OCEAN PARK - "It's just like having Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, Arthur Rubinstein ... sitting in our living room playing our lovely Mason and Hamlin grand piano."
This revelation was made by Ocean Park resident Cindy Flood upon taking possession of her parents' 1927 Mason and Hamlin Ampico reproducing grand piano recently. The instrument was purchased by her parents, Gene and Moselle McClung, in 1959 while living in California. It was bought for Cindy and her sister Sharon to learn and play on. They had always known it to be player piano, or so they thought. It never really worked properly anyway.
Now Flood's daughter Brooke is learning to play, which led to bringing the piano to the Flood residence. Once getting the piano up here they realized that it was a reproducing piano, a very rare instrument that was made in limited numbers and designed to play - much like a player piano, but with feeling and expression. This also led to the realization that the reproducing mechanism needed to be repaired.
Flood started doing research on the Internet, and found that it was very hard to find someone to work on them anymore with any expertise - they haven't been made since the early 1930s. She found the names of 120 technicians nationwide, mostly specializing in restoring player pianos. However, there was a name that caught her eye, that of a McClung from Virginia. McClung had been Cindy's maiden name, which encouraged her to call Tom McClung, who to her surprise could not only fix her piano but also fill a gap in her family tree.
"I don't know how many conversations it took us, but we found out that we are related," said Flood. "We have a common ancestor who came over from Ireland in 1742. Tom had the same McClung family genealogy book my dad had. When I told him what I had - a Mason and Hamlin piano, and the kind of player it had - a late A Ampico, he was really excited about it because it's top of the line. One of the best ever made and there were very, very few of them ever made. He told me he would work on it in a wheelchair if he had to. He was just really excited."
"Well, the more we talked, the more I could see from what I had studied of McClung history that there was a good chance," said McClung of finding this lost relative. "It just went from there. We had several conversations on the phone. We had probably six or eight before we finally made that conclusion.
"When I heard what she had, as far as the piano is concerned, I've done Ampico pianos for going on 30 years, player pianos for over 40 years, but I'd never done a Mason and Hamlin. That's the top of the line. It's the only piano that holds its resale value better than Steinway."
At first McClung had thought about coming out here to build and restore all the parts, but felt he needed it on his work bench where he has repaired others.
So to know exactly what he was dealing with before shipping the parts back to him in Virginia, McClung had Flood videotape the piano in detail, telling her where to hold the camera so as to see if all the pieces were there - they were.
"I had a phone head-set on under the piano," said Flood. It took about four hours to explain to us how to take all the parts out."
The concept of the reproducing piano was invented around the turn of the last century in Germany, at the close of the romantic era in piano music, when there were hundreds of great artists playing. However, people who were attending music colleges never got as chance to hear them play in person. The reproducer was designed to capture that sound and play it back on the piano as if they were there themselves.
The way this was accomplished was this: A special piano would be set up on a concert stage, and famous artists would be paid to come in and perform concerts. The piano would be hooked up with electronic contacts under each key and wires would send that information to another room where it would be recorded on paper. As the artist played the concert, no matter how fast or slow, not only with his fingers but his feet, it would record which note he pushed and how hard he pushed the key or pedal. The music was transcribed using special calipers to decipher the artist's every touch.
Pianos were then built to play these rolls. They were constructed with a mechanism on the underside that would correspond with holes in the paper rolls, to play with the same feeling and expression as the artist had used when he was sitting on the bench in front of the instrument. This was around the same time the phonograph was coming into its own. However, the quality of sound that an early record player produced was not very good.
"I was really motivated," said Flood. "Because I know my daughter Brooke has a lot of talent. And when I heard what it [reproducers] could do for a child if they grow up hearing that, I thought, 'Yeah, we want to get this restored.'"
McClung restored the reproducing mechanism in his shop in a few months and flew it back out ahead of time, followed by he and his wife who came out and put it back together. "And the net result is - what you have." said McClung.
And what they do have is one of the finest and most unique instruments ever built.
"Absolutely a luxury item." said McClung of the pianos that are now more rare than Strataverious violins. Mason and Hamlin only produced a few hundred of the reproducers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. "The Depression stopped these things," said McClung of their decline. "If you look at history, the country was in such bad shape, economy-wise, that artistry in pianos was not what they were thinking about - they were thinking more about eating."
There are only about a dozen of the Mason and Hamlin reproducers left around the world that are totally restored and play like the one owned by Flood. This makes them worth an estimated $40,000 to $50,000.
"It's interesting," said McClung. "My cousin, who I found was my cousin [Cindy's father] that bought the piano, he paid, in the late 50s, he paid about a fourth of the price that it cost in 1927 [when it was built]. About $4,000 to $6,000 used."
"This is like a second discovery," said McClung of finding this family. He also tells of the interest in this unusual piano, "In the 60s and 70s they [piano collectors] discovered, 'Well, those are something.' And in California there was a resurgence of taking reproducing pianos and rebuilding them. And now, unfortunately, time has gone by that a lot of them the mechanisms have gone out. There's another sad commentary too, the people who could afford to buy them - could afford to throw them away."