"You've got the snare drum, triangle, cymbal, woodblock, tom-toms, bass drum, organ, mandolin and piano," says Rick Schaeffer, pointing to his highly syncopated orchestra; unfortunately, it can't take a bow because it's fully automated, the ultimate player piano. The instrument sits proudly in the Silver Spring branch of the Schaeffer Piano Co., a firm started in 1901 by Schaeffer's father and currently being passed down to a third generation through his sons. As a youth, says Schaeffer, "to play football, I had to fix part of a piano." He made his own sons work two years on a truck moving pianos before they could work inside. "I had to tell 'em to grunt and groan going up the stairs so they could get bigger tips."
Schaeffer's automated orchestra was "pieced together, with everybody pitching in," from a number of other player and regular pianos. It took three years to build ("couldn't stick to it steady, had to eat, too") and is valued at $25,000. It's kin to the now extinct orchestrions and reproducing pianos popular from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, before the advent of movies, radio and, of course television. The automated instruments, some of which featured violins and banjos and were as big as a bus, were the original home entertainment centers around which families would gather to sing and dance. On the Schaeffer creation, piano rolls activate all the instruments, which recreate a full band sound ranging from marching bands to honky-tonk exuberance.