J. Lawrence Cook and Max Kortlander
 You Asked For It : ABC Television Show
 Transcribed by Millie Gaddini and Mike Meddings

Introduction   Art Baker   You Asked For It
Afterword by John Farrell   References   Kudos


The following “text” and “picture” article is transcribed from a 1956 episode of “YOU ASKED FOR IT” by Millie Gaddini and Mike Meddings. This popular ABC Television Show, sponsored by Skippy Peanut Butter, fulfilled viewers’ requests for the unusual — regardless of what it was.

Presented by Art Baker, it features J. Lawrence Cook and Max Kortlander, who demonstrate how music rolls are arranged and produced. The show, screened before an invited audience at the ABC studios in Hollywood, California, includes a tour of the Imperial Industrial Co. factory in New York City, which was pre-recorded for the show.

Prof. Alan Wallace and Adam Ramet make available the rare footage of this memorable 8-minute episode.

2002 Mike Meddings


Those who grew up in the beginning of the television era will remember the genial host, Art Baker, from the TV show “You Asked For It.” Yet, he was already an established character actor by the time he became host of this popular television series. His roles in movies were usually a business tycoon, doctor, senator or other professional type. He is best remembered for his performances in “Spellbound” (1945); “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1947); “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961); and “Young Dillinger” (1965).

Art Baker - Show Host

He was born Arthur Shank in New York City, New York on 7th January 1898, the son of a woman who ran a settlement house for the poor on New York’s Bowery. After growing up in New York, he became a travelling evangelist in the 1920s, eventually ending up in California. Art began his career in radio as the first host of “People Are Funny” and went on to work in films and television. He died on 26th August 1966 in Los Angeles, California aged 68 years.

Art Baker                                     Art Baker

Art Baker, the “You Asked For It” show host, is “pretending” to play the piano.

Note: The opening song roll sounds like ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ — but it’s not! It might be a J. Lawrence Cook improvisation, to avoid the copyright issue of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ appearing on TV. [1]

The opening song roll has now been identified as ‘Moonbeam! Kiss Her For Me’. Composed by Harry Woods with lyrics by Mort Dixon Jerome H. Remick 1927. [9]

‘Moonbeam (sic), Kiss Her For Me’ was issued on QRS 3823 in May, 1927. [10]

Advert for Skippy Peanut Butter                                     Art Baker

A.B.   “Good old player piano. This request comes from Mr. L. M. Broom of Garden Grove, California. He wrote:

You may not know it Mr. Baker, but some quarter million people have player pianos in their homes today. They love to hear them bang out tunes for themselves. I mean tunes as modern as the Hit Parade. Now there is only one company in America, which produces piano roll music. It’s located somewhere in the east. Will you please take us on a tour through this factory to see how player piano rolls are made?

“Well, ‘You Asked For It’ Mr. Broom. So let’s head eastward by film, to the Imperial Industrial Company of New York City, and speaking to you will be its President and player piano enthusiast, Mr. Max Kortlander.”

Note: The address of the Imperial Industrial Co., in 1956 was: 699 E. 135th St., New York 54, New York. [3]

Note: Max Kortlander’s ownership of QRS from 1932 until the early 1960s is the sole reason for its existence today. With his income as a successful composer, he purchased the QRS Music Co. for $25,000 and changed the name to the Imperial Industrial Company. [6]

Max Kortlander                                     Max Kortlander

M.K.   “Yes Art, old faithful, the player piano after all these years is staging a come back. Why? Because people are seeking something different. Families are staying together more at home and also these revolutionary players, such as this Hardman Peck spinet and the player that you are using out in Hollywood, are being manufactured and sold to the public. We also like to feel that our QRS rolls, with their new modern arrangements, are conducive to bringing this comeback to a head.”

Note: The song playing is ‘Sidewalks of New York’ — but the arrangement is not the one on the familiar QRS “evergreen” roll. [1]

Note:  Max Kortlander’s delivery shows the film is scripted, much presumably by Max himself, but clearly with input from the “You Asked for It” scriptwriters. Is the Kortlander-Cook relationship shown later — “Lawrence” and “Mr. Kortlander” — reflecting TV’s expectations or reality? J. Lawrence Cook is clearly unenthusiastic about the whole affair! [6]

Lisbon Antigua                                     Stockroom

M.K.   “You’ll notice we print the words alongside the notes, so everybody can sing. In our stockroom there are some eighteen-hundred to two-thousand selections. Like old songs that will never die. ‘Missouri Waltz’, ‘In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree’, ‘I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl’.”

