I received a phone call on a June morning from a man who inquired about my piano-finding services. He sounded like he might be from India, but I wasn’t sure.
“Do you help with selling a piano?” he inquired.
“On occasion, I do,” I replied. “It depends on the quality of the instrument.”
I could never represent poor to mediocre pianos. I’d rather starve than risk my reputation promoting those that were pathetic sounding.
The man on the phone wanted to offer his piano for a substantial price.
“It has a big sound that whooshes around the room,” he insisted, “and a Visalia piano dealer said he could get me $1,200 for it.”
His favorable review whetted my curiosity.
“So what kind of piano do you own?” I asked.
“I have a small Wurlitzer,” he answered.
“And are you the original owner?”
“Oh, no, I recently bought it through a friend in Sanger who put me in touch with an elderly lady who was selling the piano.”
“So what did you pay for it?”
“I actually traded my camera for it,” he answered.
This was the first I had heard of such an arrangement.
“You’re saying that you got it without any cash exchange?”
“Well, there was a bit of money added in.”
“So how tall is your piano? Can you measure it from floor to top, and while you’re at it, please check the serial number, located on the cast iron plate by the rack.”
He paused to acquire the information.
“It measures about 39 inches from the floor and I found the numbers, ‘891197,’” he said, proudly.
“Well, first of all you have a spinet size piano, and your serial number dates it to between 1964 and 65.” (I had thumbed through my Pierce Piano Atlas to acquire the information)
At that moment I recalled Sharon Cooper’s first dream piano, a Wurlitzer 1968 that was a few inches taller than this one, and another, of the same vintage that was housed in a Fresno garage.”Scott,” a Lemoore Tires executive had bought his for $500 and was thrilled with his purchase. York had assisted him with the move, providing a dolly to slip the piano into a rented truck saving him a couple of bucks.
The old man knew he would get the tuning job if the buyer had the good sense to properly maintain his newly acquired instrument.
Sharon had fallen head over heels when she saw her “Wurly” and heard its exquisite tone. From my experience with the 60’s models, they were quite resonant, but those produced in the 70’s and 80’s were not nearly as impressive though there were always exceptions. For certain, the Wurlitzer Company went to great lengths to manufacture a lovely cabinet and this enticement above and beyond its resonance seemed to draw interested buyers.
The price tag of $1500 set by the inquiring seller seemed a bit high for the area.
“In all honesty, the market here in the Valley will bear a price of about $500 to $700 for your Wurlitzer piano,” I said, “but much depends on the condition of your instrument– whether it has sticking notes, a bad set of hammers or any other issues that might affect its market appeal.”
Ironically, this particular Wurlitzer piano was located in the boonies of Northeast Fresno, near Jonathon Jones’s place. He had been trying to sell his 1959 Yamaha console that was kept in his stifling, hot garage.
A few blocks away, Camber Dupree housed a 1874 Chickering Square grand that she was about to dismember and memorialize piece by piece over her fireplace. There were no buyers in sight. Rumor had it that she eventually sold its lion’s legs to a local furniture dealer for transplantation to a 1920’s grand.
“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfields, a pricey antique establishment off Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno, had mentioned in an interview, that one of her customers had bought a “box piano,” (parlor grand), and “gutted it for the center aisle in her kitchen. She took out the keys, did the top with granite and mounted the legs on the wall. It’s whatever their bag is,” Torcaso said in a resigned way. Her assessment of Valley prices concurred with mine. “In these parts, an item might be worth $20,000, but realistically, you can only get about $6,000 for it.” Her inventory was on consignment and occasionally a piano would roll onto the floor.
I had noticed two abysmal sounding verticals stored in her warehouse that would probably sell for no more than $75 each! One of these had several notes that were silent when played. I called them duds.
But despite housing these tonal disasters, Torcaso could lay claim to a beauty, inside and out, that I had stumbled upon at the American Cancer Society Discovery thrift store. The “J. Fritz Sohn,” mid-Nineteenth century musical treasure was probably the best piano ever to come out of Chesterfield’s, and Sam had commented how “shocked” she was when “Mary Papazian,” the buyer, “fell madly in love with the instrument, and then turned around and donated it out!” Apparently, this eye catching Viennese grand was originally acquired at a San Francisco auction house.
