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How It All Started

I read the tribute to Larry in the latest bulletin. Had it not been for Larry's book, I never would have gotten involved with player pianos.

I was between duty stations (Atsugi, Japan and Rota, Spain) while in the Navy, and my Japanese wife and I were visiting the foster family she had stayed with when she was a foreign exchange student to the United States a few years earlier. The family she stayed with lived in York, Nebraska, and they had a player piano in their cabin not far from their home. Even though I had played the piano since I was about three, and rebuilt my own piano by the time I was twelve, I had never seen a player piano. So, when I saw it, I asked 'Doc Furst' how it worked. He showed me a music roll and explained how the pedals had to be pumped to make the music play. I remove the roll from the box and stretched it out some five feet and saw the numerous perforations in the paper. I remarked to the doctor, "Wow, an 80-foot computer card that plays music instead of doing arithmetical equations. I have to find out how this works." He said he'd love to show me, but the machine didn't work. But, he said he had gotten a book from a technician in Omaha, NE, who, according to the doctor, wanted way too much money to restore the piano. (He wanted $1500 in 1970.)

'Doc' said he had tried to read the book, but couldn't make 'heads or tails' about how the device functioned. I asked if I could read it, and about two hours later I asked 'Doc' if I could tinker with the piano. He said, 'Sure. It's broke. What could be the harm?' Over the next week or so, I spent all my free time recovering bellows with materials I could buy at a local hardware store in the farming community of York. And, to the amazement of everyone, including me, the darned thing worked.

Five years later, I decided to leave the Navy and start my own business fixing player pianos. Everyone thought I was completely nuts because my background was in electronics, aviation, intelligence, and calibration, and I had a great job in the military. But, I had been moonlighting at a piano store in Freehold, NJ for about 1-1/2 years; fixing new and old players for the Freehold Music Co. I loved the work and the music, and knew I wanted to fix players for the rest of my life. How well I remember what I told my Mom when she asked me, "How in God's name are you going to make a living working on player pianos"? My simple response, "With His help!"

As soon as I left the Navy, I went to work for Freehold Music full time. That job lasted for 1-1/2 days. What happened is a story unto itself. Suffice it to say that the respect I got as a petty office in the Navy far exceeded the respect I received from the owner of the company. So, I quit!

Since I had been involved with player pianos part-time for the previous 1-1/2 years, I already had a small backlog of rebuilding work, but I soon realized that I lacked the knowledge in piano technology that was necessary to take care of 'the whole instrument'. So, I entered into a business relationship with one of the piano technicians who worked at Freehold Music. That worked out pretty well for about six months. Then something happened that made it clear to me that I needed more training. (It's a long and somewhat painful story.) At the same time this was happening, I came into what I would later find out was the 'dry-time' of the player piano serving year; a period of about three months, between February and May, when business is typically very slow. Realizing that the only way I might get more work required advertising, and realizing that you can't advertise a 'business' unless you're actually 'in' business, I officially started 'John Tuttle's Player Piano Repair and Tuning Service' in November of 1975.

After having 200 business cards made up, I went to every music store within about 50 miles of Bricktown (where we were renting a house) to offer my services to the store owners. I also got a business listing in the Yellow Pages in Ocean County and Monmouth County. Over the next couple of months, things were looking pretty bleak, and I ended up having to sell my own player piano to pay bills. That's when I visited the Tusting's Piano Co in Asbury Park,NJ. After speaking to the owner at length, I came home empty-handed, and I was seriously wondering if I had made a huge mistake by leaving a career in the Navy. That evening, I got a call from the owner of Tusting's, Frank Zavaglia. Cutting to the chase, he offered me a job as a piano salesman, but having no experience in sales, I said 'thank-you, but no thank-you'. After talking about the call with my wife, Yoshiko, we agreed that 'any job was better than no job'. So, I called him the next day and took the job.

Frank spent the next week or so explaining the various makes of pianos and the various sales techniques he had developed over the years. While I tried very hard to absorb what he taught me, I was honestly more interested in what was going on in the back of his store. For while half of the store was devoted to new pianos and sheet music, the back half of the store was a devoted to restoring pianos. Frank had employed three or four older men to do the restoration work, and they were always busy. I, on the other hand, spent most of my time sort of wandering around the showroom, waiting for people to come in and buy a piano. And, it didn't take long to realize that I wasn't all that good at selling pianos. Why? Because I soon learned that there was a fairly high degree of deception in the 'world of sales', and I my forte was giving people the facts. At about the same time this was going on, I asked Frank if I could spend my 'idle time' working in the shop.

Well, it didn't take more than a month or two before Frank realized that I was a much better technician than I was a salesman. Over the next 1-1/2 years, I advanced from apprentice to master craftsman, and I was running the shop. Things were going so well in the business that Frank decided to open another store. His intention was that he would run the new store and I would run the old store. The only problem was that I was working at Tusting's 8-5 Mon-Fri and working my own business after hours during the week and on the weekends. Running the old store would mean working 8-8 Mon-Sat and 9-5 on Sunday, which would leave no time for my business. So, I agreed to run the old store if he would make up the difference between what he was paying me and what I was making on my own -which I thought was quite reasonable. However, he didn't see things that way. After what turned into a shouting match that I'll never forget, I quit!

Once again, I was on my own. However, I had learned a few things from both of my previous employers and I now had my own home. So, I set up a shop in my basement and started buying used player pianos to rebuild. I believe I must have made the right decision because within two years I had five people working for me and I was working 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. That lasted for about the next 5-6 years as it became increasingly obvious that I didn't possess the management skills I needed to handle the business. So, I started downsizing to something I found more manageable. Over, the next 5-6 years, I provided a living for my family and two other younger men, but the player piano business was waning, and I felt it was time for another change. By now, I was advertising in eleven different directories in the New Jersey Yellow Pages and I was spending about 60 hours a week on the road servicing pianos and player pianos.

In 1986, the last of my employees decided that player pianos were too much work, and he decided to leave. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it meant that I no longer had enough time to work on both regular pianos and player pianos. So, I focused all of my time on players and stopped working on regular pianos. That happened around 1986-87.

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This page was last revised April 1, 2013 by John A. Tuttle, who Assumes No Liability
For The Accuracy or Validity of the Statements and/or Opinions
Expressed within the Pages of the Player-Care Domain.
Cartoon Graphics by E7 Style Graphics (Eric Styles)


Since "Player-Care" is an internet business, I prefer that we correspond via E-Mail (click here to fill out the 'Request Form'). However, if I'm not in the middle of some other activity, you can reach me at 732-840-8787. But please understand that during the hours from 8AM-5PM EST (Mon-Sat), I'm generally quite busy. So, I probably won't answer the phone. If you get the answering machine, please leave a detailed message stating the reason for your call. Also, repeat your name and phone number clearly and distinctly. By necessity, I prioritize everything in my life. And, if you call and just leave your name and number, and ask me to call you back, it might be a day or two before I return your call. Why? Because I don't know why you want me to call and I might not be prepared to assist you in an effective and efficient manner. If you leave me an E-Mail address (which I prefer), spell it out phonetically. The more you do to help me, the more I can help you in return. Don't rush. You have four minutes to record your message.


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