Note: Lisbon Antigua (In Old Lisbon) exists on QRS 9266. It was released in February 1956 and credits Max Kortlander as the arranger. It is not listed in the current QRS catalog. [2] It was the No. 1 chart-topping song of 1956 played by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. [4]

Catalog                                     Variety

M.K.   “You’ll all see the latest hits also like, ‘Now’, ‘Rock ’n Roll Waltz’, ‘Poor People Of Paris’. Everyday we scan the trade magazines and double check with our dealers, to see what tunes have hit possibilities. And each month we have a list of popular hits and standards.”

J. Lawrence Cook manually playing piano                                     J. Lawrence Cook at the Piano Perforator

M.K.   “Many of our tunes have been arranged by that wonderful musician you see in there — J. Lawrence Cook. Lawrence joined us thirty-two years ago as a young piano player. For the past two days Lawrence has been working on an arrangement of ‘Lisbon Antigua’.”

Note: I hope no one ever doubted that Lawrence could play the piano. He simply didn’t want to play in public. Robbie Rhodes, who met him in 1971, believes that Max Kortlander would have had a difficult time persuading Lawrence to play live for the interview. [1]

Note: Notice the hand-written sheet music clipped above the keyboard. Photocopies of many such manuscripts by Cook circulate today, especially of tunes which he transcribed from disc recordings. [1]

Note: In the scene with J. Lawrence Cook at the perforator, as you watch him operate the machine, he plays the notes to be perforated and locks some of the notes down with the stopper mechanism, directly above the keyboard. He then unlocks a few after that step row has been punched. This shows an important part of the process of step perforator recording. In this manner, long extended counter melody perforations and additional notes could easily be made for 4-handed arrangements. [4]

J. Lawrence Cook at the Piano Perforator                                     Master Roll

M.K.   “He’s making what we call a master roll on that piano perforator. Actually, he’s punching the holes for the copies that will soon be on the market.”

Note: You hear Lawrence play the C#-diminished chord as the perforator is advancing. This chord is held for at least two beats, so as he played the notes he must have engaged the key latches too. The “cut-away” shot of the master roll does not agree with the sound. I suspect only one movie camera was used for the interview. [1]

Note: The master is wider than ordinary rolls and has alignment sprockets down the sides. It is three times longer than the production roll so that overlapping perforations on the roll are kept separate on the master. Almost all piano roll makers used masters of this form, although many were made from scratch using hand punches rather than the sophisticated system shown here. [6]

Max Kortlander and J. Lawrence Cook                                     J. Lawrence Cook

M.K.   “Lawrence, in the thirty-three years that you’ve been with this company, how many piano roll arrangements have you made?”

J.L.C.   “Well, I’d say between fifteen and twenty-thousand Mr. Kortlander.”

Note: Lawrence says he made fifteen and twenty-thousand arrangements. This is a vast amount. In other documentation it was assumed he’d been misquoted, yet here he is saying these figures himself. I suppose if you take an average Q.R.S roll, this is an arrangement of the sheet music in itself. [4]

Note: J. Lawrence Cook was solely responsible for mastering QRS rolls #4000 to #9500 and many after about roll #2000 — making about 6000 original titles. Add to this the re-arrangements over the years and the rolls he produced for U.S. Music Company c. 1920-1923, then Lawrence’s personal count of 10,000, taken from his 1972 AMICA speech, would appear to be fairly accurate. Of course, he also made arrangements for other instruments too. [6]

Max Kortlander                                     J. Lawrence Cook

M.K.   “Lawrence, would you say that making a piano roll arrangement is a specialty?”

J.L.C.  “It sure is, Mr. Kortlander. It’s very different from anything else. You see, aside from being a musician with a good knowledge of harmony, one must have a very thorough knowledge of the perforating mechanism.”

M.K.   “Another thing Lawrence. Most people don’t understand how a player piano works.”