Checking the Wurlitzer
I found myself dripping with sweat during the 35 minute drive to the seller’s place. And since I had forgotten to ask him his name and phone number, if God forbid I got lost in a stretch of strawberry fields, I’d be out of luck! I recalled how YORK landed us a good distance from Van Ginkel’s house, in this same neighborhood when we were traipsing off in his pick-up to check out the Samick piano. The location harbored awful memories and I wanted to beat it the heck out of the area before the rush of traffic on Herndon Avenue.
At 10:00 a.m. I pulled up in front of a lavish two story house that was the last on a shadeless block of similar houses going for about $600,000 to $700,000, even though from my point of view, this was the last neighborhood I would choose to inhabit. It epitomized Fresno’s building and planning gone wild! There were long stretches of strip malls and homes like these sprinkled in between. To make matters worse, the air was insalubrious and carcinogenic with an overlay of yellow, pink and green. I could barely inhale without a threat to my respiratory system’s well being, especially during summer months when the city was at its worst as pesticide residues swarmed into the Valley.
When I entered the residence on East Palisades Drive, I was greeted by a man with a swarthy complexion, who spoke eloquently with an exotic accent. After a preliminary introduction, I quickly learned that he was named “Victor Thasiah,” (rhymes with “Isaiah”) and came originally from Malaysia. A volunteer, unpaid, fill-in or temporary Minister to a number of Evangelical Christian churches in and around Fresno, he had even been a pastor at the Swedish Baptist Church in Kingsburg that had planted the very established Northwest Church in Fresno that bordered the last rental complex I had occupied.
Before I got too immersed in a record- breaking long conversation with him, I headed straight for his lovely looking piano that sat in his living room with its cathedral ceiling and tiled floors. It was the most ideal acoustical setting imaginable! Next to placing a piano in the shower, an owner couldn’t have elicited a better reverberating environment. (This is not meant to suggest that any instrument should be housed near a source of water since MOISTURE was one of the three big enemies of pianos!) But thinking about bodies of water and pianos, brought to the surface a recollection I had of a Hamburg Steinway grand that was contained in a trendy Redwood City designer house and sat beside a waterfall with a cliff hanging backdrop! The piano was ironically DRY and lifeless to the touch!
Putting aside distracting thoughts of pianos tortured in unhealthy environments, I sat down to play a very attractively encased light walnut Wurlitzer spinet that was favorably situated. From the start, as I ran my fingers over its immaculate looking keys, I knew that this instrument was a winner! There was no question about its amazing resonance and consistent feel! It even played better than the magnificent Knight piano because it lacked the glassy upper treble of the British instrument and hadn’t any awkward-looking black keys. The Wurlitzer tone being warm, sonorous and inviting, induced Victor to sing impromptu over my rendition of Bach’s doleful “Prelude in C” from the Well Tempered Clavier. He had quickly realized that it contained the harmonic backdrop for Schubert’s religioso “Ave Maria,” but to be fair, he had the benefit of my having begun to sing it. With a dazzling bass baritone voice, he joined me for several measures until his voice petered out in the middle where the harmonies became more complex to follow.
As things “played out” I was beginning to learn more about Victor who was obviously a very musical individual, and in “concert” with his professional ministering, had a soulful singing voice. Such an introductory bio engaged my interest.
“So tell me about the piano and why you bought it?” I asked
“Well, I used to have another Wurlitzer of the same size that sat in my library.” He pointed to an adjacent room with an impressive looking desk and many book shelves, but there was no sign of a piano.
“And this instrument came with my wife,” he added, “when we were married 22 years ago. But I now realize that the first piano didn’t have the sonorous, big tone this one has.” He had apparently bought this second Wurlitzer a few weeks ago, and now wanted to sell it. I couldn’t make head or tail of his intentions, so perhaps I needed to break out Freud’s treatise on the first five years of life and its impact on a person’s decision-making in adulthood. This was adding up to an unfolding psychodrama.
“So where is your wife’s piano?” I asked
“Well, just a few days ago I shipped it out to my son who lives with his wife and kids in Ojai. He’s an ordained minister who did Karl Barth studies at Oxford.”
“My, you have a lot to be proud of,” I said. “So is it possible that you purchased another Wurlitzer to replace the one you just sent away?” I thought about emotional loss and how individuals needed to fill an empty void in their lives.
“You might say that,” he said, “but I guess a good buying opportunity presented, and since the piano had a nice ring to it and looked so lovely, I acquired it in the barter arrangement I had mentioned.”
