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A High Stakes Piano Finding Adventure, or was it a Sopranos TV episode?

A woman named “Sharon Cooper,” phoned me one Saturday morning about my helping her select a console size piano in a modest price range. She had heard about my piano finding activity from a friend.

Inquisitive and intelligent, with an animated personality, she had an ardent curiosity about the whole process of finding a suitable instrument and what it entailed.

A quick Google search of her name following our conversation, linked me to an abstract of her eclectic presentation at California State University Fresno: “A Post-Patriarchal Renaissance: An Examination of the Changing Status of Women in Russia.”

From reading the project overview, I felt an immediate connection with this woman, whose writing had revealed a feminist dimension that I had associated with my own travels through life.  Just a few years before, I had sparked a successful effort to organize Fresno substitute teachers who had been earning $65  per day for nearly ten years despite the requirement of a college degree. It wasn’t that my investment of energy was a specifically feminist undertaking, but the gusto associated with making something unforeseen happen, by defying the odds, attached a certain energy that some might conventionally equate with the male gender

My follow-up e-mail to Sharon bubbled with excitement over what we seemed to have in common. In a reply, she gave a more realistic  account of her life, that clarified aspects that I would not have otherwise known about.

“Hi Shirley,

“My goodness, that project you had referred to, was undertaken many years ago.  As an undergraduate at CSU Fresno, I did write a paper on feminist Russian politics, which was published in an academic journal. I also had the opportunity to ‘present’ before a scholarly audience at CAL Berkeley and at the Western Social Science Association’s annual conference. My fifteen minutes of fame!  At the time I had intended to pursue a Ph. d in East European Politics.

“Since then my life has taken a more sensible, albeit mundane, turn.  I completed my Master’s Degree in Public Administration at CSUFresno and I now work as a Personnel Administrator at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.  While the Air District is an environmental agency, I wouldn’t expect that my name would be connected with any environmental links, since I work on the administrative side of things (HR)……”

Surely her connection to the administrative side of air pollution control had eluded me, but now knowing that she was involved in a public interest pursuit that benefited those trapped in our oxygen deprived San Joaquin Valley made her an instant comrade. (no pun intended)

As I read more of Sharon’s note, I learned that she commuted to Fresno from her home in Lemoore, a farming town about 35 miles away, well known for its Air Force Base. As a coincidence, I had recently located a lovely Wurlitzer console piano for a Lemoore Tires executive who paid all of $550 for it and obtained York’s assistance, extricating the instrument from a scalding, hot garage.

Still another Wurlitzer console had crossed my path that came with a white enameled exterior that would fit nicely in a color coordinated bathroom. Yet this oddity was the centerpiece of a conservatively furnished living room in dark walnut. Aside from its strange finish and lack of color coordination, it had the name “Hohner” welded into its cast iron plate. Even York was perplexed by the information I had relayed.  “Geeze, it sounds like that there piana ain’t no Wurlitzer at all ‘cause the Hohner Company made harmonicas.”

I remembered my Hohner mouth organ and how I treasured it. The instrument happened to be dropped off by my aunt one Christmas day, and no matter what I played, it always sounded right. York claimed that he tooted one himself with considerable skill. The story goes that he also played the cornet and received an army commission for having led a band or two. He had mentioned having received a quick promotion when he heeded the request of a Colonel to box a Yamaha grand that was housed in a burnt down factory in Japan during World War II. For all intents and purposes, the officer was pilfering a piano with York’s assistance.

The Wurlitzer

My association with the name “Wurlitzer” dated to my years growing up in New York City.  As a a violin student, simultaneouly pursuing  piano studies, I would frequent a mid-town Manhattan store, named “Wurlitzer’s” that had Strads and Amatis, and other priceless treasures hanging from racks in neat rows. Violinists, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman would sometimes cruise through the space trying out any one of the exotic fiddles that suited them and their displays of virtuosity would attract wide attention among customers looking for the best wound strings for their more modestly valued violins.

