by Harvey N. Roehl
This was originally written by Harvey Roehl for the March, 2000, Player Piano Group bulletin, Julian Dyer, Bulletin Editor. It is reproduced here by permission of the Player Piano Group and Marion Roehl. Copyright © 2000 by Marion Roehl / Player Piano Group.
For anyone new to the field of antique automatic musical instruments, Harvey Roehl was the first U.S. mechanical music collector to couple a deep and abiding enthusiasm for both the historical and mechanical aspects of mechanical music machines, and then turn that arcane knowledge into a successful business in the form of a small, but prolific, specialized publishing company that was to become known worldwide as The Vestal Press. Harvey's indomitably bright wit, his carefully honed skills and business acumen were just the perfect combination and catalyst to bring into creation a wondrous selection of information and picture packed books and reprinted original advertising literature that dazzled even the most jaded collector. This printed bonanza of fresh material enabled, for the first time, a wild assortment of automatic musical buffs and collectors to fully realize and understand the breadth and potential scope of the emerging hobby, revealing to everyone the fascinating treasure trove of nearly forgotten mechanical music devices that once flourished, and that now awaited discovery and restoration by dedicated enthusiasts.
It is probably no understatement to say that the Vestal Press was a major force in turning what had been an obscure hobby into one that thousands of people around the world could suddenly read about and enjoy, even if they had not yet personally seen or owned some kind of music box, player piano, coin-in-the-slot piano, orchestrion, band organ, or other ingenious mechanical music device. Without Harvey, and his equally persistent and dedicated wife, Marion, who was a true companion with Harvey in his mechanical music pursuits, the extent and role that mechanical music machines played in our history would probably still be relatively unknown and hidden from most people's reach.
There is a lot that could be said about Harvey Roehl's accomplishments, perhaps in another time and place, because this space is dedicated to the Vestal Press story in Harvey's own words. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning here that Harvey graduated from Cornell University and later served as an administrative dean at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York, from 1952 to 1973. He was also a World War II veteran, who retired with the rank of major from the U.S. Air Force Reserves. In addition to his extensive activities with the Vestal Press, he was a long time active member and past president of the Musical Box Society International, as well as an active member of the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association. To his great credit, Harvey found long lasting mechanical music friendships everywhere he went, an honor he deservedly earned. Regrettably, however, on Wednesday morning, June 21, 2000, Harvey Roehl passed away, after succumbing to liver cancer. It was a sad day for his friends and all fans of mechanical music.
I saw my first player piano at the age of 10, and have been 'hooked' ever since, but my father would never entertain the idea of me ever having one in the house. After all, he and mother, 25 years previously, had purchased the finest 'straight' piano they thought they could afford when they set up housekeeping in 1910. Aside from their home, it was the only thing they ever bought on 'time payments.' It was a wonderful Ivers and Pond upright for their future sons and daughters to learn upon, of course. No nonsense about any mechanical piano!
It wasn’t until I returned in 1946 from World War II service that I was able to drag an old Schultz player into the basement; maybe Dad didn’t like it but at least he didn’t object at this stage in my life. After marriage and setting up housekeeping with Marion I began to get interested in learning more of what these machines were all about, so I set about searching for old advertisements and anything else I could get my hands on, mainly as a matter of curiosity. We visited anyone and everyone within reach who had player piano(s) and learned from them all we could. One of these trips was to visit a total stranger in a town about 150 miles away. As we walked down the corridor toward Mr. Dick Shattuck’s apartment, we heard a wonderful keyboard rendition of Way Down Yonder in New Orleans coming from behind his doors. I said to Marion "I don’t know what that is, but whatever it is I have to have one!" It turned out to be the first reproducing piano I’d ever heard, a Steck Duo-Art.
We had a delightful time learning all kinds of new-to-us material, and much of it came from a young college student who came to Dick’s place to keep his various pianos in working order, since Dick had no mechanical ability whatever. It was as this visit that we met Larry Givens. He told us that he had a collection of automatic instruments that he’d be glad to show us any time we could get to Pittsburgh (an all-day drive).
