The Journal Gazette
 
 
Tuesday, January 19, 2021 1:00 am

Finding right note with piano

Big Brother gets idea to restore with 7th grader

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

Sometimes there are projects so big that hesitation can result in paralysis by analysis.

Andy O'Shaughnessy first experienced that as a boy when he and his brother convinced their father to let them bring home a player piano to work on.

“We were going to rebuild it, but there was no YouTube back then, we had no money and we weren't mature enough,” said O'Shaughnessy, a doctor of nephrology, which deals with kidney conditions. “Now you need time, maturity, money and patience, patience, patience.”

Now at age 58, he has those qualities and tools, as well as a little help.

O'Shaughnessy is working with 13-year-old Dameon through the local Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which creates one-to-one mentoring relationships between adults and youth. Dameon asked that his last name not be used.

Dameon, a seventh grader at Northwood Middle School, and his two brothers live with their uncle. O'Shaughnessy, started as a Big Brother 34 years ago while attending med school, and Dameon is his fifth little brother. They've been together about two years.

“The first or second time we were together, he asked me a question about a windmill, and I knew this was going to work out because he's curious,” O'Shaughnessy said. “I'm a curious person, and a curious person would wonder how that piano works.”

In August, O'Shaughnessy was attending an estate sale in the Harrison Hill neighborhood on South Calhoun Street when he saw a broken down Packard Player Piano. Remembering his first attempt, O'Shaughnessy hesitated, but the next day he called back to see if the piano had been purchased. He bought it for $50.

Because the piano weighs between 800 and 1,000 pounds, it took five men to balance it into O'Shaugnessy's southwest-side garage, costing $350 to move. By the time he's finished purchasing or rebuilding replacement parts, the bill will be about $2,000.

That's OK, he said, because the piano might be worth $15,000 to $20,000 by the time the work is completed. O'Shaughnessy and Dameon have been working on it about five months and estimate they are about one-third complete.

Thanks to research and an easily readable serial number, they know the piano was built in 1907 at Fort Wayne's Packard Piano Plant, which started in 1872 as the Fort Wayne Organ Factory. The company's first piano was produced in 1893, and by 1899 the company's name was changed to The Packard Co. and eventually to The Packard Piano Co. in 1915.

According to the history section at PackardOrgan.com, at full production, the company produced between 3,000 and 4,000 pianos each year. The Great Depression killed the business, and the factory was eventually purchased by the city in 1935, torn down and became the site of Packard Park.

According to piano historian Player-Care.com operator John Tuttle of Brick, New Jersey, there were more than 2.5 million player pianos made by more than 1,050 makers from 103 player piano system manufacturers early in the 20th century.

“The instrument grew in popularity very, very rapidly,” Tuttle said. “At one time, there were literally hundreds of thousands of people who had pianos. By comparison, today, almost nobody has a piano and very few people play. There were a lot of idle pianos, and when this invention came along, it caught on really, really fast.”

According to various online sites, the inventor of the player piano was Detroit's Edwin Votey in 1895. The keys moved by pumping foot pedals and moving air through the system.

O'Shaughnessy's project piece utilized a 65-note key format, and in 1908 the 88-key system became the norm.

Dameon has never seen a player piano in person, though O'Shaughnessy has shown him some videos. O'Shaughnessy remembers going to Atz's ice cream shop on Tillman Road or to Clara's Pizza King on West State Boulevard and pumping away on their player pianos.

After some guidance from Tuttle, and help from Dameon, O'Shaughnessy is confident he'll get the piano working again, playing some of the 200 songs that came with it.

“When I remove a screw or I'm sanding something, I think about the last person who did something on this was in 1907,” O'Shaughnessy said. “I can imagine that person putting a screw in in 1907, and I'm taking it out in 2020. What were they doing back then? There probably weren't many places in Fort Wayne with electricity yet.”

They started by carefully removing some screws to see what areas they could easily gain access to, then they took a picture so they'd have an idea of how to put it back together in a few months. The parts that moved such as the pedals and leather bellows were worn out and had to be replaced.

“You could tell they had been using it a lot because I'm sure this was their entertainment,” O'Shaughnessy said.

Since it's a labor of love, he said he's not kept track of the hours he's put in, but he's not tired of it yet. Neither is Dameon.

“Because I've never done anything like this, just to learn and figure things out is exciting,” Dameon said, “especially knowing that something I've never done before is going to work even though it was built over 100 years ago.”

Earlier during their match activities, the duo watched movies, some baking, put up a ham radio antenna, tried kayaking and riding scooters downtown. Dameon introduced O'Shaughnessy to the latest “Star Wars” movies.

“I'm a mentor for me,” O'Shaughnessy said. “I'm excited about this kind of stuff. For instance, going kayaking at Promenade Park, I never would have done that on my own. I'm 58 years old, and I'm beyond that, I thought. It was something when I'd drive by and I'd think, 'I'd like to try that.' And now having somebody to do it with me forces me to say, 'When are you going to do it?'”

Such as refurbishing a player piano. It takes a little bit of courage to make the attempt.

“If you get it here and you don't finish it, then you're just tripping over it,” O'Shaughnessy said. “Getting rid of pianos is not easy because you can't just put them out by the curb. It would break my heart to have to tear it up and get rid of it.”

Instead, the goal is to eventually move it one last time to a new home, one that hopefully can be visited where others can enjoy the friends' work and someday Dameon can show his accomplishment to his children.


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