Otherwise, Wurlitzer and its association to pianos only grew in familiarity as I traveled the nooks and crannies of Fresno and beyond hunting down prospects for my students or anyone else seriously in the market for a used piano.

In doing my required research on the Wurlitzer piano, I had first consulted the Bluebookof and printed out the following paragraphs:

“Rudolf Wurlitzer set up a manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1861. Four years later he opened a retail shop and expanded the distribution business across the US.

“In 1880 Franz Rudolf Wurlitzer started to make pianos, and the company grew and became particularly well known for military and mechanical instruments….

“In 1935, Wurlitzer introduced the tradition-breaking spinette piano, proving that a piano only thirty-nine inches high could replace the bulky instruments traditionally produced. Upon the design of this piano is based all modern piano production. Through science, research, and ingenuity, Wurlitzer has developed such exclusive features as Tonecrafted Hammers, Pentagonal Sound Board, Augmented Sound Board, and many others to provide a greater volume of rich, resonant tone. A unique achievement in finishes is “Wurl-on,” highly resistant to heat, cold, dryness, and moisture as well as mars, scratches, and abrasions an attractive as well as durable and long-lasting finish. The complete line of Wurlitzer pianos offers a wide range of spinette, console, and studio-type designs, finished in a variety of fine woods, hand-rubbed to satin smoothness, and priced to suit any budget. Noted for their perfection of performance and beauty of appearance, Wurlitzer pianos give enduring satisfaction and are a handsome addition to any setting…”


The odd appearing white Wurlitzer that stood before me in a Woodward Park area home was in my opinion, overpriced at $2,000, but it had enough of a voice to justify about half the amount. Fresno prices were always going to be lower than comparable piano sales in big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. A seller had to be realistic and practical about attaching a price tag to one of the lesser known pianos in the Central Valley or come to terms with not parting with what they often regarded as the world’s most sought after treasure.

With a good tuning and voicing, this particular Wurlitzer might have been a worthy addition to a home, though the seller refused to kick in the necessary dollars to tune it.

Among private party sellers of used pianos, this was the universal chant: “The piano’s been hardly played so why should I tune it!” Or, “the buyer’s gonna tune it anyway so why should I assume the cost.”

In his well respected Piano Book, Larry Fine emphasized that tuning a piano was the best measure taken to advance its sale. “By having the piano tuned and minor repairs made before selling it, the seller will eliminate any problems that would distract or confuse a prospective buyer… He concluded that “piano owners who tune and repair their pianos sell them much faster and at a higher price than those who don’t, easily recovering their expenses several-fold.” (P. 203, “Selling Your Piano” from The Piano Book, Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano)

While the out of tune, white Wurlitzer might not have been the best option for Sharon, I decided it was something to pass by her as I automatically clicked, email, “send.”

She replied within a few days.

“Please forgive my delay in responding– we just returned from an out of town trip, but to be honest, this Wurlitzer doesn’t sound like a piano that I would be interested in pursuing. While the look of it isn’t my first concern, I can’t imagine having a white enamel piano, unless you tell me it’s an under-priced Steinway. Surely the right piano is out there, though I’m sure it may take a little time to find it. Meanwhile, I’m excited about the prospect of having my very own piano, so I’m willing to wait for the right one.”

I couldn’t help but see a tie in to the dating game. How often we’d heard men and women say that the right someone was out there, and it was just a matter of time.

With pianos, it was no different.

The little “Knightingale” was a prime example. The malaise and delay associated with its purchase were tied to countless requests for photographs, followed by a disturbing silence after these images were transmitted. Without a filigreed rack, fluted legs, or a light wood sheen, it was ostracized, sitting in its lonely corner until tapped by a buyer who finally saw beyond its rather plain exterior.


As it happened, sometime in the middle of the week after I’d spoken with Sharon Cooper, I’d spotted an amazing photo of a vintage 1939 Howard grand piano (made by the Baldwin Company) that was posted on Craig’s List. The name “Howard” carried a positive association since I’d recently located a tall 1929 vintage upright of the same manufacturer that turned out to be a proverbial ugly duckling with a redeeming tonal soul. York had appraised it at $800 and noted its lovely resonance in his written assessment.