We made it our business to do this as soon as we could, and we were well rewarded. Larry’s collection of reproducing pianos, coin operated pianos, orchestrions, and all sorts of neat stuff triggered a desire to build a collection of our own, which we proceeded to do forthwith. From the visit to Dick’s place we learned of Clark’s Trading Post in New Hampshire where we understood some machines were displayed. We had a small airplane at the time, so we flew there as soon as we could and landed right in their back yard, where a State emergency strip existed. We’ve been friends of all the Clarks ever since, and through the years have shared lots of knowledge about music machines. Today it’s one of the few places left in Americas where the general public can still visit and play coin-operated music machines in addition to hearing lots of others.
As a result of finding a hoard of 45 electric pianos, all in junk condition in Providence, Rhode Island in 1957, we soon met a man named Paul Eakins who lived in southeastern Missouri. We flew our little 75-horsepower airplane to Paul’s place (which is about 40% of the way across the United States from Vestal), and our cocker spaniel 'Fang' was with us. Fang loved to fly. Paul and Laura came to meet us at the airfield, and on the ground it was HOT! Sweltering might be a better adjective! Their car was a new air-conditioned Lincoln, and it was a joy to get into that nice cool vehicle. Air conditioning in cars was brand-new at the time, and we swore right then and there we’d never buy another car without it.
They took us to their beautiful new home, and Fang promptly had an 'accident' on the beautiful white shag wall-to-wall carpeting, right there in the middle of their living room. Talk about embarrassing moments! Fortunately they both liked dogs and made a big joke of it. But back to pianos: Paul and Laura had built an extensive collection which was eventually moved to St. Louis, Missouri, but not before they had issued many LP records. Paul had a great flair for publicity, and thousands and thousands of these recordings were sold all over the land -- thus increasing interest in the topic of music machines.
There were visits to many others, too. Not only did we learn a lot, but we were exposed to wonderful sources of printed material -- posters, catalogs, service manuals, and the like -- many of which eventually were reprinted through our efforts.
Amongst the big 'hoard' of 45 coin-operated electric pianos (all junk) that we found in Providence, Rhode Island in 1957, was a stack of magazines from the ’teens -- most were The Music Trade Indicator or The Music Trade Review, both circulated only to the piano trades. They were a wonderful source of 'inside' information about what was going on in the industry at the time, as well as tons of ads. Much of this material found its way into our books and publications.
New York City was a 5-hour drive from Vestal at the time, and we seldom went there. But I knew that the New York Public Library had complete files of these trade journals, so I 'conned' the director of the Music Department into letting me go through many of them, right in his office, as fast as I could take pictures with a little photo arrangement I’d brought with me. I went through hundreds of pages in three days; enough to give me enough 'sorting material' for months. Either the magazines or micro filmed copies of them are now filed at the International Piano Library at the University of Maryland. About this time we got acquainted with a man and wife in a neighboring community who were antique buffs and who had produced a number of books about antiques. Perhaps the fact that my father had written a number of books on his line of work had an effect on me to the extent that I decided to put together what little I knew about player pianos into some sort of little tome which, taken together with the fact that our friend said he’d publish it, made me produce a manuscript of sorts. Well, the resulting work was terrible and I hope that readers have never seen it!
Only then did I realize that while many of this man’s early works were commendable, after he had suffered a head injury in an accident his works were bad, bad, bad. But this set us to thinking that if such poor material could be sold profitably, maybe a halfway decent book could do well. We set about on a serious basis to gather material, and eventually had enough for something resembling a real book.
I knew we’d have to be our own publisher, but at this stage knew nothing about how to put a book together. And nothing about the book business, either. A friend put us on to a man named Floyd Freeman, one of the officials of the Johnson City Publishing Company -- a captive printing house of the big Endicott-Johnson Corporation, which at one time employed 20,000 shoemakers in the community. Floyd turned out to be not only helpful, but we got to be good friends as well. He was quite a musician and he took a big interest in what we were up to. He led me by the hand through the steps necessary to put a manuscript and pictures into book form, and the result was Player Piano Treasury in 1961. We had to dream up a name for our new little publishing house, and we made it from two sources: one from the fact that we lived in Vestal, and the other 'lifted' from a book by Frank Rowsome titled Trolley Car Treasury -- a nifty picture book dealing with another area of interest to me, the steel rail and the machines that run upon them.
