note system, and that’s why I’ve got this piano.” (No need for a Stairmaster, as pumping your way through a number with triple repeats requires major thigh power.)

Player pianos weren’t just for “Too Much Mustard” or “The Kiss Waltz” from The Gypsy Baron, two long-forgotten tunes on Edgerton’s shelves. Classical recordings were extremely popular and form the basis of his collection of close to 700 Ampico piano rolls. “There were twelve different reproducing systems in the world,” Bill says, “but Duo-Art and Ampico were the two major systems. Steinway was signed up by Duo-Art; Mason & Hamlin, Knabe and Chickering, for example, were signed up by Ampico. Between the two, there were maybe a total of 3,000 to 4,000 rolls produced. It’s very hard to find many of them, as some were made in very small quantities.”

The piano roll boxes are neatly shelved along one wall, and the names on them represent the finest pianists of that, or arguably any, era: Rachmaninoff and Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Gershwin and Percy Grainger, Josef Hoffman and Artur Schnabel and Arthur Rubenstein. “Any famous pianist from 1895 to 1930 made rolls,” Bill says. “In the 1920s this was the high point of the art. If you couldn’t afford to have Arthur Rubenstein play for you after dinner — and who could? — you could put on one of these and he was right there in the room.”

A reproducing piano also operates the dynamics (soft and loud, the pedals) of the instrument, and these holes run along the sides of the roll the way a sound track runs along the edges of film. “They reproduce music the way it was recorded,” Bill explains. “As a result, they can play classical music the way other pianos can’t because it’s done the way the pianist intended. When these were recorded upon, the pianist would sit down and play and the machine would capture the notes, but it wouldn’t capture the dynamics. So there were musicians in the room who made notes on the score. Then they’d play it back for the performer, and he’d say, ‘No, in that spot the treble’s a little heavy,’ or ‘The melody could be brought out a little more in the bass.’ So they would edit it down to a satisfactory result. In some cases the performer actually signed the roll, saying, ‘This is my interpretation.’”

Bill puts a roll into one of the reproducing pianos —it hooks into a tray that slides out from under the keyboard — and turns it on. There is a sound like an intake of breath (that’s the pump filling), and then the room is filled with the strains of “The Blue Danube.” Part of the enjoyment is watching the roll feed through and visually matching the myriad tiny holes to the notes, and a glissando goes by like a diagonal slash. The keys go up and down and it’s a slightly eerie sensation, like watching a ghost perform.

“This roll was made in the 1940s,” he says, pitching his voice over the flourishes and trills of what is definitely a show-off arrangement, “and it still works. The paper they used was very good. It’s a real creation of piano music, played on a piano and not on any kind of audio process, so you get some of the subtle characteristics that may get lost in a recording. The recording can be very pure but this has presence.

“Of course, there are different degrees of subtlety in these things,” he adds. “Sublime versus not so sublime. This I would call not so sublime,” he says wryly, picking up a small musical device from a 1953 Westinghouse clothes dryer, that, when your load was done, chimed out that old barroom standard “How dry I am, How dry I am, Nobody knows, How dry I am.”

“When I found out about this thing from a friend, in the 1970s,” Bill says, “I went to an appliance store in Darien and the guy said, ‘Oh, I remember that. We had a couple of replacements on the shelf for years, then we took ’em to the dump.’ But he had kept records of customers, so I called this woman and asked her if she had the dryer. She did. I said, ‘I’ll give you fifty dollars for a part in it you don’t need.’ She said, ‘Come and get it!’”

The oldest instrument in the collection is a 1795 barrel organ called a seronette. “Most of them survived because they were stuck away in the attic,” he says. “They were defined at the time as the organ that taught canaries to sing.” And the tiny pipes do sound like a bird when played, a charming, slightly asthmatic and very French little bird.

As you go around the room taking “the five-dollar tour,” the variety of these instruments is a revelation. Long before LPs and CDs and IPods, it seems, there was music to be had at every level of taste and income, some of it encased in wooden boxes as plain as a coffin, some in what represents the acme of the cabinetmaker’s art or the sheer pleasure of decoration for decoration’s sake. An eight-foot-tall German-made fairground organ, which was sold to a carousel owner in Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the 1920s, is as richly carved and brightly painted as the carousel horses it once accompanied. “I got it from the man who restored it, so it’s not been through that many sets of hands,” Bill says. “You know, whatever your collecting interest is, there are going to be experts out there. Unlike clocks and coins, which hundreds of thousands of people collect — and there are lots of suppliers — there aren’t too many of these instruments. As a result, there aren’t too many collectors. There are maybe three or four major collector organizations worldwide, with a total of about 5,000 members.”