But somehow I hadn’t made the connection when I launched my own trip to the outskirts of town to evaluate what turned out to be this very piano for Marcus Johnson, a young father of two small boys, who with his wife had been searching for the tallest, oldest upright that could be found. Unfortunately, four months had already passed and I hadn’t located anything that had a remotely decent tone.

I vividly recall the afternoon I had knocked on the door of an upscale home in Northeast Fresno, greeted by a youngish woman who led me down a narrow hallway to a dark bedroom. It contained an age worn, tall upright with a dull gray-yellow painted finish. A real eye sore!

The seller, a collector of guitars, psalteries, and some other exotic instruments, reported that the piano had been passed down through her family but had to be sold because of  her remodeling and relocation plans. Since time was of  essence, she had planned to donate it out to a women’s shelter if it didn’t sell quickly.

Based on the look of  this old vertical, I had guessed that it had a slim chance of sounding half way decent. In my experience, most uprights in the 60-70 plus age range were largely ill-maintained. They could have been placed up against radiators or exposed to cold drafts. Many of these senior instruments might have been rarely tuned. Others had been infested with moths that had eaten away at their felt. Maybe the mice and rats had gotten to this one, and chewed up the bridle straps and dampers. A great majority of these vintage verticals could have cracked soundboards from extreme moisture, and temperature changes.

Given the negatives associated with many of these aged pianos, sometimes called clunkers, I was  shocked to discover the extraordinary tone and resonance produced by this 68 year old Howard upright!

For at least an hour I was wooed by it, spinning out countless Romantic melodies that best displayed its sonority. In a hypnotic trance while playing, I forgot where I was and what brought me to this piano, but I had a faint memory of having phoned Marcus to come over to experience it as quickly as possible.

Within 30 minutes, I heard the family sauntering down a long hallway as they approached the bedroom where the piano stood. For their procession, I was playing a doleful Chopin Nocturne, the theme song of the movie, The Pianist, which had the backdrop of World War II Poland. The soulful strains drew Marcus and his wife closer to its sound source and he later confessed that “we knew instantly from the moment we entered the hallway, that this would be our piano.”

A lovely family of four, including two small boys stood there gazing upon a sallow-looking upright with redeeming tonal richness and internal beauty. Marcus lingered with his brood and experienced more of the piano’s tonal virtues. Then he ceremoniously handed the seller a check for the asking price of $200, promising to treasure and care for this piano, as well as restore its original cherry finish. He sounded like a groom taking his wedding vows.

The seller, a cancer survivor, who headed up an organization, “Songs for the Cure,” was relieved that her piano had found a worthy family to receive it. In the spirit of celebration she wrote a lovely letter to all of us the following day.

“I am so happy to the see the piano move on to individuals that will appreciate it. I, like you all value the quality and history of musical instruments. The stories that a piano could tell!

“Shirley, Thank you for your assistance with the sale. How wonderful that there are people like you who enable the right instruments to be connected to the right people.

“And thank you, Marcus for being willing to see the cosmetic potential of the piano. I can picture what it will look like once you are done with your care and efforts to restore it.”


I quickly re-focused my attention on a 1939 Howard grand piano that had a magnificent photographic presence on Craig’s List. Sharon had already stumbled upon it when combing the “Musical Instruments” section. By coincidence, our e-mails of excitement about this piano had crossed paths.

The grand was listed for $1,495, offered by “the piano lady of Oakhurst,” a seemingly eccentric woman who had moved the piano to Fresno from its prior home in the mountains.

Its description revealed original ivory keys and a lovely mahogany finish. I conjectured that its tone would should at least approximate that of the Howard upright, the one which had recently found a good home.

