Inside the Collection

The Museum’s fotoplayer comes to life again

Photograph of piano and organ pipes
The player piano is on the left and the organ pipes and effects box on the right H10302

The Powerhouse Museum’s Style 20 Fotoplayer is a wonderful instrument on display in the Kings Cinema within the Museum. It was made to provide music and sound effects to accompany silent movies and is an upright player piano, with an effects box.
When a roll is played, it activates the piano and the organ sections, but the other special effects need to be operated by hand. This means that the person operating the Fotoplayer needs to know the movie they are accompanying really well, so that they can operate the effects at the right time (doorbells, gunshot sounds from the drums etc etc.). No mean feat!

The Fotoplayer was restored for use in the Museum in 1984 by the Mastertouch Piano Roll Company and has been maintained and demonstrated to the public ever since. For the last 6 months there have been no demonstrations as the instrument needed maintenance and the Kings Cinema was closed for building works. The maintenance work was carried out by Conservators Bronwen Griffin and Tim Morris, contract Pianola specialists Kylie and Peter Coggins, Piano Tuner Curtis Wilkinson and Organ Builders Darrell Pitchford and Dean Yates.

Detail of effects box
The effects box contains drums, cymbals, a train whistle, castanets, and 3 organ pipe stops.

A doorbell, vibrato and the organ stops are operated by switches above the piano keyboard, while the other special effects are operated by pulleys and foot pedals.
Having so many different components, the instrument needed several different specialists to work on it.

The player mechanism had problems with the roll tracking, which meant that the music wasn’t always played correctly – sometimes in the middle of a tune it played odd notes. The air-motors needed some repairs so that they played smoothly and the roll brakes weren’t working properly. So, the pianola specialists removed them for repairs.

Detail of trackers and roll brakes
Trackers and roll brakes

They re-covered the trackers with motor cloth and replaced the valves and gaskets.
They also sanded and applied graphite to the sliders of the airmotors, straightened the crankshafts and re-covered the roll brakes with new pneumatic cloth.

Close–up of the air-motors
Close–up of the air-motors

The piano and organ were also out of tune. Part of the problem was that the air conditioning in the cinema had not been working properly, so the tuning of the piano had risen to A447Hz (normally around A441Hz).The air conditioning was fixed and the piano was tuned.

Piano section during tuning
Piano section during tuning

Finally, the organ section was to be tuned to the piano. The first time we tried to do this, we found that 11 organ pipes were playing by themselves. This was deafening and meant that the organ couldn’t be tuned.
It turned out that we had brought this on ourselves by asking the piano tuner to fix a clattering noise that we thought the hammers were making. He adjusted a rail inside the piano, which ended up pressing on some of the pneumatic tubing which runs to the pipes. This made them play – all the time.

So, the piano tuner came back and adjusted the rail back again with help from Tim Morris from Conservation.

The organ tuners came back a few days later and were able to tune the organ straight away.

Organ tuning
Organ tuning

Now this wonderfully noisy instrument is officially working again and will be demonstrated regularly by our team of trained volunteers.

Powerhouse Volunteer Mike Leslie demonstrating the Fotoplayer
Powerhouse Volunteer Mike Leslie demonstrating the Fotoplayer
The closed fotoplayer
The closed fotoplayer

6 responses to “The Museum’s fotoplayer comes to life again

  • Is there a video or audio recording of this machine if there is can you please direct me to it if there is no could you please make one

  • where can I see a real life fotoplayer, my 17yr old son is obsessed with them and has worked so hard on his senior music piece, I’d like to take him to see one as a reward.
    In Australia

    • Hi Pamela,
      Our fotoplayer is on display in the Kings Cinema at the Museum right now. Normally our Volunteers do regular demonstrations, so you can see it in action, though unfortunately that’s not happening right now due to COVID. Hopefully we’ll be able to start these up again in the not-too-distant future.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

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