Passion for Piano

Early-20th century player pianos captivate a former businessman, MU researcher
Sunday, March 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:47 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tom Hutchinson is a zoologist, anthropologist, business man, carpenter and mechanic. His real passion, however, is in the music produced by his seven player pianos.

The 69-year-old Columbia resident started his unusual collection decades ago. Of the pianos he owns, three are in his workshop, one is in Mexico for refurbishment, and the rest — including a Nickelodeon made in 1913 and a combined player piano and player organ made in 1925 — occupy a 200-square-foot room in his house.

“It’s a sense of accomplishing something of beauty,” Hutchinson said about playing the mechanical piano. “You don’t need to ask someone ‘Could you play that again?’ And you don’t need any audience either. Just sit here, and you can sing to your heart’s content.”

Hundreds of music rolls are piled up beside the pianos, a small fraction of Hutchinson’s collection of 3,000. Most date back to the ’50s and ’60s, but some are more than 100 years old and have grown yellow over time and fragile with age.

“He is really crazy about that,” said Lillian Song, a friend of Hutchinson’s. “He searches for piano rolls every day on eBay, and sometimes he would be really sad if he didn’t find anything or if he failed in his bidding on one he likes.”

Most piano rolls cost $2 to $3 apiece online, but some can be more expensive, ranging from $15 to $20. Whenever he receives a roll he has purchased, Hutchinson examines it and does repair work. He tapes the little cuts on the edges or irons the wrinkles out. Sometimes he even colors the worn corners of the box with a black marker and prints new labels to replace the old ones.

On a recent afternoon Hutchinson carefully pulled out a punched paper roll from a little black box and mounted it to the scroll of the 1913 Nickelodeon. He pulled down the lead and pressed the lever. The keys started moving fast, and the room at once brimmed with jazz — “It Had to Be You.”

“For nobody else gave me a thrill, with all your faults, I love you still. It had to be you,” he sang loudly to little blue words printed by the right side of the rolling paper.

It’s a far cry from what Hutchinson was doing 30 years ago, when he taught anthropology at MU and was a doctoral candidate in zoology. He brought to Columbia 40 South African galagos, or bushbabies, as well as 10 years worth of data he collected on the animals. He was only 18 months away from rounding up the final data for his study and finishing his dissertation.

Everything was on the right track for a bright future in academia, if not for that freezing night in December 1973. It was 18 degrees below zero, Hutchinson remembered clearly. When he walked into the lab, his animal caretakers stopped him. “Tom, you’d better sit down,” they said.

It turned out that an electrical malfunction had stopped the heating in the library building for the whole night. By the early morning, all his animals had frozen to death.

“Have you ever seen a grown man sitting on the ground, pounding the floor, cursing and crying?” Hutchinson said. “It completely changed my life.”

Without his galagos, Hutchinson couldn’t continue his study, and the accident killed his zeal for academic life. After one year of teaching, he left MU to open a jewelry store, Rockhutch, on Ninth Street. Five years later, booming business allowed him to buy a building at 1013 E. Walnut St., and he renamed it Columbia Sterling.

Though Hutchinson gave up his academic ambition, he never forgot about his school-age hobby of making things by hand. It might be a wooden table, a duck call or a wooden pen. Once he invented a wood polish when he didn’t have any handy.

“When I have an idea, I pursue it,” he said.

So when Hutchinson discovered the fun of player pianos 25 years ago, he became an enthusiastic collector. Both his combined player organ and piano, and the Nickelodeon are under the brand name Coinola and were produced by Operators Piano Co. But they have different stories behind them.

The former was originally built for a church. It has one keyboard for the organ, which lacks the full 88 keys, and another full keyboard for the piano.

The huge Nickelodeon still has stained glass intact on its front. It stood out in its old days in bars with flying beer bottles. Almost a century ago, patrons would insert 20 nickels to its coin collector to have the piano play 10 songs recorded on a roll.

“These things were made very heavily,” Hutchinson said. “They are made to play 15 to 20 hours a day non-stop in bars, in hotel lobbies, in restaurants.”

After he purchased the Nickelodeon from an Atlanta collector last year, Hutchinson invited friends to his house to listen. Jack Walters, one of the people present at the party, said he enjoyed the music.

“It’s very much oriented on the nostalgia and the revival of Americana in the past,” Walters said.

The player piano debuted in America in the 1890s. Numerous classical and popular musical pieces were recorded on the punched paper rolls. Its popularity swept the country until talking movies and radio entered the market in 1930s and took away its charm. However, even today player pianos are among the most sophisticated mechanical musical instruments.

“There are CD player pianos today, but still Tom prefers the old ones,” Song said. “He felt that if there is no paper rolls he can’t read the lyrics while playing.”

Divorced and with four adult children whom he calls workaholics, Hutchinson finds his warmest company at home with his pianos and music. Several times a week, he comes into his piano room to sing to the melody. Sometimes he shares the joy with neighbors and friends.

Once he hosted a party for fellow cast members from a play. Forty people sang with two player pianos — one in his workshop and the other in his house. Guests scurried with piano rolls from one to the other until 4 a.m.

“They kept saying ‘I want to hear this one, I want to hear this one,’” Hutchinson said. “It’s really a wonderful machine to have.”

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