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Put Another Nickel in, in the Nickelodeon


Earlier this year, the daily newspaper in Buffalo, New York, ran a story under the headline, "The Day the Music Died." Not all music, but music of a most unusual sort.

More than a century ago, the piano was a status symbol in every respectable Victorian-era parlor. It was the home entertainment center before radio, phonographic records and certainly television came along. But a pianist was not always handy, so mechanical pianos, called pianolas or player pianos, took their place.

These instruments almost played themselves using something called piano rolls. Even someone who knew nothing about music could pump the pedals on the instrument. Pressure from the pedals turned rolls of stiff paper inside. Little perforations were encoded into that paper along a line with as many as 88 locations, corresponding to the number of keys on the piano keyboard. The holes passed over sprockets that caused hammers inside the pianola to strike the piano wires, much as they would in a standard piano. And the vibrating wires produced music.

Sometimes the player piano's mechanism also depressed the actual piano keys as if a ghost were sitting on the bench, playing a lively tune. Soon, coin-operated player pianos called nickelodeons appeared in bars, ice-cream parlors and poolrooms. Customers would select a song, drop a coin into a slot - much as they would later do into jukeboxes full of vinyl records - and the appropriate piano roll would play the selected song.

Some piano rolls were so sophisticated that great performances by famous musicians could be duplicated and replayed any time one wanted to hear them.

People built libraries of piano rolls, much as they would later amass collections of records and compact discs. But as technology advanced, piano rolls and player pianos became curiosities - musty collectors' items. And on January third, a 108-year-old company in Buffalo, New York, called QRS, the world's last mass producer of piano rolls, stopped making them.

QRS is still alive - producing digitized discs that run player pianos - but January third apparently was the day that a certain kind of old-fashioned music died.

Of course, we don't have a player piano at VOA, so we can't let you hear what it sounds like. But you can listen to a 1920 recording of American composer .

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.


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