Was he currently speculating in pianos? Buying them for cheap and then selling them at a significant mark-up? None of this added up because he lived in a lavish home and was apparently enjoying a good life. Did he really need the money? Would he cast out a gorgeous looking and sounding piano for a couple of bucks? He said that he had fallen in love with the “ping” sound of this Wurlitzer, and he listened intently as I described the swirl of its vibrations and the naturally long decay of its notes. Was this enough of a good review to make him love and treasure his new acquisition, the spiritual man that he seemed to be at first meeting?
“As I told you by phone this morning,” I said, “there’s a Valley driven asking price for these used pianos of the spinet and console variety. So realistically, you might top out at getting $700 for your lovely instrument. But why on earth would you want to sell this musical treasure in the first place?”
Oops! I did it again. I put my foot in my mouth and made a huge faux pas! Why on earth would I have trekked all the way out to this God forsaken part of Fresno in the stifling heat, to question an individual about his decision to put his piano on the market? Was I a jerk or what?
I knew too many good things about Wurlitzer spinet and console pianos of the older vintage not just from my personal hands on experience, but from what I had read on Robert Furst’s “Bluebook of Pianos” website.(I was willing to forgive him for having miss-dated my Aeolian) As I fumbled through the site’s “Archives,” I found the following pertinent entry:
“In 1935, Wurlitzer had introduced the tradition-breaking spinette proving that a piano only thirty-nine inches high could replace the bulky instruments traditionally produced. Upon the design of this piano was based all modern piano production. Through science, research, and ingenuity, Wurlitzer had developed such exclusive features as Tone crafted Hammers, Pentagonal Sound Board, Augmented Sound Board, etc. to provide a greater volume of rich, resonant tone. A unique achievement in finishes was ‘Wurl-on,’ highly resistant to heat, cold, dryness, and moisture as well as to mars, scratches, and abrasions. It provided an attractive as well as durable and long-lasting finish.”
Larry Fine’s Piano Book clarified that Wurlitzer had ultimately been taken over by Baldwin which had ties to Asian manufacturers, suggesting that the brand name was bought out. Fine asserted that “those crafted in the mid-70’s and 80’s had for the most part, trouble free actions but poor tone.”
Another fascinating bit of information was that in 1985, “Wurlitzer” purchased the Chickering name and the assets of Aeolian Pianos’ Memphis, Tennessee factory when that company went out of business. And for a time, Wurlitzer sold under its own name, verticals and grands made by “Young Chang,” a Korean manufacturer. Fine insisted that during the period of Baldwin ownership, from 1988 to 1990, the Wurlitzer pianos suffered with “inconsistency” and needed considerable “work by dealers to set them straight.” With all that I had read about Wurlitzer and shared with Victor, I maintained that those made by the company in the 60’s, well before its Baldwin/Young Chang takeover, seemed in large part, to own an especially luscious tone. But I always emphasized that I needed to judge pianos on an individual basis.
Victor seemed to have an instant change of heart when I asked him why he wanted to sell his piano. At that point I pressed the record button on my SONY portable and let this man play out his whole story in my Freudian analytical presence. (Readers should be informed that Mr. Thasiah approved release of this interview for publication)
Author: Does your son have the old Wurlitzer yet?
Victor: No, it’s on its way.
Author: Boy, if he only knew what you have here.
Victor: Well, in fact my wife doesn’t even know that I got this other piano. (She was away on a family trip)
Author: Just wait till she hears it. So tell me where did you get the first one?
Victor: My wife came with it.
Author: So it was her dowry, and was it the same vintage as this one?
Victor: Well, she’d had it for thirty years. (This would date the piano to 1977—not necessarily a good year for Wurlitzers)
Author: Did you realize when you owned it that it had a “muffled” sound like you’ve mentioned, or didn’t you think much about it?
Victor: I knew it was “muffled” when I tapped on it, but now with this other one here, I realize that this piano has a much better sound, especially now that you’ve played it for me.
Author: So were you enlightened that the same company could produce a better piano?
Victor: Yes, I think so.
Author: What about the appearance, was it similar?
Victor: The other one was a darker color.
Author: Looks like walnut to me.
Victor: I like this lighter color.
Author: You know Wurlitzer made lovely cabinets—that was another feature of their fine workmanship. So when you first learned of this piano through your Sanger friend, you went out and looked at it—played it?
Victor: I just looked at it and it appeared very much like the other one, only with a lighter color.
Author: Would you say that you were feeling sad that you had sent your old piano away to your son and it may have left a void in your life?
Victor: Yes, perhaps.
