From Newton to Mardi Gras

Drums, xylophone, piano keys and a tambourine played an old-fashioned melody that drifted on the warm fall air at Mike Hanchett?s shop in Newton while Squeaky the shop cat wandered around.
One might think all of this music was the stylings of a small band. However, it was not. The music wafted from a player piano he and his wife, Angie Hanchett, built about 30 years ago. The piano had been in a Nebraska restaurant for quite some time, and when the restaurant closed, Hanchett bought the instrument back.
?It plays on a quarter,? Hanchett said. After depositing the coin, Hanchett had to urge the instrument to play by gently pounding on its side.
The piano is a reproduction of one built in 1917, and the stained glass in it is almost like the original, Hanchett said. The piano started as a pedal player, and he and his wife built the player part of the piano, which starts at about waist high and goes up. The late Walter Hessler built the piano?s cabinet.
?He was a master woodworker,? Hanchett said. ?This is all quarter-sawn oak.?
In his musical restoration career, Hanchett has built calliopes, and restored and built player pianos. It so happens that in 1984 during the same month, he and another man who lived in another part of the country, separately started making calliopes, Hanchett said, adding the other man didn?t do all his own work, so that man made more calliopes. Hanchett and this other man were the only two people in the United States who had built the instruments to sell since the 1920s.
The other calliope creator has died, so now Hanchett is the only one left in the country who has built them for money since the 1920s; he said now there?s no market to build them anymore.
?I?m not going to built any more calliopes,? Hanchett said. ?I?m still doing player pianos.?
The Newton businessman said calliopes are actually American instruments, unlike others, and they are just tuned whistles on a square-shaped case.
?Like Americans, calliopes are kinda loud and obnoxious,? a chuckling Hanchett said.
As of late September, Hanchett was working on a calliope for a man in Baton Rouge who is restoring a southern mansion and wants to put a calliope in it because his grandparents had a riverboat equipped with such an instrument. The case was an old Reed organ.
?So I built the calliope to fit the case,? Hanchett said.
The calliope is unusual because he added bass and snare drums, a xylopone, and bells.
Calliopes on riverboats, Hanchett said, are run by steam, while the ones he?s made are air calliopes. Calliopes first were built to go into church steeples to replace bells, he said, and riverboats picked up the calliopes because they were loud and good at announcing the arrival of the boat to port.
?You could hear ?em for miles,? Hanchett said.
Later, calliopes were used by circuses, which, at one point in time, traveled by train. The calliope would lead the circus parade through towns.
With steam calliopes, fire, water and a boiler were used, they had to be on a huge wagon and took up lots of room.
Air calliopes need less room.
?When the air calliopes came along, they were a lot smaller,? Hanchett said. ?You could put them on a truck and go.?
Calliopes and player pianos aren?t the only things he and Angie have made. During the years, they?ve constructed player accordians, most of which were coin operated.
?Drop a coin in ?em,? Hanchett said. ?Accordian will play you a song.?
Hanchett?s philosophy of life goes along with how well he likes the business he?s in.
?If you enjoy your work, you never have to work a day in your life,? he said.
Hanchett does seem to enjoy his full-time business, saying there?s so many opportunities, so many different people he gets to meet, and every piano is different.
His restoration career started as a hobby. Before his music career, he worked for Metropolitan Life until 1984.
?I left Met in 1984 and have been doing it ever since,? Hanchett said.
His hobby started in 1968 when he wanted a player piano of his own and found one that needed to be reworked. Later, he came upon another player and redid that one; this piano now is in a private home in Washington, D.C., and still is playing just fine.
?I think we gave $10 for it,? Hanchett said.

Business decisions
Hanchett said he?ll keep his business going as long as he can.
Throughout his career, he?s met some interesting people and done some interesting things. For example, he and his wife built a calliope for the Orpheus Parade, which happens annually during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
?It?s probably one of the fanciest parades down there,? Hanchett said.
Every year since 2004, the Hanchetts have been in the parade, riding as dignitaries with the calliope. Part of their job is to make sure the instrument runs throughout the parade, which can last from four to six hours.
The calliope, which was built 11 years ago, is waterproof and weighs about 800 pounds. During the parade, the calliope is put on a trolley, which is referred to as the Dolly Trolley because it appeared in the 1969 movie ?Hello, Dolly!? starring Barbra Streisand in the title role. Unlike many other things in the area, the calliope survived Hurricane Katrina.
More than $2 million is spent on just this one parade, which has from 30 to 32 floats. In order to help schools in the south, the parade pays schools $10,000 to march in the parade; that money goes toward buying uniforms, etc., for the bands.
The captains of the parade are Sonny Borey and actor/singer Harry Connick Jr.
?We?ve met Harry and his dad,? Hanchett said.
The Hanchetts also have met other famous and interesting people in New Orleans, including actor Gary Sinise, Rita Benson LaBlanc (owner of the New Orleans Saints) and the last Tuskegee airman. LaBlanc and the airman rode with the Hanchetts in the parade.
The Orpheus Parade is one of 50 that wind through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Hanchett mentioned Gary Sinise also has a band, called the Lt. Dan Band, named after a character Sinise played in the movie ?Forrest Gump.?
The parade was named for Orpheus, the Greek god of beautiful music, and his daughter is Calliope, Hanchett said. So, it?s appropriate a calliope should ride in this parade. Mardi Gras is mostly family oriented, he said, unlike what usually is covered in the media.
?(Mardi Gras) is more family-oriented than most people think,? Hanchett said.
This hobby-turned-business has had many facets for the Hanchetts.
?It?s been a very interesting hobby and business,? Hanchett said. ?We?ve done a lot of traveling. We had a calliope on the Queen Mary one year.?
Hanchett and his wife have built 24 calliopes and have rebuilt hundreds of player pianos. They?ve hauled player pianos all over the United States, to such cities as Phoenix, New York, Dallas, Tulsa and Omaha. They?ve also taken calliopes to several states, including Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas and Florida.
In his shop, Hanchett has a variety of player pianos and at least one calliope. One piano was built in 1915, Hanchett said, and was typical of what people would have in their homes at the time. This player piano has foot pedals so a person can sit at the piano and use his or her feet to run it.
?This is kind of the mainstay of what I do,? Hanchett said.
Another of these player pianos Hanchett found a couple of years ago sitting on a curb in Newton; it doesn?t play anymore as it needs restoring.
?It was definitely too good to trash,? Hanchett said.
Hanchett was working on a circa 1925 player piano at the time of his interview in early fall. This piano was from a nursing home in Abilene. He said he?s completely rebuilding it. For example, he said the rubberized cloth on the neumatics?which actually play the notes?get stiff, causing the piano to not work. He ends up breaking off the cloth and replacing it.
The peak of player pianos probably was in the 1920s, Hanchett said. It was the earliest form of music people had, and people used it until radios came along.
?But they?re still as much fun as they ever were,? Hanchett said.

Photos and story by?Wendy Nugent