This brings us to the Seeberg KT Special nickelodeon and the story behind the one on display. It’s about two-thirds the size of an old-fashioned upright, with gleaming pale oak cabinetry and a stained-glass window so you can watch the fun. And the fun includes not only the piano but snare drum, wood block, castanets, triangle, cymbal, tom-tom, a honky-tonk rail that comes down over the piano keys and creates that “old timey” effect, and a full xylophone. When you put the nickel in, not only does everything start jumping and pumping and whirling and beating and dancing, but colored lights flash and sparkle. “You just can’t be in a bad mood listening to something like this,” Bill says, grinning. 

In the late 1970s, the Edgertons visited a nickelodeon collector with a similar Seeberg. “My wife, Ann, said, ‘I like that, give me some nickels,’” he relates. “So I said in a moment of weakness, ‘I’ll get one for you,’ without realizing that in about 1960, when these things were coming out of bars and jukeboxes were going in, you could have gotten one for a few hundred dollars. By the 1970s the Seeberg KT Special nickelodeon cost $25,000, restored. Can’t buy it, I said, so I’m going to have to build one.” Bill disassembled an original, measured all the parts, had a pattern made for the harp (the frame holding a piano’s strings) and the other metal castings needed, and built sixty replicas. “We sold them to collectors — it was a four-year project,” he says modestly. (During that time the Edgertons ran a business in Darien, restoring and repairing and selling mechanical musical instruments.)

The tour ends with the piéce de rèsistance, the Gavioli fairground organ, named after the man who patented the accordion-hinged, pierced-cardboard “book” that operates the elaborate machinery (no paper roll could cope with this massive beauty). It was made by Italian craftsmen in Paris and spent its life in England before being shipped to Long Island, where it languished in storage for ten years. When Bill came across it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1979, it was in pitiful condition. Entire ranks of pipes were missing or rusted, large strips of veneer were peeling off the case, and every surface, inside and out, was coated with a quarter-inch layer of soot and coal dust from the steam engine that had driven the bellows. It came home to Connecticut on a flatbed truck, pieces of it blowing off in the wind. (Naturally, it wouldn’t go through the front door, so the windows of the music room were hinged and refitted as a six-foot-wide door.) “I fiddled with it for a long, long time,” Bill says. “Finally Ann said, ‘If you want to hear that thing play in your lifetime, do something.’ So I sent it to two guys in York, England, the world’s experts in fairground organs, who took four years to work on it. It took me four years to pay for it,” he adds.

It is lovely to behold, festooned with Mozartian wooden figures in delicately painted breeches and powdered wigs (the one in the middle conducts with a baton), the entire palette in original Gavioli ice cream colors like raspberry and mint and peach, and liberally embellished with gold leaf. Appearances are deceiving, however, and when the Gavioli plays, it’s loud enough to wake the dead — let alone bring fairgoers running from a nearby town — and gives new meaning to the phrase “bells and whistles.” But when it launches into “The Entrance of the Gladiators,” you can practically smell the sawdust and the popcorn, and you suddenly understand why all little boys once wanted to run away to join the circus.

And then there is the wood-paneled wine cellar (Bill made the racks in his workshop) that features two Spanish rococo armchairs that look as though they might have belonged to a bishop, or perhaps John Barrymore. Just as Bill’s interest in mechanical instruments sparked a successful business venture, so too did his appreciation of fine wine lead to Edgerton’s Wine Price File, an annual guide he published from 1985 to 1998, sold to Vinfolio and continued to edit until 2004. “I’m compiling the same data — thousands of wine auction prices — with Winecommune.com, and we’ll publish on the Web starting in January,” says Bill. “It’s just another passion, and a self-taught one, like the music.” (He also founded the New England Lyric Opera Company, and his daughter, Annie, is pursuing a career in musical theater, but that’s another story.)

“What I have now is the result of winnowing out,” Bill says of his remarkable collection of mechanical instruments. “As you learn about a subject, you tend to get much more particular and the subtleties are more of consequence than they used to be.” No collector is ever truly done, however, and this year the Edgertons finally ran out of room. In April they sold their house, put all the goodies in storage and moved temporarily. They are looking for a lot on which to build, when, as Bill says, “We can catch our breaths.” In June he and Ann and fellow collectors toured Germany and Holland, where they heard something like 400 fairground and carousel organs in two weeks.

“The result of this trip,” says Bill, “is that Ann discovered another type of organ — a Belgian dance organ — that she covets. So the new music room we build will be even bigger!”

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