Operators Piano Company

Database Reports for Victor and Coinola Coin Pianos,
and Reproduco Player Pipe Organs

Operators Coin Pianos, Orchestrions, and Organs

Operators Piano Company Coinola Logo

The Operators Piano Company was founded in 1909 by Louis Severson, C.R. Dibble, and Alfred Livingston of Chicago, Illinois, and was to become a prolific enterprise responsible for manufacturing a wide variety of coin-operated pianos and orchestrions, which are highly prized by mechanical music collectors today.

Louis M. Severson of the Operators Piano Company.

Louis Severson was the main invigorating force behind the company's success. He was born in Norway in 1882, and was relocated to the U.S. when his parents moved to Iowa in 1883. After moving to Chicago in 1904, at the age of 22, he began repairing coin operated pianos for route operators in the Chicago area. Severson was a talented mechanic and technician, traits that would serve him well in the coming years. The name Operator's Piano Company (with an apostrophe) was appropriately chosen simply because the business began as a piano repair shop, where electric pianos operated by route operators throughout the Chicago area were brought in to be serviced and repaired, whereupon the owner-operator would again place the refreshed coin piano in a profitable location. Then, in time, when the fledging company started advertising the apostrophe was oftentimes dropped, with the name eventually becoming the familiar Operators Piano Company that we know of today.

At some point the company introduced its line of Victor Coin pianos. These were keyboard-style pianos with a mandolin attachment. Early examples used pneumatic stacks and possibly other components obtained from the Marquette Piano Company, which had begun in 1905 by manufacturing player mechanisms for other piano companies prior to making its own coin pianos. The Victor Coin piano was a sturdy A roll piano with three window openings in the upper front panel: a rectangular one in the middle, with an oval window on each side. Victor Coin pianos usually have simple but pretty art glass with colored borders surrounding clear pieces through which the piano action can be observed as it plays.

Standard Reproduco Piano Pipe Organ.

Operators introduced the Coinola brand name in 1913 and made its own player mechanisms. The first Coinola model was the Style A, a piano with mandolin attachment, and having the same case design as the previous Victor, but with all interior mechanisms now made by Operators. Before long other styles of A roll pianos followed, such as the Bell Piano, basically a Style A with a 24-note set of orchestra bells mounted inside and above the keyboard.

By the early teens, the Operators’ line included a variety of keyboard and cabinet coin piano styles, along with a variety of instrumentation options. It is probably safe to say that the very successful Operators coin piano line reached its zenith with the 1919 introduction of the tall Style CO keyboard piano orchestrion, and then in 1920 with the debut of the largest coin operated instrument ever to be made by Operators, the impressive Style SO cabinet orchestrion, both of which utilized the solo "O" music roll.

The last coin operated piano to added to the Operators Piano Company's Coinola brand was the Midget Duplex, introduced in 1927, also known as the Thirty Tune Coinola. It used a 66-note piano, but tuned differently than the typical late-style 66-note O-roll Midget pianos, so as to accommodate the style A-roll scale. And it featured a duplex 10-tune roll frame arrangement, each roll frame utilizing a standardized style "A" music roll scale, but supplied with Capitol A rolls of a special extended 15-tune length. The duplex roll setup did not shift to the other frame when the in use roll went into rewind. Instead, a small lever front center on the case allowed the patron to select which roll was desired, left or right, and then once a coin was dropped and the piano motor started a "foolproof locking" system prevented any further roll selection, until the piano motor shut down and any residual vacuum had bled off. Unfortunately, by the time the Midget Duplex became available the coin piano market was in serious decline, and the automatic phonograph in its commercial ascendancy, leaving few buyers for the new Coinola Midget Duplex. Soon after its introduction advertisements by the Operators Piano Company disappeared from trade publications, although instruments were shipped up into 1930.

Coinola coin pianos and orchestrions are noted for many exceptional musical arrangements and a rather unique but wonderful toe-tapping sound. This is in part due to the superb musical arrangements found on solo "O" music rolls. Coinola instruments are relatively scarce, compared to the surviving specimens made by Seeburg or Wurlitzer.

The Reproduco logo.

In early 1916, Operators introduced a self-playing, self-contained piano-pipe organ for theatres and mortuaries called the Reproduco. Although they aren’t coin-operated, we include them in the Coinola list because they are a related product and a real hit with collectors, thanks in part to some well-arranged popular music rolls for theatre use.

