By James Skakoon
There was a time early in the 20th century when player pianos were common—and coveted—in homes. Most of the instruments are now relegated to museums or dusty basements. But Thomas Chase (Ph.D. ’84) and Thomas Kuehn (B.M.E. ’71, M.S.M.E. ’73, Ph.D. ’76) are doing their part to preserve the history and artifacts of that golden age of pianolas, as they are often called. Chase and Kuehn collect and restore pianolas and a wide variety of other mechanical instruments.
Kuehn, who retired last spring after 33 years on the University of Minnesota mechanical engineering faculty, has rescued and restored player pianos, barrel organs, orchestrions (machines that play music that sounds like an orchestra or band), fairground organs, and even a self-playing violin. Two of his instruments have been heard on A Prairie Home Companion, including a portable reed organ that he played. One of Chase’s projects is an orchestrion featuring special effects like a mandolin, xylophone, snare drum, cymbal, and tambourine. Housed in a plush oak cabinet with elegant stained glass faces, this coin-operated beauty would have been at home in the cafes and restaurants of the ‘20s, Chase says.
Chase, a current faculty member in the department of mechanical engineering, first saw a player piano at age 7 in a penny arcade. “It was really fascinating, and I was instantly addicted,” he says. His father liked them, too, so they purchased one and then another, nonworking model, from an aunt, and rebuilt it. This early fascination, Chase says, is why he went on to study mechanical engineering. “There are a lot of cool mechanisms in a player piano,” he says. “I even gave an exam problem once with a gear train from one of my player pianos.”
As a boy, Kuehn lived near the site of the Wildwood Amusement Park on White Bear Lake, a Twin Cities suburb. It was closed, but a traveling carnival still used the rides every spring before hitting the road. The tilt-a-whirls and Ferris wheels spawned his early interest in mechanical things. Kuehn had also been curious about the carousel organs with moving figures and powerful music, so in 1989 he built a replica Wurlitzer band organ from scratch using plans from the Music Box Society.
Pianolas were popular at a time when there weren’t many other options for in-home entertainment. “You could have a cylinder phonograph, which didn’t sound like much, or you could have this real, acoustic piano,” Chase explains. Between 1910 and 1925, 85 percent of all new pianos came with selfplaying mechanisms. They became obsolete around 1930, according to Chase, because of electronic amplification and voice recording. “The sad part is that people started chopping them up and throwing them out,” he laments.
Some pianolas are complicated automatic machines, but Chase says that ordinary foot pump models can be the most fun. “Pump harder and it gets louder, pump softer and it quiets down. You’re part of it,” he says. And many of the rolls come printed with scrolling lyrics, so you can sing along. Kuehn adds, “They’re the original karaoke machines.”