KING OF THE PLAYER PIANO
King of the Player Piano
by Lee Barnett
Not a film star or a sports figure or a military hero or a politician, player-piano impresario Max Kortlander was nevertheless a celebrity in Grand Rapids, a local boy who made good but never severed his hometown ties. A talented pianist as a child, Kortlander became a highly regarded performer and composer. Later, at a time when player pianos were at the height of their popularity, Kortlander worked and performed for the QRS Music Company of Chicago, the nation’s largest and most successful player-piano-roll manufacturer. Despite his success, Kortlander retained his Grand Rapids connections and returned regularly to visit family and friends in his hometown. Today, the Kortlander family residence still stands on Cherry Street, and the family cottage on Beach Drive in Spring Lake remains in the hands of Kortlander’s relatives. 
Maximilian (Max) Kortlander was born in the Kortlander family home at 614 Cherry SE on September 1, 1890. His father, Joseph, was an Indiana native who had relocated to Grand Rapids in 1864, and his mother, the former Elizabeth M. Boxheimer, was the daughter of pioneer Grand Rapids residents. Max was their third child, and first son, in four years of marriage. The Kortlanders were a well-known Grand Rapids family. Joseph initially owned a barrel factory, and in 1884 he and his three brothers formed the Kortlander Company, a wholesale liquor business operating out of the Kortlander Building at Fulton Street and Commerce Avenue. One of the brothers, William, was also a local artist of note.
Max Kortlander showed promising musical talent at a very young age. That he would manifest such skills is not surprising, since his mother was a leader in the city’s musical life. She was a singer of recognized ability, an active member of the St. Cecilia Society, and she, her three sisters, and an aunt were all piano teachers at various times. With four Mason & Hamlin grand pianos in the Kortlander home, Max was destined by circumstances if not by inheritance to be a keyboard artist.
His mother guided Max as he practiced for hours every week on one of the family’s quartet of instruments. As he progressed, she also insisted that he write at least two songs a day. While Max did not particularly care for the long practice sessions that took him away from more typical boyhood pursuits, he did enjoy music composition, a gift that would serve him well as an adult. Though he was brought up in an environment that favored classical music, by the age of 14 he was playing popular songs and performing at an assortment of places around town.
After his graduation from Central High School, Kortlander further enhanced his skills by enrolling for a year at the Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio for specialized music courses and then attending the American Conservatory in Chicago for advanced piano lessons. While in Chicago, Max helped to support himself by entertaining at upscale supper clubs. It may have been in this capacity that he met the vice president of the QRS Music Company, a major manufacturer of piano rolls founded in 1900 and headquartered in the Windy City. Soon, he was hard at work arranging and playing piano-roll recordings.
As historians reflect upon the last century, they will almost surely conclude that one of the marvels it produced was the player piano. This remarkable device — by the imaginative use of sprockets, spools, shafts and springs — has astounded and amused the world for a hundred years and has, literally and figuratively, let the good times roll. Prior to the invention of the player apparatus, years of lessons and practice were usually required to coax pleasing sounds from a piano. But with the creation of this mechanical device, no music education or formal training was necessary to pump the pedals and produce the music.
One of the most important elements of the player piano is the piano roll, a cylinder core holding a strip of paper about 11 inches wide and 25 feet long. The paper has holes or slots punched into it, each one corresponding to a particular note. After the notes from sheet music or an artist’s performance are properly translated into the holes or slots on the strip of paper, the roll can be passed over the player mechanism by pumping the pedals, and the piano reproduces the song, making every player-piano owner a maestro in his own home.
Initially, piano rolls offered only instrumental music, but the industry soon began featuring the popular songs of the day, making listeners want to sing along while they played. Since not everyone knew the lyrics to these tunes, the manufacturers began putting the words along the margins of the rolls at the point where they were to be sung, much like words on a TelePrompTer.
Although simple in design and fairly easy to produce, the first piano rolls were not cheap. With initial prices set at around a dollar apiece, the purchase of a single roll once consumed half a day’s wages for the average worker. Currently a roll costs about $11 new or just one hour’s salary for the typical worker.
There was a time in America when no home could be considered complete without a player piano. In the heyday of this craze, one in four American homes had a player piano, and the instrument was the supreme form of home entertainment. People all across the land gathered around player pianos to listen to the characteristic sounds that helped add to the English language such words as “ricky-tick,” “rinky-tink,” “plinkity-plink,” and “honky-tonk.” From the early 1900s to the closing days of the Roaring Twenties, 2.5 million player pianos were sold, with peak sales of 200,000 in 1923. So great was the demand that from approximately 1910 through 1925 an amazing 85 percent of all pianos made in the United States were said to be automated.
The popularity of the player piano fell off markedly beginning in 1927. This sudden reversal was due to the emergence of three new kings in the world of entertainment. The first of these upstart lords of leisure was radio, which became available in 1921. By 1926 a plug-in version was introduced, radio networks were formed, and people began flocking to a medium that allowed them to listen to a wider variety of music and other programs at less cost and without even pumping pedals. In a sense, the nation turned from the bellows in pianos to windbags on the air.
The second of the new sovereigns of spare time was movies. Motion pictures had been in existence for many years as silent films, and piano rolls had even been cut to accompany them for those theaters that did not have a live pianist to create the appropriate background music. But the debut of talking films in 1927 created a sensation, and many people left their player pianos to enjoy the cinema with sound.
