Roll Call: A local business recalls home entertainment, circa 1920


On a mild Saturday, we motored into Southeast Minneapolis to listen to some piano players — but not the sort you might imagine. Nestled in a nondescript warehouse off University and 27th avenues, the Barton Player Piano Company houses the city’s only collection of player pianos and the rolls of music that make them sing. The occasion was the Eighth Annual Piano Roll Flea Market and Movie Event, a clever collaboration between the innovative Mr. Don Barton and the purveyors of cinema at the refurbished Heights movie theater in Columbia Heights.

Player pianos, for those of you who are unaware of one of the music industry’s first great innovations, are pianos that translate paper scrolls of punched notes into live music.

The day’s offerings included an opportunity to purchase piano player music and other ephemera at the Barton shop, followed by a jaunt northeast to the Heights to view a trio of films: a 1950s-era documentary describing the manufacture of piano rolls, a silent movie accompanied by the theater’s mighty Wurlitzer organ, and, finally, the classic Sinatra-Kelly musical Anchors Aweigh.

Upon landing at Barton’s small piano refurbishing factory, a rather unimpressive warehouse space within eyeshot of the new Gophers football stadium, we were struck by the anachronistic vibe generated by the crowd of people even older than us, most of whom were quite inexplicably enthralled by the idea of listening to (not particularly) popular music played on a piano rather than on a CD player.

One of the younger devotees we encountered among the stacks of piano rolls (most of which were manufactured by QRS Corporation in Buffalo, New York, the nation’s last manufacturer of piano rolls), absolutely gushed at the quality of entertainment delivered by her player piano.

But you have to use the electric motor on the pianos — not the pump pedals — to play your selections, she cautioned. “You can’t dance and pump.”

We surveyed the offerings: a smattering of The Beatles, Reba McIntyre for the NASCAR crowd, The Lion King, Ethel Merman, Isaiah Berlin, the Gershwins, a little Kenny Rogers. Not exactly contemporary.

Still, a fairly steady stream of aficionados wandered through the warehouse, and Barton, the spry, mustachioed proprietor, seemed to know each one of them by name. Barton told us that, at one time, there were literally thousands of player pianos at work in the parlors and living rooms of Minneapolis homes. Indeed, he makes his living refurbishing many of those antique instruments.

We’re drawn to a nearby document, which chronicles one of the city’s most famous (or infamous) piano roll commissions — the march local businessman Wilbur Foshay asked John Philip Sousa to write for the dedication of the nation’s first skyscraper west of the Mississippi River. The Foshay Tower was completed in 1929, (the 32-floor structure — modeled after the Washington Monument — remains the second-highest concrete skyscraper in the country; only the Empire State Building is higher) and its owner wanted to make a real splash, so he promised to pay Sousa $20,000 to compose and conduct a new march for the occasion.

Well, it turned out that Foshay’s deadline wouldn’t allow for an original composition, so Sousa took a piece he had written (but not performed) for the College of Industrial Arts in Denton, Texas, called “Daughters of Texas” and retitled it the “Foshay Tower: Washington Memorial March.” But he did show up in Minneapolis and conduct his work at the unveiling of the city’s architectural centerpiece.

Unfortunately, the stock market crash put a bit of a crimp in Foshay’s cash flow and Foshay’s check to Sousa bounced. And it wasn’t until some 70 years later that local music lovers raised the money to pay Sousa’s estate for the rights to the march. A piano roll of the misanthropic composition was created, of course, and the Minnesota Orchestra even performed it at Orchestra Hall.

We didn’t get an opportunity to hear Sousa’s march, but we did get a sampling of the player piano’s talents, which were not unimpressive — especially to someone who would love to be able to sit down at the keyboard and pretend to be creating something worth hearing.

The subsequent cinematic features at the beautifully refurbished Heights Theater were entertaining (we didn’t stay for Anchors Aweigh) and made more so by the masterful playing of the Wurlitzer organ in the theater’s orchestra pit. (Actually, it was elevated to stage level for the brief concert prior to the films and then magically descended the six or so feet into the pit — not-so-modern technology proving to be perfectly appropriate in a new century.) And the place was packed, which says something about the allure of turn-of-the-last-century art. Or the promotional talents of Barton and the Heights crew.

Either way, our foray into the early 20th century version of the iPod was illustrative. It reminded us how much more ubiquitous music is these days than in generations past — which is not necessarily a good thing. And it helped us understand the almost visceral need for music you can play in the privacy of your own home. Even if you have to pump.