Rotary Report: The good ol’ days of player pianos

Jim Porter’s 1924 Knabe Ampico Reproducing piano. (PAUL CRAIG / Courtesy)
Jim Porter’s 1924 Knabe Ampico Reproducing piano. (PAUL CRAIG / Courtesy)

By PAUL CRAIG
Special to the Tribune

Jim and Edie Porter welcomed Rotary into their home for a Christmas celebration and a player-piano concert.

Back in the “good old days,” folks didn’t have mp3s or DVDs. Among much else, they entertained themselves with mechanical instruments.

Inventors were incredibly clever. In those days there were no transistors. There was barely electricity. Some of the cleverest long ago were chess playing machines and clocks. And carousels. And organ grinders.

Piano-roll pianos were invented in 1896 and were built until about 1932. Many of the old instruments survive and are revered by collectors. Their wonderful website AMICA.org has photos and recordings. “Me and My Shadow” on their home page is a composition by Al Jolson and others. Stanford University has a great collection (youtube.com/watch?v=xsuPVBAwg4s&feature=youtu.be).

Player pianos encode the notes on foot-wide paper rolls and some have special notches on the rolls that allow encoding of the artist’s foot pedals and intonations. One hears the song just as the pianist played it. Listening, enjoying the craftsmanship and watching the keys move brings back memories I never had! The whole keyboard dances as the piano-roll reproduces the player’s use of the foot-pedals.

Martinez Rotarians got into the Christmas spirit!

Rotary Report is a brief synopsis of weekly Martinez Rotary Club presentations, provided by a Rotary member. Rotary meets from 7:30-9 a.m. every Wednesday (excluding the last Wednesday of the month) at Grace Episcopal Church, 130 Muir Station Road, Martinez. For more information about the club, visit http://www.martinezrotary.org.

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