But this popular combination piano and organ was not the first instrument to bear the Reproduco name, nor was it to be the last. The first Operators piano to use the Reproduco name was an electric home player piano without organ pipes, which was on the market for about a year before the Reproduco piano/organ came out. The last item to bear the Reproduco name (and the same nameplate) was a primitive early jukebox with a little pump and a few pneumatics to control the tone arm and record changer mechanism, which Operators made for David Rockola. It was this innovative device that motivated Rockola to buy out Louis Severson’s share of the Operators Piano Company and to go into the jukebox business a few years later, naming the new product “Rock-Ola.”

The Reproduco had a full piano keyboard and a 61-note organ keyboard; a 12-note pedalboard was also offered as an option. The pipe complement of this combination keyboard-style piano and pipe organ included 37 quintadena (or rarely, metal violin) pipes, 37 open wooden flute pipes, 24 stopped flute or “diapason” pipes inside the case, plus another 12 large stopped diapason pipes mounted vertically behind the piano soundboard. But popularity of the Reproduco was not limited to theater use, as it was a hit with the mortuary trade as well. The popularity of the Reproduco was so great, in fact, that the Reproduco line was expanded with the Super Junior Reproduco and the Super Reproduco, both of which has side-cabinets to hold the additional ranks of pipework and usually a 12-note pedalboard. The original Reproduco piano/organ was now the Standard Reproduco, with roll mechanism variations depending upon whether the instrument was to be used for mortuary or theater use.

But by the early 1920s the Reproduco line was to undergo more changes with the addition of instruments that eliminated the piano altogether. These true player pipe organs utilized a horseshoe console with one or two manuals (or keyboards). The latest of these player pipe organs, and if survival is used as a measurement there were apparently the most popular, were the Unified Mortuary Organ and the Unified Reproduco Organ. These essentially self-contained pipe organs followed the same basic pipework scale parameters laid out and established in 1916 for the Standard Reproduco piano/organs. Pipework was divided between the organ console and a single side-cabinet, with the largest 12 stopped diapasons mounted either on a small free-standing chest, or on the backside of the organ console or side-cabinet. The unified pipe organs also differed from the piano-based Reproduco piano/organs by using a special wide music roll 15-1/4" wide, with 134 tracker hole positions.

Empress Electric logo.

The Operators Piano Company also provided complete mechanisms for coin pianos and orchestrions to house of Lyon & Healy, Chicago’s largest full-line music retailer. Established in 1864, Lyon & Healy was one of the largest music house in America during the era of coin-operated pianos and orchestrions, from the 1890s through the 1920s. The company strove to supply everything musical—from novelties to large instruments, “Everything known in music” being a slogan. They either installed the Operators built mechanisms in its own pianos, or had Operators install them, and then sold them under the Empress Electric brand. Empress has its own section in the registry because the pianos, cabinets, and art glass are different from Operators’ pianos and fall into a different serial numbering series.

Using the Information on This Page

This page continues with detailed descriptions and photos of various technical and/or mechanical features, which are deemed important for a truly useful understanding of both the database reports and to effectively fill in the Survey Reporting Form. The actual database reports and survey form can be accessed in the Distribution of Database Information section and then clicking on the large Download button at the bottom of this page.

Types and Sources of Operators Pianos

Operators’ style letters and serial numbering are more complicated than most other brands because many models of instruments with keyboards were mixed together into several large groups of numbers, but each model of keyboardless instrument had its own unique numbering series.

Smith, Barnes & Strohber piano used in early Victor and Coinola pianos.Three main types of piano plates have been observed in Operators’ keyboard-style pianos, with examples viewable by clicking on the small thumbnail image at right:

  1. The earliest Victor and Coinola keyboard pianos, made through the mid-teens, were probably obtained from Smith, Barnes & Strohber, characterized by an open face pinblock with a two-piece plate similar to those used in early Cremona pianos. In this design, the upper portion of the plate surrounding the pinblock is separate from the main plate below.
  2. The second type of piano has a full plate covering the pinblock, with a normal tuning pin configuration. As in the early Coinola pianos made by Smith, Barnes and Strohber, there is an extra break in the middle of the treble section, with a total of four sections of hammers. We now believe this piano is a second, later variety of Smith, Barnes and Strohber.
  3. The third type is of a design used by Seybold (see images 3 and 4 by clicking the above thumbnail image) with an odd tuning pin configuration, with one vertical row of pins staggered much higher or lower than the next. Plate types 2 and 3 might have been sold concurrently during the late ’teens and the ’twenties, but more information is needed to confirm or invalidate this. There may have been other types of keyboard style Coinola pianos as well.