The third new ruler of recreation was the record player. Gramophones and acoustic reproductions had been around for some years, but with cranking required for operation and generally poor sound quality, they remained short of their potential. When the nicely styled, electrically amplified phonograph appeared in the mid-1920s offering full orchestras and vocalists on shellac disks — the owners of player pianos abandoned their solo instruments and listened to someone else do the singing.
When the Great Depression began just a few years later, few people any longer had discretionary income for purchasing pianos or music rolls. This turn of events was a fatal blow to many in the player-piano business and helped finish off the instrument as a favorite source of listening pleasure or a required accessory in any well-appointed residential parlor.
Max Kortlander and the QRS company likewise felt the impact of the failing economy. QRS started out in 1900 as a small, owner-operated enterprise with a few employees. Over the years, however, the firm bought up about 25 other companies and became the largest piano-roll factory in the world, with manufacturing plants in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia.
During its halcyon days, the company employed the services of some of the leading pianists in the field of popular music. In its stable of piano-roll artists were such legends as Victor Arden, Zez Confrey, J. Lawrence Cook, Lee S. Roberts, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Pete Wendling. Together, these and other talented individuals on the staff turned out 25 to 50 new songs per month, giving hours of listening pleasure to people around the globe.
Max Kortlander had begun cutting rolls for ORS in about 1916, and over the next ten years he arranged and performed more than a thousand different scores for the company. He quickly became one of the hot names in piano-roll sales, with many fans buying his rolls not only for the melodies but for his playing style, an energetic and embellished technique that did much to define the piano-roll sound for the ensuing decade. Kortlander also released rolls under the pseudonyms of Ted Baxter and Jeff Watters, using the fictitious names when he accompanied himself in a mechanically contrived, four-hand arrangement and thus needed to list a second performer in the duet, or when he produced songs that were considered objectionable in some quarters because they were written by or associated with African Americans.
While Max was turning out large numbers of piano rolls, he was also actively writing songs. ASCAP listings and other records show that between 1917 and 1940 he composed about sixty-five melodies, including such well-received titles as “Any Time, Any Day, Any Where” and “Bebe-D” (dedicated to Bebe Daniels, a Grand Rapids native and former Hollywood musical comedy and film star). His 1919 fox trot “Tell Me” sold for $100,000, the highest lump sum paid for any popular song up to that time.
But as Max worked his way up in the QRS company, his creative time was sacrificed to his management responsibilities. Shortly after World War I, he was made general manager of the firm’s recording laboratories in New York City where the rolls were cut, and by 1926 his administrative duties had grown to the point where he personally produced no more rolls.
In 1927, the QRS Music Company sold a reported 10 million rolls, its greatest output ever. Not long afterwards the bottom fell out of the economy and the firm began edging towards bankruptcy. Seeking to save the enterprise from its impending demise, Max Kortlander mortgaged his home in 1931 and bought the now-struggling firm, changing its name to Imperial Industrial Corporation because with a name like that he could easily go into some other business if he was unable to continue selling piano rolls. In fact, the company rode out the long drought in piano-roll orders during the depression by also making paper rolls for automatic office equipment.
World War II saw a brief increase in the demand for QRS music products as a flurry of patriotic songs and full employment got people in the singing and spending mood again. But the advent of television shortly after the war saw the market for piano rolls again decline, with the lowest point in sales occurring in 1952.
In part through the efforts of Max Kortlander, this trend was reversed and the firm’s bottom line slowly became healthy again. Retaining the QRS brand name, Max eventually returned the company to profitability. He was careful to produce piano rolls that included contemporary popular tunes along with old-time favorites, thus always having ready for sale the songs and musical styles the public wanted to hear. His success was also attributable to his arranger of many years, J. Lawrence Cook, one of America’s great black keyboard technicians and the creator of more piano rolls than any other artist.
Max knew that his company’s prospects depended upon increasing interest in the player piano as well as the rolls that made it work. In the 1950s he helped fund the development of the player spinet, an instrument that could be played either manually or automatically and eventually debuted in New York City in 1957 under the name of the Hardman Duo Piano. Today, many firms make sophisticated electronic versions of the player piano, and one company — Classic Player Piano of Seneca, Pennsylvania — still manufactures an old-fashioned, paper-roll-playing model under the famous brand name of Story & Clark.
With a resurgence in the sales of player pianos and rolls as the 1960s began, Max’s prospects looked bright. But his enjoyment of this revival was cut short on October 11, 1961, when he died while working in his Bronx office. His wife, who inherited the business, hired Max’s brother, Herman, to run the operation. Five years later she sold the firm, and its operations were moved to its present location at 1026 Niagara Street in Buffalo, New York. Known today as QRS Music, the company continues to be the largest of its kind on the planet, with current sales of about 300,000 rolls annually. Each year thousands of people visit the QRS factory to see how piano rolls are made. The original roll-cutting machine is still used, and in 1992 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the QRS Music Company a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. 
After running his brother’s company successfully until it was sold, Herman Kortlander eventually returned to his Grand Rapids hometown. His death in July of 1987 brought to a close a long chapter in which a man from Grand Rapids dominated the piano-roll industry.
About the author: Lee Barnett recently retired from his post with the state archives and now devotes his time to research and writing about Michigan history.
Note: See also John Farrell’s essay of Max Kortlander accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.