Sometimes I would imagine myself taking possession of a finer instrument like this newly advertised grand, against my own free will, though I was absolutely unable to afford any more pianos. My living room had barely accommodated a Steinway grand and upright, as well as two Casio keyboards so it was beginning to look like a piano showroom. In truth, Sharon deserved to own this Howard grand piano, that is, if it lived up to its sterling reputation.

Sharon e-mailed me the day before I had planned to  check out the grand:

“Wow, I would most certainly consider this piano if it turns out to be something that you would recommend. It looks so beautiful from the photos.”

Another communication arrived a few hours later.

“I just spoke with my husband (He had brought the Craig’s List posting to my attention) and he suggested that I let you know that we’re ready to make an offer on this instrument right away, if you just give us the ‘go ahead.’ ”

This was the kind of premature excitement that could crescendo to a fever pitched pursuit of the wrong instrument.  Rebecca McGregor’s ordeal  was a case in point . She’d purchased her Proksch, 1905 grand over the Internet in the heat of passion, without ever having stroked its keys. The consequences were tragic.

Now Sharon was feeding an adrenaline surge, that could backfire if the piano didn’t pan out as expected. She might suddenly fall headlong into a pit of depression like so many eager beaver piano hunters who had preceded her.

The High Stakes Adventure

Sharon trusted me enough through our many telephone conversations to have me separately evaluate the Howard grand without her. She hadn’t been able to take a day off to make a jaunt up to the piano’s location , so we both decided to meet over her lunch hour at the parking lot of Fresno Ag Hardware, a stone’s throw from her Air Pollution District Office. There, she would deposit $1800 in cash into my purse, which included a few hundred extra dollars in case another buyer seriously vied for the piano. She felt it would give me some wiggle room in negotiations with the seller.


The parking lot was vast. Not ever having met Sharon in person, except through our brief communications by telephone and e-mail, I would not have had an easy time locating her among strangers traversing a bustling commercial area in a dubious part of town.

“Look for a tall, mid forties, red head,” she had said.

“I’m short, brown haired, and drive a beat up, blue Caravan,” I had replied.

The scene at the Ag Hardware parking lot was straight out of a Sopranos TV episode. Opening scene: I tentatively edged my van forward, looking for a tall woman with red hair. At the same moment, she was straining to find a diminutive, brunette in the din of the afternoon. Why on earth didn’t I tell her that I’d be carrying a turquoise colored zippered bag with the letter “K” on it  that would draw her attention!

I put the breaks on, and  stepped out of my van, judiciously eyeing my surroundings, and headed for the store entrance that provided some needed shade. It was at least 105 degrees!

I figured that Sharon could spot me more readily if I was standing under the store’s awning at the front of the lot.

Holding the conspicuous soft turquoise purse in my hands, I looked like a potential drug dealer making a drop. Now I was worried that a patrolman might pull up and question me because I was was beginning to play out a part where I appeared and felt  guilty standing there holding the bag. Having this real concern, I walked over to the middle of the parking lot, jiggling my car keys in my left hand so passersby including store security, would believe I was  heading over to my parked car. I glanced frequently behind me, to check if I was being shadowed by a thug who’d grab the money he thought was in the purse and run, or by a cop who’d apprehend me for suspicious activity. At that very instant, in the nick of time, a tall, attractive red head approached me with a wad of cash and deposited it silently into my purse. Mission accomplished!! I looked over my shoulder for one last time.

We both knew instinctively, that we had no time to chat because if we lingered, it might have attracted under cover cops bent on making a drug bust. This particular corner of Blackstone Avenue was a hub for cruising prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and other shady characters. We had to get our butts out of the area as quickly as possible!


Within a few hours of our high stakes parking lot encounter, I was surprised to see Sharon’s parked car in front of the house where the piano was being sold. She had apparently received last minute permission from her boss to leave work early for personal business. What a great turn of events, I thought, as I handed  back the $1800 in cash to its rightful owner—You might say, it was reverse cash drop in an upscale part of town.

We promptly entered a Spanish style, two-story house shortly before 1:30 p.m. finding no other cars parked in front of it. Luckily, another buyer had not materialized! Such an early bird catches the worm opportunity could well have been the harbinger of good luck.

