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Illinois State University

Play it again: Ewing piano restored to full glory

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Toni Tucker, director of the Ewing Cultural Center, loads a music roll into the newly restored grand player piano at the former Ewing Manor in Bloomington. 

BLOOMINGTON — Listening to the newly restored player piano at Ewing Manor is like traveling back in time for Toni Tucker.

“Sitting in the room with the original rolls, … it's like having the Ewing family there with you,” said Tucker, director of the Ewing Cultural Center, which was bequeathed to the Illinois State University Foundation by Hazle Buck Ewing.

As Tucker demonstrated how the piano worked, a portrait of Hazle Ewing was on one wall of the living room. A portrait of her mother, Lillian Brewer Buck, is on the opposite wall above the fireplace mantle. It was as if they were listening once again.

“I'll admit, the first time I saw it (fully restored), I did get a little weepy,” said Tucker. “It was like going back in time.”

The piano itself was restored by David Horine about four years ago but the player part of the piano had not been used for decades, she said.

Hazle Ewing died in 1969, Tucker said, and “I'm going to guess that era is when they stopped using it as a player. It's like the clock. They stopped winding in in 1969. It stopped until we had it restored.”

Unlike the upright player pianos with which most people are familiar, the one in Ewing Manor is a 1919 Chickering baby grand piano called an Ampico Re-enacting Piano.

The Ewings bought it in 1919, said Tucker.

“It was meant to happen that it was restored on its 100th anniversary,” she said.

Although a restoration estimate had been obtained, there were many other priorities for limited available funds.

Then, one day, Bob Reardon, who lives nearby on Sunset Road, was in Ewing Manor and asked about the possibility of restoring the piano to its full function.

The Reardon Family Foundation donated the $8,000 needed for the restoration work as a tribute to Reardon's mother, Vivian Reardon.

“My mother's family was Czech. Her family owned a piano factory,” said Reardon.

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The original player piano music rolls are still located at the Ewing Cultural Center. 

“My grandfather was a professional musician. My mother was always involved in classical music,” he said. “We thought it fell in line with something my mother would have liked to support.”

The piano was gone for nearly seven months while being restored by Dan Tuttle of Automatic Instrument Restorations in Indianapolis.

Tuttle said he doesn't think in terms of time put into the restoration — “It was easily 300 hours.”

He has done about 30 restorations of this type.

“I do regular player pianos as well. They're simpler,” said Tuttle.

With a re-enacting or reproducing piano “the amount of parts is overwhelming,” he said.

He breaks each project into section, focusing on one area at a time, Tuttle said, “otherwise, you'd probably go crazy.”

To use it as a player piano, a drawer under the keyboard is pulled out and a paper roll with holes punched into it is inserted. Many of the rolls have words on them that scroll by, in case you want to sing along. Think of it as a predecessor to today's karaoke machines.

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Toni Tucker, director of the Ewing Cultural Center, plays the newly restored piano.

The music was recorded as it was played, often by top concert pianists of the day, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, also spelled Rachmaninov, Tucker explained.

Tuttle said it's called a reproducing or re-enacting piano because it “reproduces the actual performance of the person.”

Foot-pump-style player pianos play just one sound level, he said, while the reproducing pianos have extra devices that vary the volume.

“They actually recorded all the nuances to a real fine degree,” said Tuttle.

About 200 piano rolls are in the Ewing Manor collection. They have been kept in their original boxes in cabinets.

“Only a few aren't playable because the paper is torn. Most of them were pristine,” said Tucker.

There are classics featuring compositions by Bach and Beethoven, romance ballads such as “Only a Rose” and playful songs such as “Toot Toot Tootsie.” A lot of Christmas music is also in the collection, including “O Tannenbaum” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

“Ted Ewing, Hazle and Davis' oldest grandson, was here … right after it came back,” said Tucker. “He was very moved. He was hearing the same songs his grandmother played for him.”

Visitors to Ewing Manor will be able to hear them, too.

Tucker said a demonstration of the piano will be included in most of the regular Monday tours.

“It is a magnificent instrument and what a treasure to have something like this in Bloomington,” said Tucker.

Reardon said the piano is “a unique asset” and he is glad it will be able to go on entertaining people as it was intended.

Tuttle said the rewarding part of his work is “just hearing an instrument come back to life again.”


Photos: Take a photo tour through Ewing Manor ...

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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