Thus, The Vestal Press was born with Player Piano Treasury, in 1961. By this time we had built a small collection which included, as a choice piece, a Seeburg 'G' orchestrion. Everything was jammed into our small house and basement.
Much to our surprise, there were a lot of people 'out there' just waiting for such a book, and our efforts to sell it were very rewarding. This was a sideline venture, of course, because I had a full-time job at the school which eventually became Broome Community College. The nature of academic life is such that free time was generous, so that I could devote many hours to work at promoting the book, (primarily through the mail with little advertisements in a few antique-oriented magazines); Marion took care of filling and shipping orders. Vacation periods were generous, and I had four weeks off during each summer. All of this made it possible to make more trips here and there to gather more material and meet folks who had similar interests and many of whom had machines to show us.
A lady named Marguerite Fabel called after seeing the book and told me about a group called the Music Box Society and wouldn’t we like to come to their next meeting? We did so and have been active members ever since. And we sold lots of books to members over the years. When AMICA came into being we tied in with them, too.
It wasn’t long before it became obvious that no book existed which covered how to rebuild an old player piano. While by this time I had gained a lot of knowledge, it wasn’t enough to enable me to write on restoration matters, so I took it up with Larry Givens. He could write very well and knew the subject, so we made an agreement and were soon off and running. There were some problems, however. The manuscript he gave me was hardly more than what would make an 'oversized pamphlet,' and we wanted to make a hard-bound book. Larry insisted that what he had written was all that was needed, and that was that! I took the matter up with my printer and publisher friend Floyd Freeman, and we decided to do the following: (a) We would use the heaviest coarse paper we could get, (b) we would make the margins as large as dared, and (3) we would use the largest type size possible without resorting to 'Juvenile.' With this strategy and a few other tricks we could make it into a 'book' book. The coarse paper would of course not accept photographs, so from the photographs we had developed of the mechanisms, I literally traced over them onto tracing paper to make 'line drawings.' Two or three required many circles (the pouch board, for example) and I engaged a professional artist to make these because I couldn’t draw or trace that well. The book did have one photograph as a frontispiece, and it was printed on gloss stock and then 'tipped in' the book’s binding.
On page 3 there’s a decent drawing of the basic mechanism of what makes a player work; this was a freehand sketch I made on the back of an envelope during a dull lecture someone had dragged me to attend.
Larry decided the best title would be, simply, Rebuilding the Player Piano! And would you believe that eventually 48,000 copies were sold? Even though a very basic book, it helped owners bring back to life many a player that otherwise would never again had played a single note. One of our favorite stories comes a few years later. We were traveling in Australia and met quite a few hobbyists and technicians. One of these chaps whose name escapes me at the moment went out of his way to thank us for making the book available. Seems that he was disabled in some manner and in difficult straits, and it was very satisfying to hear from him that with Larry’s book he had learned enough to rebuild actions and bring in a fair income!
One afternoon my desk phone rang at my college office, and the man introduced himself as David Bowers. He said he heard that we had some music machines. I said "yes, we do." "Could he come and see them?" I indicated we’d be happy to show what we had; his response was "is this evening all right?" I said that we’d be home. "7 o’clock all right?" I said yes, so he and his wife were there promptly at 7. It was our introduction to a man who doesn’t waste much time! We spent a pleasant evening talking about a few machines that he had (I think a Violano was among them, together with a few small music boxes) and what we had. I put a coin in the slot of the Seeburg G, and he seemed quite interested in it and said "I wouldn’t mind owning one of these." (I believe it was the first orchestrion he’d ever heard; the tune Japansy especially caught his interest).
I thought nothing of it, for folks say things like that all the time. The next day I was at the noon luncheon of my Kiwanis service club and a fellow member named Dave Greacen came to me and said, "I understand you met my friend Dave Bowers last evening." I said that we had, and that we’d spent a nice evening with him and his wife . . . to which he replied "You watch out for that man! When he gets interested in something he won’t stop until he’s learned everything that’s available on the subject, read every book about whatever it is, and if there is no book he’ll write it and he won’t stop until he’s the World’s authority on the subject!" (Check the Encyclopedia, p. 8, for a description of our meeting.)
