A Conversation with Janice E. Kelsh
Founder of the Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club
She may not be as famous as dimpled, sequined fellow collector Liberace or as funny as Schroeder, the miniature piano man of the Peanuts comic strip; nor is she as well-known as Barry Manilow, who features a Bencini sculpture (#63 Pianist) on the front cover of his album Trying to Get The Feeling; but Janice E. Kelsh is in love with those cute little small-scale pianos. That led her to organizing the first-ever Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club (MPEC) in 1991 in Chicago.
During the early years of collecting, Janice got so hooked on wanting to find every piano possible, she was awakened and visibly terrified by a nightmare in which she was being chased by a piano. It’s more likely the other way around, however, as Janice has chased down pianos in antique shops, auctions, flea markets, toy departments and thrift stores for years.
Among the many highlights creating her collection includes one that, in 1979 while attending her first auction of toys and dolls and Schoenhut miniature pianos, the auctioneer mispronounced the word and called out something like “chanute” piano. Not thinking anyone else knew what he was talking about, she knew it was a Schoenhut. Consequently, Janice ended up getting a (c.1925) piano for $5.
In 1983, when the collection grew to 132 pianos with only a few duplications, Janice looked to join or organize a club that catered to miniature piano collectors. Stories were placed in trade and local papers to see if there was a response from other collectors. Sadly, the response received was minimal, even though keyboard great Liberace,
himself a miniature piano collector, participated in the publicity following Janice’s back-stage meeting with him in 1984. Later, when Janice moved to Chicago, she
contacted a Chicago Tribune reporter to do a story and the Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club (MPEC) was born with 13 charter members.
“There is no greater joy to a collector than having the opportunity to join or start an organization of collectors who share a common interest,” says Janice. It is a club for those who collect, buy, sell, play, or are just fascinated with miniature and toy pianos. Members of the MPEC include music teachers and professors, piano tuners, church organists, musicians, doll house collectors and people who love music in general. At its peak, MPEC grew to 60 members strong. Current membership is about 25, with four (4) international members (London, Norway, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom).
A quarterly newsletter, expressively titled MUSICALLY YOURS! is one feature of the club, often with interviews with William F. Schoenhut, Sr., grandson of Albert Schoenhut; toy pianists Paula Bobb, Shiau-uen Ding, Pascal Meyer, Elaine Lau and Eliza Rickman; and other issues with Isabel Ettenauer, Phyllis Chen and Xenia Pestova. The 100th issue was released on April 27, 2017 in celebration of its 26th year of publishing. The issue was filled with a close-up of members in the spotlight, and facts revisited from previous newsletters.
In March of 1995, Janice and the MPEC Headquarters relocated from Chicago back to Hagerstown MD. This time, the move included Janice’s now-expanded collection of 385 pianos packed in a 15-foot U-Haul, vs. the 120 she took with her when she moved to Chicago. One room in her home was devoted entirely to the pianos. They filled display cases, shelves, tables, chairs, and almost every available surface.
Janice’s passion for music never wavered. She has been a pianist for numerous church choirs for over 30 years in Hagerstown, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Martinsburg (WV) and Chambersburg (PA). Additionally, while working at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD from 1996-1998, she kept a toy piano in the office and played for the children at the Clinical Center, and would often give mini lessons. Janice’s extensive networking continually kept her passion in the spotlight, and about two dozen pieces of her collection will appear on the History Channel’s Collector’s Café episode in late 2018.
What does a miniature and toy piano collection look like?
The piano collection at MPEC Headquarters contains both miniature and toy pianos. Miniatures range from thimble size to pianos that double as music boxes and serve as cigarette lighters, compact holders, jewelry boxes, radios, salt and pepper shakers, soap and soap dishes, teapots, and other useful and decorative items such as Avon bottles, lamps, pencil sharpeners and telephones. Some of the miniatures were manufactured for doll houses (Ideal, Marx, Renwal and Tootsie Toy) while some were made simply to shine in a cabinet. Among the miniatures, you will find character and manufacturer names such as Bencini, Betty Boop, Cabbage Patch, California Raisin, Dresden, Emmett Kelly, Enesco, Limoges, Mattel, McCoy, Michael Ricker Pewter, Mickey Mouse, Occupied Japan, Royal Doulton (The Snowman Collection), Sebastian Miniatures, and Smurf.
Based on the size of a standard toy piano (or what is called a miniature version of a regular piano), “toy” pianos were designed to go on the table or floor and were meant to be used. There are the thigh-high child’s toy pianos that can play actual tunes, and can range from six keys to two and a half octaves. Names of makers include Camptonette, Ely, J.C. Chein, Jaymar, Jefferson, Marjay, and Schoenhut. Additionally, there are pianos with noted cartoon characters and are wind-up toys or they have a playable keyboard and are generally characterized in the toy family.
Three shapes dominated the piano market. Early pianos were made in the “grand” or “square” shapes with the strings arranged in a horizontal frame. Square pianos were very popular in Europe. Grand pianos were considered the concert instrument of choice because their larger frames permitted greater stability of pitch. The upright piano was the third shape. It became particularly successful after the cast iron frame was produced in Philadelphia in 1800.
