It began when Champion resident Joe Pirtz, owner of Green Computer Doctor, received a repair call. He responded to customer Jan Chrish's home in Niles, where Chrish's sister, piano player Marj Schmidt of Seattle, was visiting.
While Pirtz worked on Chrish's computer, he told her about a music-related book he was writing. Schmidt had bought and renovated a Youngstown house that happened to have a garage-full of vintage pianos and organs.
Schmidt asked Pirtz if he was interested in the treasure trove of pianos and organs.
Pirtz uses two pieces of wood to play his “Walliano,” the inner parts of a piano affixed to a wall.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
This house call sparked a new passion for Pirtz: salvaging pianos.
"We removed the soundboards and harps, which are only 4 inches thick, and 5 feet wide. Originally, one of my main intentions was to show people that you could pull the harp out of the piano and the sounds of the harps are amazing. The bodies on these pianos were beat up and we started immediately taking apart the pianos by taking out the harps and sound boards," Pirtz said.
Schmidt recalled Pirtz's reaction to her garage full of pianos.
"(He) was like a kid in a candy store," she said. "The man who used to live in this house worked on pianos. There were 12-plus pianos and organs in the garage. We were trying to get rid of them.
''There were a lot of piano parts and keyboards in that garage. The pianos were all upright pianos, and there was one 1860s Steinway Square Piano, which we are going to have refurbished and shipped to our home in Seattle," Schmidt said.
Schmidt talks about Pirtz removing the soundboards and harps from these old instruments, and in doing so, discovered a new dulcimer-like instrument.
"(Pirtz) took the sound boards out of the pianos, and he was playing them right in the driveway after he took them out of the garage," Schmidt said.
Rick Furr of Champion, an employee at Green Computer Doctor, said that Pirtz finds and locates pianos to salvage on Craigslist and eBay. Furr helps Pirtz out in transporting the pianos, driving across Ohio and Pennsylvania to acquire these pianos.
"We find homes for homes for pianos," Furr said. "(Pirtz) also turns these pianos into art. He takes the harps and soundboards out of the pianos and displays them on the walls of the shop calling them 'Wallianos.' I've seen people turn pianos into bookshelves, taking all the parts out of them and leaving the ivory keys in the piano."
"I pull the harps out of these pianos, and they are physically a work of art," Pirtz said. "The soundboard in an upright piano is something no one ever sees. What I am doing is breaking the cabinet of the piano and pulling out the soundboard and harp. This is also a work of art, as well as an instrument you can play with a mallet. The strings vibrate, and it's beautiful."
Pirtz said that selling vintage pianos is difficult. He said that most people are more interested in electronic keyboards.
"Not too many people want them," Pirtz said. "I just salvage and collect them. The interest in pianos in the northeast has diminished to the point where people are throwing them away."
Ryan Rexroad, manager at Hubbard Music in Hubbard, said that more customers are buying digital keyboards instead of traditional pianos.
"More people are buying digital keyboards because they take up less space in a room," Rexroad said. "Digital keyboards have more variety of sounds, whereas a traditional piano only has one type of sound.
''With a regular piano, it becomes a permanent fixture in a room, which isn't a bad thing because they are beautiful. With a digital keyboard, you can set it up and put it away when you are finished."
Denny Biviano, general manager at Motter's Music in Canfield, said that the biggest issue with regular acoustic pianos is maintenance and repair.
"As the aging repair people are retiring, piano technicians who can rebuild parts for regular pianos are getting hard to find," he said. "The other huge expense is finding piano movers, because just transporting pianos is expensive."
John Mancino, owner of Mancino's Piano Services in Niles, tunes, reconditions, rebuilds and restrings pianos. He said he does some restoration work.
"A lot more people are consumers of music than players of music," Mancino said. "The piano has become much more of a private pursuit than a form of family entertainment, when the piano's heyday was before the radio."
Mancino said that old upright pianos manufactured between 1880 and 1940 are the pianos that are being discarded the most.
"They are too big and heavy to be passed around and also expensive to move," he said. "Some of them are not serviceable because of their age. With pianos, there are no collector's items. Pianos of antique value are probably displayed in a museum."
On the flip side, there are musicians out there who adore the finesse of a traditional acoustic upright or grand piano.
"I just sold a piano to some girls in Nevada," Pirtz said. "They were ecstatic. It was an Art Deco-style 1959 Wurlitzer. It was a beautiful piano, and it made their day."