Monday, August 3, 2015

Player Piano Playlist

A box of player piano rolls at a local yardsale.  Titles included Bungalo Love Nest, Hello Hawaii, How Are You, O What A Pal Was Mary, Any Ice Today, Lady? Aeroplane Man and Oh, Dem Gold Slippers.  $1 a roll, no takers.

Quite a few of the boxes are labelled The Otto Higel Company, Toronto.  According to The Canadian Encyclopedia:

The company was founded in 1896 by Otto Higel (b Silesia, Germany, 1869, d Toronto 2 Jul 1930), who had bought the Toronto piano action and key manufacturing business of F. Koth, for whom he had worked since moving to Canada in 1889. Higel amalgamated in 1901 with Augustus Newell & Co (founded in 1878 as the Newell Organ Reed Co), and the resulting firm - Newell & Higel Co Ltd - manufactured piano actions, keys and hammers, and organ keys, reeds, and reedboards. Higel purchased the firm's assets in 1904 and restored the name Otto Higel Co Ltd, but also used Canada Piano Action and Key Co Ltd. He achieved his greatest success with the manufacture of player-piano actions, begun in 1906. By 1911 he had added a department for the cutting of perforated piano rolls, labelled Solodont. The company, located at Bathurst and King streets, employed 450 workers in 1912. Player pianos with Higel actions were in use around the world and were in such demand that a second plant was opened in Buffalo, NY, ca 1914, and a third in New York City in 1916. On Higel's death his son Ralph O. Higel assumed direction of the company, which gradually began making other products, such as cabinets and wooden toys. By 1938 control had passed out of the Higel family, though the name was retained. After 1938 the firm apparently made only kitchen cabinets and appliances, and in 1944 business ceased. The Otto Higel building at Bathurst and King was demolished in 1981.
To see the original factory, visit Lost Toronto.

From another source, the Higel player roll business was sold in 1912 to QRS of Buffalo, New York, which had been in business since 1900 and still manufacturers such rolls today! Below, from their website:

QRS was founded in 1900 by Melville Clark (of Story & Clark piano fame) who developed the player piano as we know it today. QRS supplied music rolls to the player piano market, with production peaking in 1927, when QRS Music Company sold 10 million rolls. 
The player piano's heyday lasted from 1900 until the Great Depression in the 1930s. The poverty of the Great Depression, along with the development of affordable radios (which started becoming commonplace around 1927) effectively ended player piano production. However, the demand for rolls continued and was reinvigorated in the 1950s when people began restoring old player pianos. 

To see how the rolls are made today, using original technology, watch Piano Roll Production at QRS Technology.

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