Bishop Kevin W. Vann’s love of the piano began at age 10 when he started taking lessons from his beloved aunt, Sister Mary Margaret Jones, who was a music teacher in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
In his teenage years, an affinity for player pianos (or self-playing pianos) blossomed, along with the art of rebuilding them.
Today, the leader of our Diocese of Orange has amassed a collection of nearly 3,000 player piano music rolls, which are essentially long sheets of perforated paper wound onto a spool. His vast collection includes tunes from jazz greats Fats Waller and George Gershwin; contemporary artists like Frank Sinatra and Garth Brooks; and Disney classics including Frozen and Cinderella.
The rolls are all categorized according to genre and are displayed in cases throughout his living room. They were acquired over the last 55 years, at various places like music stores, antique shops and eBay.
At the center, sits his own player piano — a 1922 Cable-Nelson — the one he bought for $50 at a neighbor’s garage sale back in 1967. He was 16 years old.
“I found this piano on sale in a parishioner’s garage in 1967 and bought it, then told my mom and dad and they had to haul it home,” said Bishop Vann.
He rebuilt it in his parents’ basement, which was no easy task. Once restored, the piano sat in his parents’ entry way. He would play it during parties, for his parents’ friends, and everyone would sing along.
“It was a conversation piece,” he said. “The home entertainment center of the time.”
The player piano—which reached its height of popularity during the late 19th to early 20th century —has traveled with him from his home state of Illinois over to Texas where he served as Bishop of Fort Worth from 2005-2012 and had it rebuilt a second time—and finally to his current home of Orange County. And with it, comes treasured memories of youth and family.
“It’s been a big part of my life,” he said.
AN 18-YEAR-OLD KEVIN VANN SHOWN RESTORING PLAYER PIANOS IN A STORY BY THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER (ILLINOIS) IN 1969. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVEN GEORGES/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
SOME KIDS HAVE PAPER ROUTES, WHILE OTHERS REBUILD PLAYER PIANOS
Bishop Vann’s great-uncle, Ed Roche, was a professional piano tuner. He would visit the Vanns during the summer months and tune relatives’ pianos while young Kevin watched, learned and was inspired. The rest, he taught himself. Working on player pianos started out as a hobby for the teen but then turned into a small business venture.
Rebuilding a player piano is not a simple feat; it requires patience, and if you didn’t have a driver’s license at the time like a young Kevin Vann, it required a supportive family member with a set of wheels. In this case, it was Kevin’s grandfather who would drive
him around town and transport people’s player piano pieces back to his parent’s basement to be rebuilt.
To understand what it takes to rebuild a player piano, one must know how one works. When you pump the piano’s foot pedals, it creates a vacuum. When the perforated music sheets pass over the tracker bar, the air rushes in and lifts the valve, which helps make the pneumatics collapse and strike a certain key.
To rebuild one, you must take it all apart, re-do the pneumatics and put it back together again.
Young Kevin Vann would charge around $150 for the three months of work it would take him to rebuild neighbors’ pianos. As an 18-year-old high school senior he was even featured in the local newspaper, The State Journal-Register.
“Many of the pianos I worked on back then, I rebuilt them for people whose pianos had belonged to their parents,” said Bishop Vann. “So, when I would play it, they would hear the same music their parents had heard, and it made them think of their moms and dads.”
These days, Bishop Vann says he plays his pianos (he has a second one in another room) a couple times a week. It not only relaxes him but brings back memories of days gone by. Guests always ask him to play as well.
“Folks really enjoy it,” he said.
Bishop Vann has been collecting music rolls since 1967. His oldest is the World War One-era Pretty Baby which he recently found at a California antique store. His inventory includes many collector’s items like Somewhere Over the Rainbow which followed the Wizard of Oz’s release in 1939. But the one that holds the most sentimental value to him is People (1967) from the Broadway music and movie starring Barbara Streisand, Funny Girl.
“I remember this one because I put it on the first piano I ever fixed and it worked,” he said.
The older, more delicate finds can leave a collector holding their breath up right until they hear the first note.
“You can open them and see if they have a lot of rips in them, but you won’t know for sure until you get home and play it,” said Bishop Vann.