I didn’t know exactly what to make of Greacen’s remark, but what he told me would happen is exactly what did happen. (Dave proceeded promptly to contact every expert he could find, visited as many as he could all over America and in Europe and the UK, moved to a large house that could hold the many machines he started to acquire (and had at least two additions added to the house soon after) and started writing books on the subject -- one after the other! The crowning glory of all this, in 1971, was (and is) his 1008-page Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, which we published, and which every collector and enthusiast soon purchased from us. Some nice icing on the cake was the American Library Association’s 1972 designation of this remarkable tome as "One of the Outstanding Reference Books of the Year." This brought in many library sales, an important part of any publisher’s market.
But back to 1961. After meeting Dave we took a number of trips together, always to locate instruments and dig up more information from various aficionados. I learned from him a great deal of useful information about sales and promotion matters, learned by him through his own several very successful business ventures.
Our little business, The Vestal Press, grew steadily as we added reprints from early catalog material, service manuals, and both books and booklets to the line. Our most successful sales promotion idea was the Vestal Press House Organ, usually of 16 pages, which was about half promotional material and half chit-chat, stories, and photographs we gathered on our visits to various hot-spots for mechanical music not only here in the USA but the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. We sent it to our entire customer list, which we kept very 'clean' by dropping anyone who had not purchased something from us since the issue two times previous. I guess it was 'junk-mail' to some, but today a complete set is rare, and most issues can be considered 'collectibles.' At the risk of sounding a bit self-serving, I enjoy going back through and reading some of the stuff we put together over those years! (To complete our own file, after the demise of the business we had to buy some issues for a fat price from a flea-market dealer!)
While we carried on publishing and reprinting books on music boxes, band organs, and just about anything else that came along relating to mechanical music, my first love was always the player piano. I wanted to learn more about servicing and rebuilding pianos, so joined the local Piano Technician’s Guild and eventually became a Registered Craftsman Member -- actually no small accomplishment since the Guild jealously guards the reputation of this designation. I can still take a piano completely apart and put it back together again, down to the smallest detail.
Something that 'bugged' me was the fact that you could go to your local bookstore and get books on how to fix your automobile or television set or build a house or do any number of such technical things...yet no book existed on how to service pianos that was written in simple English and available to the public. Existing books at the time were only those written by technicians for other technicians and they were full of trade jargon. One pet statement in one of these books was the first sentence in a chapter on 'regulation.' It stated that "the first step in regulating the action is to lay the touch" -- whatever in Heaven’s name that means!
The 1st Edition (top) was released in 1976, and was the first book ever published on piano servicing and tuning to contain hundreds of illustrations, in addition to a comprehensive text. The 2nd Edition (middle) was published in 1993 and expanded from 178 to 327 pages. The latest printing of the Second Edition (bottom) was introduced in 2003.
I was not qualified to assemble a good book on the subject, so took it up with Arthur Reblitz. He is a fine musician, technician, and restorer, but had never written a book -- so I worked with him through the process over quite a few months via mail and telephone as he developed his manuscript and prepared photographs and drawings. When all was in order, we hopped in our motor home and drove to Colorado (two-thirds of the way across the USA) to work with him in preparing the final layout. We spent a week working on the table in the coach, parked in his driveway, getting the job done. When the book was almost ready for printing, I wrote to John Steinway, President of the piano company, asking if he would review what we had done. He agreed to do so, and when it was ready to return, we drove to New York city and visited him at the factory. He gave us a nice letter which was practically an 'endorsement' and a copy of this is in each of the thousands of copies that have been sold to date. Naturally we squeezed every drop of publicity benefit we could from this nice word from the head of the firm which was and is considered by most Americans to be our most prestigious piano builder.
And naturally it pleased us when the book -- Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding -- became an instant success. The 2nd edition, published in 1993, carries on this tradition and I’m quite proud of the fact that Art’s book is pretty much considered the 'standard' book in the profession, in addition to being the book that’s widely sold to the general public. [Americans: check your local Barnes and Noble]
It fulfills my belief that anyone handy with tools can indeed learn to do piano work. Surely one cannot become a top technician merely by reading the book and rebuilding a couple of pianos, but the basics are there in plain English -- and he or she who goes at the subject diligently can in time become adept at it. Of course tuning takes a long time and lots of practice to master.