Haddorff piano used in 61-note Coinola Midgets.Operators’ first cabinet (keyboardless) style piano was the Midget, introduced in 1916. It was available playing either A or O rolls with various combinations of extra instruments. Early Midgets used the same style 61-note keyboardless Haddorff pianos with an open face pinblock as used in the Link 2E, Seeburg K and KT, Nelson-Wiggen 4X, 5X, and 6, etc. Later Midgets, representing most examples surviving today, used a 66-note piano of unknown manufacture with the pinblock entirely covered.

The smaller keyboardless Coinola Cupid, introduced in 1921 and later called the “Tiny Coinola,” used a 53-note piano similar to the one installed in the small Seeburg L and Western Electric Mascot, but of unknown manufacture.

The SO, the largest keyboardless model, used a full 88-note piano back made by Seybold, the same as the pianos used in all other late model Coinola and Reproduco pianos.

Operators Serial Numbers

The following list summarizes major groups of numbers shown in the registry report, setting the stage for further research and a more complete history of mechanical development after more details become known.

Unfortunately, certain restorers have occasionally put a Coinola decal on a Victor piano because the piano plate has the Operators name and they think the Coinola decal is prettier or might make the piano more valuable. The presence of a Cremona stack helps to substantiate the Victor brand, but the most conclusive evidence is an original fallboard decal or a photograph of the piano before refinishing.

Keyboard-style pianos:

The transition from early to late style pumps and roll mechanisms seems to have been made during the time Operators was using Smith, Barnes and Strohber pianos. It will be possible to create a dating chart and chronology of mechanical improvements only after many more piano stack numbers have been submitted, allowing us to put the various numbering series and designs in chronological order, to know if various numbering series overlapped, etc. Coinolas and Reproducos share the same numbering series. To facilitate study of each brand separately or both groups together, they are listed both ways in the Registry.

Keyboardless (cabinet-style) pianos:

Summary of numbers, sorted numerically (not chronologically):

Operators Stack Numbers

Stack serial numbers might be either on the front or back of a stack; only a few stack numbers have been reported. Seeburg and Marquette stack numbers have proven to be very useful in helping to put various groups of serial numbers in order, because stacks were numbered sequentially through the years regardless of brand or model of piano. As more stack numbers are added to the Operators Registry, it might become possible to make more sense of all the different piano numbering series.

Extra Instruments

Most Coinolas with pipes have open wooden flutes, metal violins, or both. Many ranks of metal violins were supplied by Jerome B. Meyer and Sons of Milwaukee. A few model C-2 orchestrions had vacuum-operated harmonium reeds instead of pipes.

In instruments with bells or xylophone, the earliest instruments have bells and the latest usually have xylophone, but certain models, including the Midget, were offered with a choice of either instrument.

Stardard Reproduco Player Pipe Organ with violin pipes.Most standard model Reproduco piano organs (intended for mortuary and theatre use) have 98 pipes arranged in 1½ ranks. The Diapason register controls the low flutes, consisting of 12 large stopped wooden bass flute pipes located behind the piano soundboard, plus 12 smaller stopped wooden accompaniment pipes inside and under the keyboard. The treble has separate registers for 37 open wooden flutes, and either 37 metal quintadenas (usually) or 37 small scale metal violins (very rarely). The combination of 24 bass/accompaniment stopped pipes and 37 treble pipes forms a continuous 61-note organ scale at 8’ pitch. The larger Super Junior Reproduco had additional pipework in a side-cabinet, and the even more elaborate Super Reproduco had yet additional pipework and a 30-onote xylophone in its side-cabinet. These "Super" models were intended for theatre use. For yet more demanding situations, Operators made the two-manual horseshoe console Reproduco Unified Mortuary Organ and the Unified Theatre Organ.

Art Glass

Standard art glass designs are shown in Bowers’ Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments and the forthcoming Reblitz-Bowers Guide to Coin Operated American Pianos and Orchestrions.

Mechanical Design Changes

In general, the earliest Operators A roll pianos with keyboards had the pump and roll mechanism under the keyboard and the extra instruments above, if present. After orchestrions were introduced, most keyboard style pianos except the tall style CO had these parts reversed, with the pump and roll mechanism above the keyboard and any extra instruments below.

