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Weekly Press Wed, Feb 15, 2012
By Nicole Contosta
The stately stone homes that line the streets of Spruce Hill can conjure images of the Victorian era; its residents assembled in the parlor as they enjoy tea and crumpets.
But visiting the basement of Spruce Hill resident, Al Krigman, invokes images of the prohibition era. With its bar and wood- paneled walls and stained glass windows, visitors feel as though they’re entering a speakeasy. And according to neighborhood gossip, his basement once served as just that, said Krigman, explaining that when he first purchased the house in 1975, an elderly neighbor told him how as a child, she would watch from her window as glamorous figures descended the stairs that led to the basement.
As a former underground drinking hall, Krigman’s basement comes complete with a player piano, which Krigman purchased from the Second Mile Center four years ago. In his admiration of the instrument, Krigman began collecting music scrolls and other memorabilia, such as old advertisements that date back to the 1890’s. In four years time, Krigman has collected over a thousand music scrolls [rolls] or songs that he plays for friends at social occasions.
"A lot of Al’s music is obscure and no longer exists," explained Timothy Mitchell, Krigman’s assistant at KRF Management.
Looking at Krigman’s scrolls, some wrinkled with age, confirms this fact. "Some of the songs I own such as ‘That Tumble Down Shack’ and the ‘Great American March’ have totally disappeared," Krigman explained, adding that the genre of his songs run the gamut from gospel to marches to patriotic. Many of his songs, such "Tell Mother I’ll be There" and "They were all Out of Step" date back to World War One. Some of the scrolls are so old they no longer play well, Krigman said, explaining that he initially organized his music scrolls according to which sounded the best -that is until none of the songs played well. Krigman decided to have it fixed and invited this reporter to his home while John Tuttle repaired it last week.
Krigman’s ownership of obscure music scrolls may strike some people as odd when most consider the player piano an obscure instrument. However, they are still made. And according to Krigman’s repairman John Tuttle, he has "over 9,000 customers in the tri-state area. I have lifetimes worth of work that I will never finish," Tuttle explained from his position under the piano. Like a car mechanic working on his back, Tuttle dissembled various parts of the instrument, announcing things such as "the leather is torn from an important valve."
If the player piano sounds like an antiquated relic, it could be because its mass popularity pre-dates most of our lifetimes. "It became very popular by 1914," said Tuttle explaining that contrary to popular opinion, its decline did not result from the Victrola, which pre-dates it by several years. Instead, it was the advent of the radio in 1926 coupled with the stock market crash of 1929. To illustrate the instrument’s decline in popularity, Tuttle points to the fact that the production of player pianos peaked in 1926 at one million. In 1931 only one hundred were made. While the radio certainly contributed to its decline, cost had to be another factor. For example, one of Krigman’s ads from 1914 has the player piano listed as costing $1250, which considering inflation must have been an exorbitant price for struggling Americans during the Great Depression.
Besides the pleasure he derives from listening to the player piano, several other factors contribute to his esteem of the instrument. As Tuttle explains, "player pianos are considered the most longstanding-recorded medium in terms of accuracy. Unless the paper [of the music scroll] rips, the rolls in a sense almost immortalize music. Player pianos are often referred to today as the first digital recordings."
After Tuttle’s visit, "the piano plays beautifully," Krigman said. But like working on any other complicated piece of machinery, its wasn’t a "quick fix". According to Krigman, "John worked from 11:00 am to about 9:00 pm with breaks for lunch and dinner [on Wednesday]. Because it was late, we were concerned about possible icy roads, and there was more to do, he stayed overnight rather than drive home to Brick Township, NJ (about 60 miles) and worked from about 8:30 am to 3:30 pm with a break for lunch to finish up. This was with Tim’s help -- it would have taken him longer without the assistance."
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