Master Roll                                     Max Kortlander and J. Lawrence Cook

J.L.C.   “Well, I think the best way to explain that Mr. Kortlander, is to say that it is as though a motor from a vacuum cleaner were inside. Through suction, the valves are caused to actuate. Through the force of suction these perforated holes in the roll actuate valves, which in turn, through a linkage system, enables the various keys to be stroked according to the patterns of perforations. All eighty-eight keys are in action.”

M.K.   “Thanks Lawrence. Now we will be able to hear your work at the end of the tour.”

Note: Lawrence rocks on the bench as he positions his foot on the perforator “kick bar.” Then he engages the key latches to hold down the keys of the chord while he kicks the bar to advance the perforator one step at a time. [1]

Assembly Line with Louis Esposito                                     Blocks

M.K.   “Now, Art, let’s go out to the assembly line. This is one of our three master machines in operation. Each of these eighty-eight blocks punches out a different note. Thirty-two copies are being made off of this master at the same time.”

Note: The balding man at the paper trimmer is Louis Esposito, who was a perforator operator for many years. [3]

Paper                                     Production Perforator

M.K.  “Each roll is approximately twenty-five feet in length. For a song like this, of three minutes in duration. It takes about seven minutes for a tune to be punched with all the notes.”

Unknown blond lady with Louis Esposito                                     Stamping Roll with Title

M.K.   “From the master machine, the rolls come over here to this young lady. She stamps the name of the tune, its publisher and its number in our catalog.”

Note: Joyce Brite visited Durrell Armstrong in Wichita, Kansas in the hope that he might be able to identify the “blond lady” pictured above. Durrell had worked at QRS/Imperial Industrial Company during the winter of 1957-58. I talked with him yesterday (13 March 2002) and showed him the picture of the mysterious blond lady in the “You Asked For It” film. He thought she might be Margaret Dobbin, who was known to everyone at Imperial as “Dobbie.” [7]

Note: A photograph, taken on “St. Patrick’s Day” at Imperial in 1957, sent to Mike Meddings by Bob Berkman, reveals that the lady pictured above is not Margaret Dobbin. [3]

Note: L. Douglas Henderson, who also worked at QRS/Imperial in the early 1960s has identified her as Ms. V. Bane. [8]

Cutting off the ends of the roll                                     Attaching handle to roll

M.K.   “Then she cuts off the ends of the roll so they’ll fit into the spools. Next, she puts a handle on the end of each to make it easy to attach to the roll on the player piano.”

Margaret Roesch and Max Kortlander                                     Stencil Machine

M.K.   “Remember earlier I showed you we put the words along side the notes on our rolls. This is where that’s done. This ordinary stencil machine is used first. The words are blocked out on a plate so they can be reproduced many times.”

Note: The stencil machine is quite elaborate. I wish the interview showed the rubber stamp wheel, used for the early word rolls with woodcut illustrations like “Peter Rabbit” and “Schnitzelbank.” [1]

Note: The woman at the stencil machine is Margaret Roesch. [3]

                                     Running the rolls onto spools

M.K.   “The words have now joined the punched notes. Next, we run the rolls on the spools which will fit snug and tight into the player piano. They really zip along nicely, don’t they Art?”

Putting the spools into boxes                                     Shipping Room with John Sonnentag

M.K.   “Down here, by hand, this young lady puts the spools into the boxes. The boxes are stamped correctly. The title of the tune and its number in our catalog. And she sends the boxes down the chute into our shipping room. Then off they go to every State in the Union. To Canada and now even to South Africa.”

Note: The man in the shipping department is undoubtedly John Sonnentag, who worked in that capacity from 1916 until 1966. [3]

J. Lawrence Cook                                     J. Lawrence Cook and Max Kortlander

M.K.   “Recognize the tune?  Lawrence correcting his first master. Let’s watch him.”

Note: Because the actual master will not play on a normal player piano, a draft roll is punched from it and played, as shown here. The pencilled notes would then be used to correct the master. [6]

Note: The “first master” as Max calls it, would have been run — probably by Cook himself — on a “one-cut” perforator, without interrupting regular production. Many such rolls remain in our archives, bearing Cook’s pencilled notations. [3]

J. Lawrence Cook correcting Draft Roll at Audition Piano                                     J. Lawrence Cook and Max Kortlander

M.K.   “That sounds fine Lawrence.  Thank you.”

