When Michelle Thames moved to Laguna Woods from Indiana two decades ago, she brought a long-cherished Mason & Hamlin Ampico reproducing player piano with her.
Along with player pianos, these instruments were wildly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some may refer to them as the “entertainment centers” of the day.
The two differ in that player pianos require the “player” to pump the foot pedals in order to create a vacuum to set off the pneumatics. A notch above, reproducing pianos actually reproduce the dynamics of the previously recorded performance on their own — as if the artist is actually present in the room playing live.
MICHELLE THAMES GIFTED BISHOP KEVIN VANN WITH HER MASON & HAMLIN AMPICO REPRODUCING PLAYER PIANO AFTER READING AN ARTICLE IN OC CATHOLIC. PHOTOS BY DREW KELLEY/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
Emphatically claiming to not be a musical person, Thames explained that she had always aspired to be one “I was going to learn to play the piano,” she recalled, “and then I saw this reproducing one and thought, I can listen to this great music while I’m teaching myself how to play.”
Since she didn’t have the room for it in her new Orange County digs, she asked her sister, Terri, (who lived nearby) to store it for her.
Fast forward 20 years — her sister was moving to a smaller place and could no longer house the piano.
“I was down to about three weeks until I had to get the piano out of her house,” she said. As fate would have it, during a conversation with a friend, Thames asked if she knew any place to donate the piano. The friend had read an OC Catholic article on Bishop Kevin Vann’s affinity for player pianos and suggested Thames do the same.
“And so, I looked it up and read the article, and thought Bishop would be the perfect person to call and see if he was interested,” she said.
She made the call, the whole time saying to herself, “This is never gonna work.”
But it did.
“I called her back right away,” said Bishop Vann.
MICHELLE THAMES (RIGHT) AND HER SISTER TERRI (LEFT) ENJOY A MUSICAL DEMONSTRATION BY BISHOP VANN ON AUG. 22.
A HOBBY DATING BACK TO CHILDHOOD
The July 2022 article featured a story highlighting Bishop Kevin Vann’s love of player pianos — a love dating back to his childhood in Springfield, Illinois. Bishop Vann bought his first player piano — a 1922 Cable-Nelson — at age 16. He paid $50 for it at a neighbor’s garage sale back in 1967. He took it home and rebuilt it in his parents’ basement, and today it sits in his living room here in California.
Bishop has both player and reproducing pianos at home and at his office on the Christ Cathedral campus. They were in pretty bad shape. Discarded like trash instead of like treasures of yesteryear, they required great care. Bishop restored them and brought them back to life, so to speak, with the help of Piano Artisans in Orange.
It is not uncommon to hear Gershwin echoing through the halls at the Pastoral Center on a Friday afternoon, or to see Bishop looking through his vast collection of music rolls — until he finds just the right one. Perhaps it’s a tune from “Porgy and Bess” or one from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Bishop Vann has amassed about 3,000 player piano music rolls in total, which he’s been collecting for over 60 years.
These rolls — which are basically long sheets of perforated paper wound onto a spool — include Disney classics, jazz and contemporary.
“This has been a big part of my life,” he said. “I love finding homes for these pianos, they were the music of the day.”
Thames said she is thrilled that her piano has found a great home with Bishop Vann and that others will be able to enjoy it.
“That piano was my baby,” she said.
And by the sound of it, that “baby” was well adopted