Henning man has been bringing player pianos back to life for about 30 years
Luke Larson walked through the cluttered garage of his Henning lake home. Tools lied scattered. In-progress projects filled the tables.
And near the far wall, a 1913 Bush and Lane player piano sat polished and proud, restored to its former glory by the care of Larson’s gentle hands.
Ivory keys gleamed. Rich wood shined. Colorful stained glass offered a window into the intricate inner workings of the piano.
Larson kneeled and flipped a switch. Mechanisms hummed inside. Lights illuminated the stained glass.
Then the piano sprang to life.
Invisible fingers danced across the keys; the carefree music and rhythm transporting Larson back to an era of a time long gone by.
Passion for the piano
For roughly 30 years, Larson has dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of meticulous hours to restoring and preserving the life of vintage player pianos.
Most popular from about 1900 to 1930, player pianos, in their simplest definition, are pianos that play by themselves. A vacuum motor powers the piano with either manual foot pumps or an electric pump.
Music rolls, which are continuous rolls of paper punched with holes for each musical note, are what make the pianos play. When the roll turns, air flows through the holes and sets everything into motion to strike the strings, move the keys and create sound.
Certain player pianos, called nickelodeons, include other instruments as well, such as a snare drum, cymbals or wood block, and are operated by an electric motor.
“Back in the old days, you would put a nickel in it, and it would play a song for you,” Larson said. “That’s why they call it a nickelodeon.”
Growing up in a small Iowa town, Larson didn’t have much exposure to music until his high school years when he picked up the tuba, effectively entering the world of music and never looking back.
He went on to play in a band at Luther College in Iowa and majored in vocal performance at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
While teaching high school music, English and composition in Buffalo City, Iowa, Larson met his future bride, Lucy, whom he wed in 1957. Together, they have one son, Lee, who lives in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife, Holly.
Several years after their marriage, Larson pursued a new musical hobby and learned the piano from a technical angle by shadowing a veteran piano tuner.
Piano tuning led to a 40-year membership in the Piano Technicians Guild and opened the door to piano restoration. In the 1980s, Larson was approached by Paul Amundson of Frost, Minn., who owned the Music Museum Store in Blue Earth. At his business, Amundson restored and repaired player pianos.
“He got in a bind, so he got a hold of me to do his piano work, maybe rebuild it, restring it, get new hammers, new whatever because a lot of those old players are old, old,” Larson said.
A lost art
Larson estimates the U.S. used to have around 265 piano manufacturers, but that number has fallen to about half a dozen. That, combined with the quality of the instruments, leads Larson and his wife to consider player pianos a lost art.
“That’s one of the things about old, old pianos is they have really good ingredients,” Larson said. “The sound boards for example, the cases, materials in the actions and so forth. They’re all made out of the best wood.”
Larson learned everything from Amundson, from repairing the soundboards to restringing the piano to restoring the wood. Even after leaving Amundson’s charge, Larson continued the craft.
“I owe quite a bit to Paul,” Larson said. “He got me started on it and taught me everything I needed to know.”
Each piano Larson restores is rescued from the brink of deterioration, plucked from basements, schools and churches. Typically, a single restoration project takes a few summers.
In all, Larson has restored 11 nickelodeons, and he lost count of how many player pianos he’s revived. Of those, Larson kept a few, but he gave away the rest to friends, including Amundson, donated them to churches and even sent a few out to South Dakota to be used in tourist attractions.
Though restored player pianos are a prized item today, Larson has no qualms about giving them away. Wealth and recognition aren’t why he restores them.
“I like the results best,” he said. “It’s just like in [writing]. You’ve got a selection of words you can use in order to bring something abstract to life, and you can kind of tell in your mind when you reach that. It’s the same with the piano. It’s the satisfaction of seeing something come to life.”
Larson would like to continue restoring pianos, but as the years go by, parts and materials become more expensive and harder to find.
Fortunately, he has other hobbies to occupy his time. While spending summers in Henning away from his home in Elmore, he plays tuba in the Carlisle Band near Fergus Falls, a small ensemble of about 25 retirees, and is a member of three bands and one orchestra while wintering in Mesa, Ariz.
About 10 years ago, Larson also took up stained glass making, which he’s been able to use to his advantage in piano restoration. Though the 1913 Bush and Lane currently in his garage didn’t get a stained-glass feature, as an ornate wood design adorns the front, and Larson couldn’t bear to ruin it.
The Bush and Lane only needs a new motor before it’s finished, and then it will go to its new home at a historic Catholic church in Henning, which, like the piano, is being restored.
This piano is also Larson’s final restoration project.
“That’s the last one,” he said confidently.
“Famous last words,” his wife said with a chuckle.
Even if Larson’s days of piano restoration are indeed reaching their end, the music of those that he brought to life will continue to play on long into the future, keeping the legacy of the player piano alive.