Thursday, September 3, 2015

Finding Gold on My Lunch Break

There’s GOLD at the Royal BC Museum!

But it wasn't gold that had me running through the museum one particular afternoon....

I was on my lunch break from work and although I very much look forward to my break when I can hide away somewhere with a good book, that day I knew it was to be ‘just another’ lunch break....

Or so I thought.

As I trekked through the museum with my book in my purse (I work near the museum, not IN the museum as so some people have thought from my past stories surrounding events there), I dodged the dozens of museum-goers from far and wide who were waiting in line to gain access to the museum’s current Gold Rush exhibit ( on now until November 1, 2015). I picked my way through the crowds anxious to carry on with my own non-museum-related lunch-break plans, but something stopped me in my tracks – and it wasn’t GOLD in them thar hills....!

The tell-tale, saloon-type tinkling of a piano drew me away from my lunch-break mission. I’m not a musician at all, but I could tell this wasn’t just some recorded piano music. As I followed the sound through the lobby of the museum, I imagined myself in an old western/gold rush movie, my corsets straining (I wish), and my potential suitors/cowboys/gold panners offering me bad whiskey in exchange for my attentions.

But alas – no corsets, suitors, cowboys or gold panners were to be found...

Two museum staff sat playing a piano – and a very old one at that. As one girl played, without using her hands, the other tended to what looked like a bunch of old scrolls piled high on a trolley.

Of course I stopped, and of course I bothered them.

They were playing a player piano from 1910 – the same kind that would have typically been found in saloons or musical halls. Able to be played traditionally, this piano can also be played to read sheet music. While pumping the foot pedals, the action sets the inner workings in motion reading the hole-punched scroll inserted in the front. The holes in the paper are placed ‘just so’ so that when each hole is ‘read’ by the mechanics inside the piano, the corresponding musical note of the key is played and out comes a perfectly played song - if you pump the pedals at just the right speed.

So enamoured I was with the whole thing I stayed and chatted with the girls, surely annoying them. But they were more than accommodating and patient, and were keen to show me this entertaining piece of history. As the one girl played, I asked if it was equal to a good workout.

“When it’s not tuned up, it sure is! Better than a treadmill!” was her response.

I snapped photo after photo as the girls entertained and informed, then I hesitantly asked if they could take a photo of my feet on the pedals (I knew a story was there, somewhere, and how could I leave without a few pictures?)

So I sat on the bench and positioned my feet ‘just so.’ The contrast of my ‘Keds’ brand runners with the turn-of-the-century instrument pedals was not lost on me.

Just as I was admiring the look of my feet on the pedals, and idly hoping my legs didn’t look too fat, one of the girls drew my attention to a manufacturers warning just inside the piano. It read:

Positively no oil, graphite, Vaseline, or grease should be used on the slide
valves or wooden surface of this motor.
If the bushed bearings should squeak use unsalted beef tallow.

Well, was I ever disappointed I only had SALTED beef tallow with me!

Just as I was sharing a giggle with one of the girls about the ‘warning,’ the other replaced the music scroll with a new one.

Thinking they were gearing-up for their next performance I started to get up but then stopped when they asked me if I wanted to play! ME!

After a bit of back and forth – ‘Oh I just POSSIBLY couldn’t!’ I humbly exclaimed – at their final urging I sat back down and again placed my feet just so. After a bit of instruction – ‘keep pumping at an even speed’ – I started. It took a few beats to get the right rhythm and speed, but the next thing I knew I was playing “Oh Joe With Your Fiddle and Bow,” a foxtrot by ‘Donaldson,’ the original sheet music scroll originally priced at 25 cents (can’t get THAT on iTunes!).

I played and pumped and played and pumped, lost in complete awe of the experience. My legs didn’t get tired, but my face hurt from the non-stop grin I knew was plastered there.

“I sure didn’t think I’d be playing a piano like this on my lunch-break from work when I got up this morning!” I told the girls in excitement. They, too, grinned back – they knew how special playing this instrument, was.

Sadly and all-too-quickly the foxtrot came to an end and the girls, and a few onlookers, applauded my performance. With a switch the rolling-feature was set into ‘rewind’ and I pumped the scroll back to the beginning.

Needless to say I was, and still am, beyond grateful to the staff allowing me the opportunity to do something completely different and unexpected during my lunch-break. I skipped back to work with a foxtrot-spring in my step, and thrilled at having done something totally unexpected.

Oh, and I didn't read a page of my book and my 'corsets' stayed intact. :)

(Author’s note: during my research for tidbits about pianos during the gold rush, I found this article. If you read through, you will find a reference to an accomplished pianist ‘Mrs. Lange’ who, with her husband, opened a music hall way back way when..... spooky finding!

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing experience and of course, laugh at the way you told it. Talk about lucky to get your hands on one of those. They're usually cordoned off with rope and guard :)