Note: From a historic perspective, both Lawrence and Max Kortlander just pump the player piano — no twiddling artistically with levers. J. Lawrence Cook’s granddaughter, Lisa Fagg, recalled that when she was young, they would just insert a roll and let it play. This confirms that the QRS product of that period was designed specifically to be suitable for playing in this manner if need be. It was not perforated to demand further intricate manipulation on the part of the pianolist in order to produce a satisfactory performance — unlike say, autograph Metrostyle rolls. This really does show that J. Lawrence Cook had a very thorough knowledge of the capabilities of player pianos and a first-rate understanding of piano music construction and composition. [4]

Note: The observation above that neither Lawrence nor Max “twiddle” with the levers when playing the rolls is an important one. Every punched hole in a Cook arrangement is placed exactly where he wanted it to be. It is really a perversion of his work to even touch the tempo lever once the tempo has been set. Through note durations and voicing he gave each arrangement all the color he ever expected it to have, though it’s certainly fun to further “interpret” these aspects by clever pumping, use of soft bass and treble levers and sustain pedal. But the tempo lever really should be left alone. [3]

Max Kortlander                                     Max Kortlander

M.K.   “You know Art, in dusty attics, cellars and out of the way places, there are possibly five hundred thousand player pianos that need repairing. These are very valuable to many people.”

“Now if you’ve liked what you saw and what you heard, now is the time to become your own Liberace — especially you Mr. Broom — ‘You Asked For It’.”



My first experience of J. Lawrence Cook’s work came when I acquired my first player piano many years ago. Included in the purchase were two “Fats” Waller QRS rolls, which greatly impressed me — so much so that they were very quickly reduced to shreds with constant playing. What I did not know at the time was that Cook had edited all of Waller’s QRS output. Having collected all the available Waller rolls, I am now firmly of the opinion that Cook’s contribution to them went much further than a simple editing job — there is at least one documented instance of “Fats” starting a roll but failing to turn up to finish it, so Cook had to complete the job. [FW]

Cook was a musical chameleon — he could produce convincing keyboard impressions of Art Tatum, “Fats” Waller, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner and several other leading pianists of the day. However, a major part of his QRS career was spent producing arrangements of commercial pop songs, as required for the catalogue of a commercial roll producer, and it is to Cook’s credit that his unique skill injected musicality into otherwise unexceptional material.

Some of the hot jazz rolls, which appeared under his own name, particularly those released during the 1940s, are masterpieces of swing piano playing. The arrangements are superb, clearly the product of a very fertile imagination, without doubt the work of somebody with a complete understanding of the idiom. He was far and away the most prolific and successful roll artist the world has ever known — yet he was just a part-timer (both Mike Montgomery and Bob Billings have told me that Cook held down a night job with the U.S. Post Office).

March 2002 John Farrell



Robbie Rhodes — Letters to Mike Meddings, 2nd December 2001 and 2nd March 2002.


Ed Sprankle — Letter to Mike Meddings, 17th February 2002.


Bob Berkman — Letters to Mike Meddings, 11th, 22nd February and 16th March 2002.


Adam Ramet — Letters to Mike Meddings, 8th and 15th February 2002.


John Farrell — Letter and “Afterword” to Mike Meddings, 4th March 2002.


Julian Dyer — Letters to Mike Meddings, 11th and 13th March 2002.


Joyce Brite — Letter to Mike Meddings, 14th March 2002.


L. Douglas Henderson — Letter to Mike Meddings, 25th March 2002.


David Saul — Letter (via Karl Ellison) to Mike Meddings, 12th November 2003.


Bob Berkman — Letter to Mike Meddings, 13th November 2003.


Bob Berkman (USA)
Joyce Brite (USA)
Julian Dyer (UK)
Karl Ellison (USA)
John Farrell (UK)
Millie Gaddini (USA)
L. Douglas Henderson (USA)

Bob Loader (UK)
Mike Meddings (UK)
Adam Ramet (UK)
Robbie Rhodes (USA)
David Saul (USA)
Ed Sprankle (USA)
Prof. Alan Wallace (USA)

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