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Alan Bates 12-20-2006 09:01 AM

Pianos on Steamboats
When I went to the Belle of Louisville as mate, I resolved that the piano would be well-maintained. This was no easy job, for piano men are a suspicious lot who find rotten pianos everywhere they go. Some carry tuning forks and wrenches, with which they tune up the middle third of the range (where they played the most). Immediately upon walking into a night club or church or steamboat their first move was to play an arpeggio, then grab their tools and go to work on that middle third.
So the boat got an old, but good, upright piano (I do not remember the brand). I called in a Louisville piano mechanic and tuner and placed him on a monthly retainer. The piano had sliding doors in the front so I removed them and installed a heavy steel mesh panel to keep the piano men out of the works. Then I got some number 14 wood screws four inches long and screwed down the lid.
The first piano man who came aboard didn't start with the arpeggio. He grabbed the lid and tried to raise it. We heard the grunt throughout the boat. I went up and told the guy the piano was o.k. and to put away his forks. He sat down, played a handful of notes and grinned. For three years that piano stayed in good shape, probably the only one to do so in the entire history of steamboating. The only one to notice, other than visiting pianists, was C. W. Stoll.

Jazzou Jones 12-20-2006 12:22 PM

I hope we can add the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen pianos to the list of well-maintained steamboat instruments. In 1976, in the days when my piano playing had not yet expanded to steamboats (but did include night clubs and churches), my day job was as a staff piano tuner/technician with Wurlitzer/Steinway of Cincinnati. One day a special order arrived from Steinway and I uncrated and prepared a brand new Model M that I was told would be delivered to this brand new riverboat down in Louisville, the Mississippi Queen.

Two years later I would be tickling those ivories in the Grand Saloon. Part of my contract with DQSC has always included maintaining the pianos onboard whatever vessel I was performing, and in the times I didn’t actually work onboard, I continued as port piano technician whenever one of the steamers called at Cincinnati.

The DQSC Entertainment department has always been conscientious about maintaining their pianos in tiptop shape, and as policy, the pianos are tuned every week to ten days. This maintains the instruments at concert pitch and ensures the actions are kept in proper adjustment and regulation. With incredible amounts of playing, along with the constant fluctuation of air temperature and humidity levels, the pianos require at least this amount of attention to keep them always at peak performance readiness.

In 1979, Bob Waring, then Director of Hotel Operations for Delta Queen, allowed me to load my own upright piano onto the Mississippi Queen in Cincinnati. It was a wonderful old Baldwin studio upright from the 1950’s that I had bought at auction from the Cincinnati Public Schools and restored and refinished. It had just the right look for the Paddlewheel Lounge, and we moved the little Kimball spinet down to the movie theater (where, upon a couple of occasions I played it in accompaniment to silent movies).

My Baldwin upright served well in its tenure in the Paddlewheel Lounge, and one who really enjoyed playing it was Captain Gabe Chengery. During that time, Captain Gabe became engaged to the lovely and divine Miss Cindy Unrein, chanteuse extraordinaire, who had begun as an Entertainer on the Mississippi Queen about the same time I did. Their riverboat romance in part grew around that old piano as Captain Gabe would accompany Cindy’s singing upon occasion. So, as our wedding gift to the Chengery’s, ***** and I gave them the Baldwin, and Gabe made arrangements one day to offload the piano in Natchez and we transported it to their new home in the back of a pickup truck. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to entertain, I rode in the back of the pickup with the piano and played “Tailgate Ramble” as we drove through Natchez.

The Chengery’s still have the old Baldwin, now in their home in Colorado and their three children grew up taking lessons on a wonderful old steamboat piano that had provided joyful music for many a traveler on the western rivers.

And that 1976 Steinway from the Mississippi Queen? It is now in the Orleans Room on the Delta Queen, having followed me around my whole steamboating career!

Jazzou Jones 12-20-2006 12:29 PM

I don't know how those asterisks appeared in place of *****'s name, but it was supposed to say that ***** and I gave the piano to the Chengery's (not me and some mystery person!)

Jazzou Jones 12-20-2006 12:30 PM

It still has those asterisks....but it should say my wife's name D - I - A - N - E

Jazzou Jones 12-20-2006 12:31 PM

There :-) Wonder why her name came up as asterisks?