The eccentric Piano Lady of Oakhurst, however, was nowhere to be seen. Instead her grandson, appearing to be in his 20s represented her and greeted us politely. The piano, now displayed in living color,  the featured attraction of a large room with a vaulted ceiling, did not look as appealing as it had on Craig’s List. It was smaller in dimension with a lackluster finish. Someone had to have photo shopped it.

As I ran my fingers over its keys, there was no resonance or personality springing from its core. In fact I had discovered numerous notes that when struck produced more than one tone. Upon further investigation I found some twisted, unaligned hammers that may have been the cause of the problem. Going over 88 keys with a fine tooth comb, I had readily decided that this Howard grand piano had little value as a musical instrument and looking over at  Sharon, I could feel her painful expression of agreement.

We lingered in front of the decorative two-story home and shared our mutual unhappiness.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I very much enjoyed meeting you even though I’m disappointed that the piano didn’t turn out to be what we had hoped for, but I’m not going to get discouraged. I just know the right piano is out there, but we may have to search for a while.”

I had heard this from her before. She had the patience of a saint along with good intuition. It was probably just a matter of time, before we would stumble upon the piano of her dreams.

As fate would have it, Sharon Cooper’s musical treasure turned up right in her own back yard as the song went.

She called me within a week of our heartfelt disappointment with the 1939 Howard grand to tell me that she had stumbled upon an ad for an older Wurlitzer piano that had been placed in her local newspaper.

The exact age of the piano was not clear, but its approximate 60’s vintage excited my interest. The older Wurlitzer consoles of this era were ones I had a preference for, though it was not cast in stone, that I could so easily generalize their superiority.

Sharon had promptly set up a time for both of us to see the piano that jived with both our schedules. I had preferred that that she drive me to the location because I had the usual propensity to get lost in unfamiliar territory. This problem that dated to my elementary school days when I repeatedly failed map reading exams. I didn’t know north from south, east from west, so I could possibly end up homeless on the open road. To the contrary, I knew the geography of the piano in my sleep and I’d never get lost among a maze of 24 scales in the major and minor keys. Go figure?

Sharon successfully contacted the seller whose home was located just around the corner from hers and set up an appointment for an early Saturday morning. She had agreed to drive me in the company of her husband to a two story framed abode in an old, downtown section of Lemoore that housed the piano.

“Dave,” Sharon’s husband greeted me warmly. He had a cherubic face and warm-hearted nature. On the last lap of acquiring an elementary Ed. Teaching credential, he had looked forward to a mid-life change of occupation. He had previously owned a private plane repair business but now eagerly anticipated teaching second grade. It seemed like the perfect match endeavor.

Sharon gave me a driving tour of Lemoore and its environs as we approached the old residence with the Wurlitzer. She mentioned having relocated to this farming community from the Bay some years ago and had two grown daughters from a previous marriage. Dave and Sharon were the parents of “Elizabeth” an unexpected mid-life blessing who filled their life with her effervescence.

We were approaching a lovely wood framed house with an attractive porch. The owners, a husband and wife came out to greet us. Shortly, we were led to a lovely pecan Wurlitzer that according to the Pierce Piano Atlas dated to 1968.The piano’s appearance was feminine and curvaceous, with fluted legs that gave it an antique flavor. The cabinet was very lovely and enticing.

I was hoping that if this piano played anywhere as nicely as it looked, that we’d certainly have a winner for Sharon and her family.

I didn’t hesitate to approach it and try it out.

The tone that instantly emanated from this fragile console was remarkably good. I could feel the “ping” from one register to another, and the bass was particularly defined for such a small piano standing just 42 inches from the ground. In some ways it resembled the Knight piano in its total projection though this Wurlitzer was not as bright sounding. I studied every register in detail and tapped out each note at different dynamic levels. I found a few lazy hammers that could be easily adjusted, but I wanted York to double on my opinion just to be safe.

