This piano tells the story of how the paper rolls are created, and who makes them. They are called Arrangers. The Arranger would listen to or read a musical composition and sit at a piano like this one to create paper rolls from that music (more specifically, the arranger would create a master roll using a flexible cardboard book, from which the waxed paper rolls we have were copied). Some arrangers also composed, but not all of them.
The lower keyboard – a traditional piano keyboard – was used to arrange the song and to hear how it would sound for the piano portion of the nickelodeon. Once the arranger perfected the song, they would then play it on the top keyboard, which was attached to a machine (not present) that literally punctured holes in a master paper roll to correspond with each of the keys on the orchestrion’s piano. This left very little room for error. When mistakes were made, unwanted holes could be filled in.
This was the personal arranger piano of J. Lawrence “Piano Roll” Cook
Mr. Cook is considered one of the most prolific arrangers of all time. He worked in the industry for around half a century and produced over 20,000 pieces of music for the piano roll industry, continuing even after his retirement from the Imperial Company (formerly QRS) for collectors and enthusiasts.
To Cook, the art of making piano rolls was as simple as “getting holes in paper in the right place.” He claimed that it took about three hours to create a fox trot of thirty feet, which translates to 2-1/2 minutes. The first roll Cook ever produced was for the fox trot, “The Little Red School House.”
While he is best known for his nickelodeon arrangements, Cook also produced music for band organs, hurdy gurdys, carillons, chimes, and all mechanical instruments.
Cook was considered a musical chameleon. He could produce convincing keyboard impressions of many famous pianists of his day, including Fats Waller (whose work he apparently completed when Waller proved too intoxicated to show up to complete them himself), Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner. He also had to produce commercial pop songs that would sell. He has received credit for adding musical style and panache to otherwise-forgettable music.