Nate Otto repairs player pianos in the workshop of his Anoka home. He cleaned front rail pins on a piano he is fixing up to replace his own. (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Alex Kormann
Photo: Alex Kormann

Remember player pianos? One millennial is keeping them alive

The first thing you notice at Nate Otto’s Minnesota house is the hearse in the driveway, a 1967 Olds 98 with tattered curtains and a rusted body. Inside is a small, 100-year-old reed organ built for a church. It holds a 1970s-era device: a row of mechanical fingers controlled by signals recorded on a cassette tape deck.

When Otto turns on the hearse’s cassette deck and pumps air through the organ, the instrument groans to life, the keys moving on their own in a ghostly performance of a song not quite right for church or hearse: Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag.”

It’s just a hint of what’s in Otto’s yard, house and garage: self-playing, old-style musical robots called player pianos. Some sound and look as good as they did a century ago. Some are awaiting repair. Some are being sacrificed for their parts.

Otto, a baby-faced 29-year-old, has decided that it’s his job to bring player pianos back to life.

“I feel obligated to keep these things going,” he said. “I’m the only one doing it.”

As the owner and sole employee of Rum River Restoration (rumriver restoration.com), Otto believes he’s the only full-time player piano restorer in the state. He specializes in Jazz Age relics that once were ubiquitous in America, but now are largely forgotten — except by collectors and the rare appreciators of nostalgia, music and mechanical ingenuity.

Otto is a millennial who believes in doing things the old-fashioned way, a purist who strives to make player piano restorations as authentic as possible.

He doesn’t use Phillips head screws to fix century-old vintage instruments because the screws weren’t invented until the 1930s. Faulty pneumatic lines in player pianos could be replaced with modern auto radiator hose, but Otto prefers to use period-correct, twill-wrapped hose even though it costs $20 a foot.

“I’m trying to avoid digital things as much as possible,” said Otto, who doesn’t own a television. “I tend to have an affinity for things that aren’t practical.”

Otto views the player pianos that he fixes as kinetic art pieces, steampunk mechanical wonders that use air pressure to move clockwork gears, crankshafts, pushrods, levers and strikers, all controlled by a scrolling roll of perforated paper.

“Although you’re staring at holes in paper, there’s something addictive just watching it,” Otto said.

Typical player pianos are interactive, allowing users to manipulate control levers and foot pedals to help interpret the music, controlling the tempo and dynamics of a song. Some pianos have what users call a “honky tonk” lever, which gives the song a rinky-tink quality.

“They say the piano roll just remembers the notes. The rest is up to you,” Otto said.

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