R. Dale Flick 12-20-2006 03:45 PM

Dear alan, Jazzou & gang:
I don't know a thing about tuning pianos but find the threads on pipe ograns and pianos fascinating and it's not off the subject. I, too, am always amazed at the river personalities past and present who are/were fine musicians. Capt. Tom Greene, 'Aunt' Telia Hughes [Did Capt. Jesse also play?], Capt. Mary B. Greene, E.J. Quinby, Doc Hawley, Gabe, Travis, Keith...on and on. Me? I play the linoleum with my shoe. Judy's posting about the organ on the DELTA QUEEN is a goodie. Another friend of the Simontons was early film star Harold Lloyd and he always made a hit when aboard the boat. 'Talent night' on the boat was always a crap shoot. There were times when some quiet gentleman or lady would sit down and pound out great classics to awe the audience. Others sang in fine operatic voice or pulled out a violin they'd brought aboard. Those were memorable moments.

Lexie inquired about boats with pipe organs. I doubt any on our rivers had one other than a foot pump organ. Old pictures show some fine pianos in cabins and 'Chickering' was one often mentioned. I vaguely recall years back seeing an old B/W photo taken in one of the very ornate period Atlantic steamships. There was a pipe organ mounted up high in one of the main lounges with lots of carved wood, angels, potted palms etc. I doubt they were very practical at sea in addition to taking up a lot of space. On any boat or ship space is a precious commodity. I'll keep digging for that old photo. The GREAT EASTERN 'may' have had one but I can't nail down the fact here.

R. Dale Flick

Alan Bates 12-20-2006 03:56 PM

I stand corrected, Jazzou. The DQSB pianos were exceptional. Having an in-house repairman (you) made the big difference.
During my time working in dance bands I probably moved more pianos than Puritan Truck Line. And some were so awful that we would tune up to each other, ignoring the poor beasts. There is a long-standing tale about a night club owner who proudly told the band that the piano had been fixed up. They didn't tune it. They had just painted it blue!
Tuning the middle of the range was no joke. The piano man had to stay in there, like a calliope perfesser. And, of course, nothing could be done about the action with stuck keys, missing hammers, etc.
Today piano men carry a case, just like the other sidemen, containing an electronic keyboard machine.

R. Dale Flick 12-20-2006 04:58 PM

Dear Alan & Jazzou:
Okay, I've seen lots of pianos being tuned over the years. One of this family has a terrific Steinway grand in their home. The piano man came one day and set up an electronic device like a box he plugged in with dials and an amber glow shining. I got out of his way and didn't know what was going on in the other room. Does such a device 'sound' a pure tone that he matches with his tuning tools etc?

Question: Do tones and pitch vary with orchestras and instruments here and in Europe? There's a term for it and I'm pulling at straws now to remember. Something about 'vibrations?--something like 440.' You can see I'm still in the paint brush and lawn mower stage of development. I do sing anthems and hymns at church. I'm totally lost about 'voicing' a pipe organ but willing to learn.

Cheers and thanks,
R. Dale Flick

Paul Penta 12-20-2006 05:00 PM

[QUOTE=Jazzou Jones;2900]I don't know how those asterisks appeared in place of *****'s name, but it was supposed to say that ***** and I gave the piano to the Chengery's (not me and some mystery person!)[/QUOTE]

Hi Jazzou,

Having finally met ***** yesterday, I can vouch for the fact that she is truly a star, so maybe that's where the ******'s come in!

The pianos on the MQ are both "real" pianos, as you know. One of my partners in the Paddlewheel, our mutual young friend Drew, plays in what can be called an "enthusiastic" style. How many strings did he break when he was on the DQ with you? :O)

When I left the AQ in 2004, the lounges had electronic keyboards, I think. But the piano in the Grand Saloon was real. And, one of the best kept secrets on the AQ is the upright in the Mark Twain Gallery.

I should point out that Bob Schad, Bob Stevens, Mike Gentry and I all play REAL banjos. :O)

And, if I may share a chuckle with y'all.

This past season, I took the time to read all the comment cards. (Yes, I read them ALL). One week about six of them demanded "more banjo, more banjo, more banjo". I was thrilled until I read a little closer and found that they actually said..............

................wait for it ...........

"More bingo, more bingo, more bingo"


Paul Penta 12-20-2006 05:03 PM

[QUOTE=Paul Penta;2912]Hi Jazzou,

Having finally met ***** yesterday, I can vouch for the fact that she is truly a star.

WOW! It did it to me, too. When I typed D-I-A-N-E's name, it came out *****.



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