Submitted to, and rejected by, the New Yorker’s “Onward & Upward” column in the late 1940s.
Published in the July 1951 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, with whose permission it appears here.

Stop Player. Joke No. 4

William Gaddis

Selling player pianos to Americans in 1912 was not a difficult task. There was a place for everyone in this brave new world, where the player offered an answer to some of America’s most persistent wants: the opportunity to participate in something which asked little understanding; the pleasure of creating without work, practice, or the taking of time; and the manifestation of talent where there was none.

Age was no hindrance to success. A child in Seattle who had spent his full five years among players was an expert demonstrator.

A number of magazines devoted to the player—many of them put out by the manufacturers themselves—were stolidly enough written to convince any player owner that his was the most important instrument in the history of music and that he was its master. The Presto Buyers’ Guide kept him up on new developments and new rolls, and the Player magazine threatened to educate him to his machine.

One of its regular columns was “Music Roll Thematics,” reproducing the patterns of various groups of holes from familiar classic rolls, and tossing in ten good reasons why they were important, as well as a story of the composition. The idea was to read the groups of perforations while playing the roll, as the professional musician reads notes; and music presented in these new working clothes became something which was perhaps tangible after all.

Player programs were suggested for less imaginative owners, who soon learned not to compromise themselves artistically in an evening’s entertainment by mixing such popular works as Swift’s Rag Medley No. 8 and Gottschalk’s The Dying Poet with light opera classics from Van Alsteyne’s Girlies or Karl Hoschna’s Madame Sherry.

The industry, probably largely out of respect, built 10,000 grands in 1914, but out of the 325,000 total, 80,000 were player pianos. Piano repairmen, who had started their vocation with nothing to fear from the regularities of the pianoforte, were encouraged with books, folders, and diagrams explaining the wonders of pneumatics. That year the Danquard Player Action School opened in New York, giving exhaustive courses in player mechanics, and there were even a few correspondence schools peddling the new profession.

The roll industry had been a necessary accomplice throughout, but it had an attraction all its own. The notion of transforming any piece of music, from a ditty to a concerto, into an anonymous series of holes on a blank paper roll was as exciting for some as cuneiform investigation. The roll industry grew as fast as the player world would permit, though some player companies kept the business in the family and cut their own rolls. Such artists as Robert Wornum and Emanuel Moór were to be found cutting “records” for Aeolian, Ampico, and Welte-Mignon. The smallest Leabarjan perforator cost $35, and with it one could make one’s own paper music. One man patented an oilcloth roll, and another, equally imaginative, settled down with a punch and a roll of wallpaper.

Most light-minded people turned to the Arto-roll or the Vocalstyle. The Arto-roll was so named because the space usually left blank at the end where the roll tapered to the ring was filled with art work and comment. After a spirited performance of the sextet from Lucia, the fugitive slots rolled out of sight as usual before the spectator’s eyes, and he and anyone else who wanted to crowd around were presented with a chromo of lolling maidens and a snappy discourse on the tribulations of the heroine.

James Whitcomb Riley bought a player in 1905, and as poetic consequence the Vocalstyle Company printed up some of his work to be sold and recited with rolls of their own music in accompaniment. They also produced one-roll minstrel shows, on which the procession of slots was interrupted by the words “Stop Player. Joke : No. 4.” At this point, the jokebook which came with the roll was opened to Joke No. 4. A proper parlor version of Mr. Interlocutor then opened some such extended discussion as this:—
      “You say you got a dog that doan’ eat meat?”
      “Yuphm,” a partner answered.
      “Why doan’ your dog eat no meat?”
      “Cuz I doan’ give him no meat”—and the player piano burst out again over shrieks of parlor laughter. Words to the songs were printed on the roll, and for wordless sequences such as a soft-shoe dance, encouraging exclamations were freely supplied:—
      “Throw sand on the floor and give him room!”
      Or, “Conserve shoe leather! Conserve!”

The Age of Gold lasted through 1916, when popular parlor players were rendering Ragtime Oriole, Way Down in Borneo-o-o-o, and You’re a Dog Gone Daisy Girl. Talents were being made and recognized. The makers of a roll called Posies testified, in reference to Dorian Welch, the composer, “There is a special talent in writing for the player piano, and but few writers possess it.” In addition to Mr. Welch, Paul Hindemith and Eric Satie directed some of their “special talents” to player composing, and Satie even cut a few rolls.

The player actually became the biggest factor in the entire music industry, and Aeolian’s prices on its Orchestrelle ranged from $400 to $3500.

More than 200,000 player pianos were built in 1916. They amounted to 65 per cent of the total piano production, enough to satisfy the most ardent fanatic and to warn anyone familiar with business graph curves of the impending decline and fall.

William Gaddis website