For our British friends I must tell about the QE2. In 1998 we traveled from Southampton to New York on this beautiful ship, living in the lap of luxury for six days. Aboard are several pianos in lounges, on stage, and in bars. One morning I noticed a technician working on one of these, a big grand, doing a major repair job. In conversation I asked him how he learned the trade. He said he read the Reblitz book three times cover-to-cover before deciding to learn what had to be done to become a technician! We’d like to think that there are many who owe their start to this fine work. But back to The Vestal Press. The name was starting to 'get around' and people started sending us both manuscripts and old material that might be good for reprinting. We reprinted just about anything that we thought would sell at least 100 copies. Some of these were very highly specialized, with limited market potential, but of subjects we thought were important to the mechanical music hobby. We had some of the technical items reprinted to a common format and marketed them as The Vestal Press Technical Series -- the idea being that maybe folks would buy one of everything to fill the nice 3-ring binder we also sold, just to have the complete set. Since book publication from manuscripts requires a lot of capital, which we had to borrow from the bank, we were pretty careful about these. But in time some real dandies showed up, and not always piano-related. Fritz Gellermans’s The American Reed Organ is a good example -- it filled a big need, as did others in that field.
No business can ever stand still -- one either moves forward or falls behind, so we were constantly on the lookout for products we thought we could sell through the mail. 'Gadget' oriented folks were our market, and we added publications not only of our own making but purchased from others, too. We handled a lot of automobile books and railroad books as well. And we sold QRS piano rolls, too, and many, many LP records that came from a variety of sources. Many of these were Theatre Pipe Organ presentations, in addition to Carousel Organ, Reproducing Piano, Orchestrion, and all types of mechanical music material.
After 21 years at the Community College where I had a very fine position, a decision had to be made to stay on or work at The Vestal Press full time. I chose to leave the school and further develop the book business. We had more business than we could handle out of our house, and we used commercial warehouse space to stock cartons of books that were delivered by printers. We found inexpensive space in the back corner of a nearby factory building, moved in, and stayed there the rest of the time the business was in Vestal. Any small undercapitalized business has to make certain that all pennies are used productively and we certainly had no 'high falutin' executives. We had to have help, but at this stage could not afford anyone full time. We managed this by offering part time work to ladies and a few men who were mostly neighbors, folks who wanted something to do but didn’t want a full-time job. Our arrangement was that on their work day they reported at 9 am when we got the morning mail, and they would work until all the mail was processed and telephone orders were handled, and then go home. It worked out very well, and kept our payroll expenses in direct proportion to the business volume.
Lloyd Hartman, a neighbor, had been Chairman of the Liberal Arts Department at the College where I had worked, and on retirement said he wanted to work for us. I said "Lloyd, I have nothing to offer you in the way of editorial tasks or anything that which would be in keeping with your background," to which he replied "I just want to pack books and be a shipping clerk; a job that I can forget when I walk out the door!" So that’s just what he did for us for several years.
This was a nice little business, and we had the satisfaction of knowing that we made information available to enthusiasts that in turn enabled them to 'bring back to life' many automatic music machines that otherwise would have hit the dust bin. But the most satisfaction came from gaining many, many friends literally all over the Western World -- many with whom we still maintain contact today.
In 1988 we decided to turn The Vestal Press over to different management. This colossal error in judgment turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Epilogue: By 1997 it was no longer a viable business, and what assets remained were sold to the National Book Network, located in Lanham, Maryland, with offices in New York City and Oxford, England. NBN has several hundred employees and a full-time sales force. The company has taken over a number of small specialty houses and they market the major books they acquire to the mainstream book trade. All the little 'odds and ends' of interesting things we used to do don’t fit their picture -- but some major works such as the Bowers’ Encyclopedia; Gellerman’s American Reed Organ and Harmonium and his International Reed Organ Atlas; Reblitz’ Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding and Player Piano Servicing and Rebuilding are very much available as are several lesser titles.
The Vestal Press was a lot of fun while it lasted!
Information provided courtesy of Marion Roehl and Player Piano Group. Introduction by Terry Hathaway.
Courtesy of Marion Roehl, Player Piano Group and Art Reblitz.