When discussing manufacturers of toy pianos, it was Albert Schoenhut who developed and later patented his toy piano at the height of piano popularity. For over a century, the piano was America’s radio, phonograph and television set. Early catalogs indicate Schoenhut’s first toy piano, made in the spring of 1872, was advertised as “A. Schoenhut, manufacturer of Metallic Toy Pianos & Metallophones,” and later as “A. Schoenhut & Co. manufacturers of Toy Pianos & Noveltys.”
The toy piano was the product foundation upon which the Schoenhut Toy Company was built. Today, of course, the Schoenhut name is considered the “Pride of American Collectors.” A 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Banquet and Entertainment brochure from 1922 stated that Albert started “with small means but with a conviction and determination to manufacture toys better in quality and merit than had ever been attempted before.” He made it a point to combine educational value with the toys. Before he died in 1912, Schoenhut had the satisfaction of knowing that he had the largest exclusive toy factory in the world, and had trained his sons to carry on and continue the business. The A. Schoenhut Company closed its doors in 1935. In that same year Albert’s son, Otto, formed the O. Schoenhut, Inc. and continued to manufacture toy pianos until well into the 1980’s. Jaymar Toys, formerly the Louis Marx Company, bought out O. Schoenhut and manufactured toy pianos until 1996. In 1997, the company, renamed “Schoenhut Piano Company” in St. Augustine, Florida resurfaced and continues to manufacture toy pianos today.
From the Collection
Today, there are approximately 543 toy and miniature pianos in Janice’s collection – and always room for more.
There are pianos in Janice’s collection that will make you go hmmm! They vary from the very simple to the more complex. An unusual piece is a palm-size Cracker Jack lithographed tin prize piano from 1940 which she found for $12. Kovels’ estimated value in 2013 was $52.
The oldest piano in her collection is a Schoenhut Trinity Chimes measuring 18 1/2″ x 10″ (pat. Sept. 18, 1900). Trinity Chimes gives an exact imitation of a complete set of church bells produced by eight distinct tones constituting the complete diatonic scale. It is made of resonant wood with paper lithography on the front, painted turned spindles, and ball feet. Trinity Chimes is sought out frequently by collectors, and based on the condition, they have sold from between $125 to over $200.
Next is a rare 1910 Tin Lithographed Barrel piano by Converse. Although she paid $160 for this beauty, Janice feels that it was in the correct ballpark, price wise.
Janice paid $15 for a trio of piano-shaped soaps from the Liberace Museum in January, 1983. When invited backstage to meet Liberace during his show in Baltimore, MD in August 1984, a picture of the bars of soap went with her and was autographed by Liberace! On eBay, Janice has spotted Liberace single bars of soap for $9.99, and other Liberace autographed photos from $89-$300. Her authentic autographed photo, however, will remain a collectible keepsake!
The mispronunciation of Schoenhut led Janice to purchase this ca. 1925 piano at her first auction in 1979 for $5. The 8-key diatonic piano has a charming sound, and in today’s market, based on its condition, would fetch upwards of $150.00.
The second is from the J. Chein & Company, PianoLodeon, made in the 1950’s in Burlington, NJ, and is a child’s piano. It is remarkable because it is operated by a mechanism closely related to an actual player piano. It can be played by hand or a small piano roll will take over the metal rods being struck by hammers propelled by a vacuum driven by a blower. Janice grew up taking lessons from age eight to seventeen on a player piano that no longer operated as a player. She purchased this PianoLodeon in the early 2000’s for $150, and has seen them selling for upwards of $200.
Janice has gained notoriety as an appraiser and historian, often receiving requests for values, repairs, and historical details.”When trying to determine the monetary worth, it’s very important to use a source that gives current values.” Since their purchases can take place from a broad spectrum of sources-from eBay to Etsy to flea markets and auctions-Janice continues to expand her selection of resources in order to create an appropriate value and level of desirability the piece currently holds in the market. At a recent auction in New York, a Dresden piece titled The Rehearsal, estimated at $200-$300, sold for $475. “It is results like these that keeps me on the lookout for these pianos,” says Janice.
One of Janice’s favorite quotes that she uses as a closure in issues of MUSICALLY YOURS! is a quote from 19th century pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein: “The piano is a lovely instrument. You must fall in love with it, with its sound, and then be tender with it to make it, in turn, be sweeter to you. Herein lies divine beauty.”
Like many collectors, Janice stresses the importance of making sure you have a real passion for whatever you choose to collect. Determine your interests and go after your targeted memorabilia. Be certain to set a realistic budget for yourself. Gather any and all documentation pertaining to your collectible and record the references that are researched. If there is none or not much available, start your own with all pertinent details about the item, and attach it to the collectible. Or, photograph the item and keep it on file along with your research. Finally, based upon what your collectible is, keep as many as you can on view to give yourself a wonderful memory from the joy of collecting!
“When I go into the toy piano room at home, and look at all those shapes and sizes and colors, it brings such excitement and joy and smiles to me. I just wind up all the music boxes and hear the melodies and visualize a person performing. It’s uplifting. It gives you a musically uplifting experience,” said Janice. “To me, music is something I have a passion for.” Even her license plate reads “pianos.”