It was a coincidence that he was just around the corner tinkering with a large grand, and agreed to take a break and scoot over to test out this diminutive piano.

The arrival of York was always a trip!

“So where’s that there, Wurlitzer?” He was already lost in this expansive house.

“Oh I sees it,” he said. A cat jumped across the room distracting him for a moment. Then it perched itself atop the Wurlitzer.

Given this cue from the prancing animal, York couldn’t resist telling one of his long-winded stories, but first he paused to introduce himself, tipping his cap in Sharon’s direction.

“Hey I gotta story ‘bout a cat that will make yer hair stand up.” We huddled around the piano waiting with bated breath to hear it. Sharon, her husband and I were all ears.

“Well I was tunin’ this big grand piana in a nice part of Fresno,” he says, “and there was a cat that liked to jump up into it and make herself comfy, an’ all that. So the owners decided one day ta’ put a little pillow inside it with some cat nip. Well before ya could say ‘Jack Robinson,’ the cat got caught under the lid of the piana because the owners dun went away to Carmel fer the weekend and forgots that they closed it up. Now the maid came out there on a Monday mornin’ and seein’ no sign of the cat, but smellin’ somethin’ funny comin’ from that there piana, she opened it up and see’d a hairless cat that looked like it had went through a thrasher! Now that there animal didn’t even have an eyebrow left but was still alive and kickin.’ So she dun seen poop and pee all over the inside of the piano, cause there’s no restrooms fer cats in there, and that there maid just didn’t know what to do. So she phoned the owners and told ‘em what happened. First thing they said is, ‘call York, he can fix anythin’!!’ Well, I gots to the place real quick and starts to do my work. I cleaned up the insides of the piana, and dun tore out all the cat hair that was twisted around the strings and hammers, and then I did watcha call damper stem and felt replacement. What a mess! It cost ‘em people at least $600 fer what the cat had did!”

Sharon and I were no longer amused by York’s prolonged story-telling because we needed him to focus entirely on the piano once and for all and not waste our precious time.

At this point the house cat that was perched on the piano had scampered off in fright to the kitchen making it easier for York to dismantle the Wurlitzer and check out its assembly.

“Oh, wow, this is a nice piana,” he said, “with a damn good looking set a’ hammers. Here, let me take my soft cloth and clean ‘em up. Well it’s been played a bit, but not much,” he said. “Still has plenty of felt on ’em. Now let me check the response on ‘em. Ah, yeah, I can see some lazy hammers in there, but it’s not a problem ‘cause I can fix anything that needs fixin’.’” How many times had I heard this same chant before!

“It’s got a nice ping to it,” I interjected, as I ran my fingers over a string of notes.

“Yes sirree, it’s gotta a nice ring to it and alls it needs is a few adjustments here and there and an ace tunin.’ “

“Hey, Mr. York,” I said, “Sharon and I need to have a private conversation about making a bid on the piano. It’s definitely time to talk business.”

We huddled in the porch area and discussed strategy. The asking price was “$750” so I advised Sharon to offer the seller, “$550” for it, not a penny more.

Sharon felt that she needed some space and a little time before she spoke to the sellers. The seller’s wife was a school teacher and the husband a pilot. They and their two children were about to relocate to Louisville, Kentucky because dad had a new job flying planes for the military. Obviously they were in a crunch to sell the piano because they couldn’t take it with them. That imminent circumstance definitely favored the buyer.

In a short time, Sharon had clinched the deal and emerged from her negotiations with a huge smile on her face!

“There’s cause for celebration,” she exclaimed. For a bargain price she had acquired her first dream piano! “I love my Wurly,” she screamed!

We all drove away from the Lemoore home feeling the ecstasy that owners of “new” pianos would appreciate. Sharon could hardly wait for her Wurly to arrive at her house and I was delighted that I had contributed to all this rejoicing!

Another piano had found a good home!


2 thoughts on “A High Stakes Piano Finding Adventure, or was it a Sopranos TV episode?”

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