Author: Now who gave the original Wurlitzer the most playing?
Victor: None of us played, really.
Author: Is that your son in the picture playing a clarinet. (I pointed to a framed picture above the Wurlitzer)
Victor: Yes, and he got his Divinity Degree from Princeton and then went to Oxford on a Theological scholarship.
Author: Oh my goodness, smart kid! So what does he do now?
Victor: He’s 35 and is an ordained minister in Ojai.
Author: What a great place to live! Beautiful climate! Great air!
So did he request that the piano be sent to him?
Victor: No, we thought we’d give it to the grandchildren.
Author: You had mentioned that he was married.
Victor: Yes, and his wife also graduated Princeton and is an ordained Minister. They have two daughters. (He led me to a living room area where he had family pictures on the wall)
Author: So did your sons ever play the first Wurlitzer piano? Or did they take piano lessons?
Victor: They did when they were young.
Author: Who did they study with?
Victor: “Ann Piran Mamigonian.” My older son tried piano; he tried clarinet, saxophone, so he and his brother were both musically inclined but not very serious about their instrumental studies.
Author: So was the old Wurlitzer piano kept here in this house all those years?
Victor: We have only been here for three years. This is our retirement home.
Author: Oh, so when your children grew up, your piano was in the other home?
Victor: Yes it was.
Author: So would you say that your association with the piano had to do with it having been a steady family companion, rather than a living, breathing musical instrument?
Victor: Well you see, I have lots of friends, and I’m a vocalist, and my wife is also a vocalist. (She sings in the “Sweet Adolines” chorus that performs the barber shop repertoire) We have friends that come over and want to gather around the piano.
Author: So it’s not that you want to show off a piece of furniture. Having a piano seems to be part of your culture.
Victor: Yes, we have always wanted our children to be educated in good quality music and literature and things like that.
Author: So your older son went to Princeton. Where did the younger one go?
Victor: He went to Pepperdine. He’s a church leader, and by profession, he’s a creative director of computer graphics. He and his wife have two children.
(He showed me pictures of his grandchildren posted on the refrigerator)
Author: Is your wife from this country?
Victor: She’s from the US, but my children are from a first marriage.
My former wife is ethnic Chinese, from Malaysia.
Author: So when did you marry your second wife?
Victor: 22 years ago.
Author: I get the picture. You’re a cultured man—you’re a minister—where do currently serve as pastor?
Victor: I was really a Fresno Deputy City Manager by profession.
Author: Then you have a Degree in City Planning?
Victor: I have a Master’s Degree in Metal Technology.
Author: Where did you obtain that degree?
Victor: From Fresno State.
Author: Interesting. What brought you to Fresno in the first place?
Victor: A Secondary Fulbright Commission scholarship.
Author: See this is very compelling. You don’t find many people in Fresno with your credentials.
Author: Now to change the subject a bit. What do you think of the Fresno cultural scene?
Victor: Well it’s not very good because we are overwhelmed by a focus on Ag-Business to the detriment of the arts.
Author: What about the politics of air pollution control and construction gone wild. We have eternal strip malls and a devil may care attitude about the environment.
Victor: Well, policies at the city administrative level often have to do with the growth of jobs so environmental issues and concerns are often put on the back burner.
Author: To shift to another the subject once again, I see that there is a small 23 page book you have authored that is sitting in your library where your old piano used to be.
Victor: Yes, it’s a parable. On the left side you read about a boy blowing bubbles and to the right I have provided biblical interpretation.
I thumbed through its pages and found one with a series of floating note bubbles.
“As I continued
to peer at the growing beauty of the bubbles
I saw some sluggish and shaky
and avoiding them
I saw a few floating at ease
with musical charm.”
Victor had planned to have me play a concert on his “new” Wurlitzer in a few weeks–the one he had wanted to sell for a substantial profit. He had rethought his intention to put it on the market after I had convinced him that his piano was worth keeping. And just maybe the “Ave Maria” resounding through the living room had influenced him.
In any event, this Wurlitzer, once on the meat rack of used pianos, would thankfully never leave its home.
From Victor Thasia: 1/16/11
Shirley, You have never been forgotten. The piano is still here and friends still
grace our home and accompany me as I sing. Do not be surprised if one day you will be playing here as a guest before my granddaughter Eden (9) who is taking
piano lessons in Chicago. As it is my dream, you will be playing before a small intimate audience in our home.. that dream has never been dismissed – still very much alive and will be done at the right time.