Piano days are here again

Surrey Museum's latest addition is a working 1904 Lansdowne player piano.



“It looks like an ordinary piano,” says Lana Panko as she approaches a brown upright on the second floor of the Surrey Museum.

As the museum’s curator of collections begins to open the various, latches, doors and compartments, it becomes obvious this instrument has more to offer that a regular piano’s three pedals and 88 keys.

And although it certainly takes less time to learn how to play this Lansdowne player piano than a regular piano, there’s more to just pressing a button to make it make music.

Fiddling with a paper song roll, it takes Panko, still new to the process, about 10 minutes to get the first song going.

For those intimidated by reading music, this piano has its own esoteric instructions involving features such as grommet hooks, re-roll levers, a gate valve and silencer valve box, a tempo lever, pumping bellows, governor adjusting screw and something called a wind trunk.

At least the term “equalizer” sounds modern – certainly for 1904, the year this piano was built in Toronto by the Lansdowne Piano Company, owned, according to legend, by Albert and Samuel Nordheimer, who took over the company in 1890.

The automatic playing action is powered by pedals – like a pneumatic exercise machine, with the “player” making adjustments to the tempo using levers.

Playing it is a workout, says Panko (left).

The piano, new to the museum collection, was donated by Surrey’s Peter Chittim, 81, who has owned it since the late 1960s.

He also donated about 70 music rolls, some with sing-along words.

Among the genres in the roll collection are blues, gospel, jazz, classical, honky-tonk and the theme to 1960s TV’s Batman.

“It’s a special piece,” says Panko. “Player pianos were once an important entertainment device for families. From 1890 to about 1920, they were the equivalent to Netflix today.”

They were centrepieces to household parlours, and used in movie theatres to accompany silent films.

The Canadian piano industry employed 5,000 people decades ago. And during the Second World War, women filling in were paid the same as men – a workplace rarity.

Player pianos began to lose favour in the 1930s, following the introduction of “talkies” (movies with sound) and radio.

Today, they’re novelties.

Jack Houweling, a North Deltan who has tuned pianos for more than 30 years, says he only sees two or three player pianos a year.

Despite their rarity, he says a glut of pianos means they’re worth a fraction of their value in the 1980s.

“Now you can’t give them away.”

But he says he’s still intrigued by them and will tune the Lansdowne at the Surrey Museum on June 7.

“The cool thing about player pianos is if you don’t play them, they stop working,” explains Panko. “It’s like any tradition. You need to keep it going to keep it alive. We’re grateful to be part of keeping this family tradition alive.”

See it for yourself at the Surrey Museum, located at 17710 56A Ave. Hours are Tuesday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12-5 p.m. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is sponsored by the Friends of the Surrey Museum Society.

For more information, call 604-592-6956 or click here.

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