Striking a chord: Newton man repairs pianos, player pianos

This is a square grand piano Mike Hanchett of Newton is working on. Wendy Nugent/HC Now

By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now

NEWTON—Mike Hanchett used to ride in the Mardi Gras parade for 16 years, and it was for practical reasons, although there was some fun thrown in.

You see, he built the calliope that’s used atop the Dolly Trolley and they wanted to have Hanchett on hand in case of an emergency.

“I just ride with it to make sure it doesn’t quit during the parade,” the Newton resident said. “It’s never quit during the parade. I had to bring it back up here one year after the hurricane. It wasn’t damaged. It was just wear and tear.”

He brought it back to Newton to make some repairs.

“They just have us come down and ride in the parade,” Hanchett said. “I think we’ve done it for 16 years.”

They didn’t do it last year because of the pandemic, but when he and his family go, they are given two hotel rooms and get to ride the Dolly Trolley, which was built in the late 1800s.

“They always give us stuff to throw,” Hanchett said, adding that one year, they rode with a Barbra Streisand look-alike and also with a half owner of the New Orleans Saints, Rita Benson LaBlanc. LaBlanc was given rubber footballs to throw.

The real Barbra Streisand rode in the Dolly Trolley in the movie “Hello Dolly!” so that’s where the Streisand look-alike comes into play.

The Hanchetts also got to walk around during Mardi Gras, as well, taking in all the sites.

“We walked 20 miles one weekend,” Hanchett said. “From that perspective, it’s good exercise.”

He also said much of Mardi Gras is family-oriented and not just like the media portrays with the ruckus on Bourbon Street.

“I told them I’m gonna quit going down there,” he said. “I found a replacement.”

Hanchett went on these adventures because he used to build and repair calliopes, but now he just repairs pianos, player pianos and reed organs. He used to call his business Mike’s Piano Repair, but now his business just goes by his name.

One instrument he’s working on now is a square grand piano, a predecessor to the conventional grand pianos.

“I’ve restrung it and I’ve put new pins in it,” he said. “[I’m] in the process of getting workable hammers. You can’t get new parts for this except the strings. The felts are coming loose—a long process.”

He does a lot of work in a certain area.

“I do a lot of pneumatic work,” he said. “For the player piano, there always has to be pneumatic. Now it’s a nylon cloth. It’s real flexible.”

One reason why player pianos quit working is because the pneumatic was a cotton cloth that got worn over time and now pneumatics are nylon.

“Each pneumatic has at least one valve and maybe two,” he said, adding they’re covered in a very thin leather. “As players have gotten older, they’re just harder to rebuild. You run into problems, often unseen problems.”

Regarding calliopes, Hanchett said he was one of two people in the country who built new ones.

“We started building about identical calliopes in 1982,” he said. “[The other man] was young and unmarried and had farmed out most of his work. I did most of my own work. He made about 150, and I did 24.”

One calliope Hanchett built that included a xylophone, drums and bells is in Salina now.

Now, he’s directing his attention to the square grand and the other one behind it is next in line. That one has two keyboards and is a player piano and player organ. Hanchett said he mostly repairs player pianos now and that the player pianos/organs were used in movie theaters before the talkies came around.

Someone gave Hanchett a player piano/player organ, which has all the papers with it. It plays the paper rolls forward and backward and dates from 1921. It needs work on pneumatics, tubing and valves.

Hanchett also can add an orchestra he built up to his resume. It has a variety of instruments in it, including a tambourine, flute pipes, xylophone, triangle, symbol and castanets.

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