Dean Kessler changes the roll on a restored player piano at The Link in Carey. (Photo by Randy Roberts)


Staff Writer

CAREY — The notes of the song “Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie” resonated from the old-time player piano.

Nancy Kessler and Ann Johnson stood nearby with smiles on their faces, heads bobbing in time to the lilting tune.

“You just can’t be sad and listen to this,” said Nancy’s husband, Dean Kessler, as he watched the piano keys magically move up and down.

The 97-year-old musical instrument is the newest addition to The Link in Carey. The Kesslers, who are part of this nonprofit group dedicated to building a stronger, more resilient community, are also responsible for bringing the piano to the East Findlay Street community center.

The player piano originally belonged to Clara Bell Lee, a sister-in-law’s aunt who was a teacher in Jackson, Michigan.

“She had this in her house as long as apparently my brother’s wife could remember,” Dean said. “At some point in the late 1970s, they decided to get rid of it and my brother said he would take it.”

The piano remained at his brother’s Bowling Green home until he moved to North Carolina a few years ago. None of his four daughters were interested in taking the piano, but the Kesslers’ daughter was, said Dean.

The nonprofit Carey Link has over 250 music rolls for its 97-year-old self-playing piano and is brainstorming community events like Name That Tune and a sing-along. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

The dark, wooden upright piano was made by the Conway Co. of Boston, while a brass plate near the piano roll box reads Goosman Piano Co., Toledo. In researching the serial number found inside, they learned that the piano is 97 years old.

Over time, the bellows — the part of the instrument that creates a vacuum and causes the notes to play — had gone bad, Dean said.

“You have to pump these old player pianos. And it has an accumulator in it so that when the piano plays, it makes the roll run at the speed it’s set to run,” he explained. “So you would sit there and you would pump and pump and pump and the roll would barely run. You couldn’t even recognize the song because it was so leaky.”

Their daughter kept the piano in her Norwalk home for three years, then needed the space for a new piece of furniture. But she felt bad about getting rid of the instrument, even though it hardly worked, said Dean.

He went online and found a YouTube video that showed how to make a player piano automatic by using a Shop-Vac and some PVC pipe.

“I contacted my daughter, not knowing whether I could do it, and said, ‘We’ll move it to The Link in Carey if I can get it to work,'” said Dean.

He had a new Shop-Vac in his basement that he’d bought on sale and never used. Within two hours, the piano was working again.

Overall, it’s not in bad condition, the couple noted.

“The varnish is kind of crinkled in places,” said Dean, adding that three keys tend to stay down, and the tempo is off a bit.

“As many times as it’s been moved, it’s not in too bad a tune. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad.”

The front cover was also replaced with Plexiglas so the inner workings can be observed as it plays.

The piano came with 80 rolls of music. Nancy said a few are fairly recent, but most are older tunes.

“Some of the old stuff is fun because you’re familiar with it,” she said. “But some of the old stuff is old enough you just have no clue what it is.”

Dean wanted to add a few modern songs, so he purchased six rolls from QRS, a company in Pennsylvania that still produces them.

A few weeks later, a friend sent Nancy a picture of an online garage sale offering two boxes of piano rolls, free for the taking. The person who owned them lived nearby, and the couple found there were 180 rolls in all, including movie and TV theme songs and lots of music from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

“Whoever owned them really like Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers,” said Nancy.

Dean estimated that the music rolls, a gift from Denise Crawford Blair, are valued at about $2,000.

“When her uncle passed away, the piano went to her mother and then to her,” said Nancy. “She was able to give the piano away, but for whatever reason, the person did not want the rolls. The last thing she said was, ‘My aunt and uncle are smiling down from heaven, I’m sure.'”

The couple went through every box.

“On the end of some of the rolls it has the title, but not on all of them,” said Nancy. “But all piano rolls (unless it’s an instrumental) have the words on them. It was like the first karaoke.”

As the notes play, the printed words to the song can be seen on the side of the roll.

“So if the title wasn’t there, we’d have to unroll until we get to the part where the words are,” she said.

If the song wasn’t familiar to them, they quizzed the Siri app.

Cataloging all of the music took about a week. Now the boxes are color coded and numbered, and a master list of all of the song titles has been compiled. Now it’s easy to find “A Spoonful of Sugar” from “Mary Poppins,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” the “Hill Street Blues” theme song or something by the Beatles.

They also found some treasures in the collection, including a gold box that was recorded for the “Celebrity Series” by world-renowned pianist Marian McPartland, and a roll that features Liberace playing a medley of George Gershwin hits, recorded July 13, 1972. Dean said nearly all of the other rolls were performed by Rudy Martin and J. Lawrence Cook, prolific piano roll artists.

Everyone who visits has been fascinated by the player piano since its arrival in May, said Dean. Nancy said they’ve been brainstorming ideas for special programs, including a sing-along, Name That Tune night and a request night.

“It’s just been a whole lot of fun,” she said. “Steve Martin one time said, ‘You can’t hear a banjo and be sad.'”

“It’s basically the same thing,” added Dean. “You can’t be sad and listen to a player piano. It’s just fun.”

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