Roll Mechanisms

Operators very early style A roll spoolbox.Early Operators A roll pianos have spoolboxes with cast iron side frames. In these, the music roll unwinds from the front of the feed spool, over the tracker bar, and winds onto the front of the takeup spool as in a Seeburg or Cremona.

Coinola mid-era style A roll spoolbox.An intermediate type of A roll spoolbox has steel side plates instead of cast iron side frames, again with the music roll winding from the front of the feed spool, over the tracker bar, and onto the front of the takeup spool. This type is less common than the other two types.

Operators late style A roll spoolbox.The final type of A roll spoolbox has steel side plates, but the roll is turned around so the paper unwinds from the back of the takeup spool, over the tracker bar (which is mounted farther back than in the earlier types), and onto the back of the takeup spool. With this configuration, the lowest notes are toward the right side of the roll, so the tracker bar tubing must be crossed on its way to the pneumatic stack.

Coinola O roll spoolbox.All O roll orchestrions have spoolboxes with steel side plates. In these, the paper winds off the back of the feed spool, over the tracker bar, and then onto the back of the takeup spool. O rolls are perforated with the notes running up the scale from left to right with the paper coming off the back of the spool, so the stack tubing is connected to the tracker bar in order from left to right.

Roll frame for Standard Reproduco Player Pipe Organ #282965.Theatre model Reproduco piano-organs have 10-tune spoolboxes with steel side plates like typical O roll orchestrion spoolboxes. Some models have one spoolbox to the right above the keyboards, a rotary vacuum pump to the left and an electric motor in the middle. Others have twin spoolboxes and have the vacuum pump mounted in the remote blower box. Mortuary models have a smaller wooden spoolbox driven by a vacuum motor, as in a home player piano. And then there are the larger Reproduco two-manual Unified Organs, which have a single roll mechanism centered in the upper front part of the horseshoe console. The Unified Mortuary Organ plays the 134-hole Unified Funeral Organ roll (wound on a flanged player piano type spool), and the Unified Theatre Organ plays the 134-hole Unified Reproduco Organ Music roll (wound on a 2-1/2" ID cardboard core for use with interchangeable spools).

Pneumatic Stacks

Marquette Piano Company stack used in early Operators pianos.The earliest Victor Coin pianos have pneumatic stacks made by the Marquette Piano Co.

Early deck board stack made by Operators Piano Company.The first stack made by Operators has the pneumatics and valves mounted in deck boards. In some examples, the top seats are Bakelite rings. There may be other styles as well.

The next design is similar but has unit pneumatics, each pneumatic having its own self-contained valve and pouch for easy servicing of individual notes without disassembling the entire stack. At least three configurations of unit pneumatic stacks were made. One is similar to the deck board stack, with Bakelite rings for the top seats. Another has an adjustable brass tube threaded into the wood for each top seat, with the valve and Bakelite bottom seat inserted from the bottom of the valve well before the unit is glued together. In the most common type, each top seat is an adjustable brass tube threaded into a fiber washer, with the fiber washer screwed to the wood so it can be removed from the outside without breaking the unit apart.

Operators unit pneumatic stack with Bakelite top seats.Production dates for each type remain unknown, although it seems that unit stacks with Bakelite seats or brass and fiber seats might have been made concurrently for different models or price levels. More information is needed.

Pumps

Early style pump used in Victor Coin and Coinola pianos.Operators’ first style of pump has a square steel frame sitting up on one corner. This style was used in early Victor Coin and Coinola pianos and was mounted under the keyboard.

Coinola pump with vertical bellows.The next style of vacuum pump has two pairs of vertically mounted bellows with the crankshaft between, typically mounted above the keyboard. The bellows are mounted with the hinge ends facing down in some examples, and up in others.

Coinola box pump for vacuum onlyThe last style is a typical box pump with a wooden frame that holds four bellows and conducts the suction to the vacuum reservoir, also mounted above the keyboard. Several styles of connecting rods or straps were used to connect the crankshaft to the bellows.

Coinola box pump for vacuum and pressure.In Coinola pianos with pipes, a similar box pump was used but it was enclosed with sheet metal on the front and back to capture the pressure exhausted from the flap valves on the vacuum bellows.

Interior view of the Standard Reproduco Piano Pipe Organ with attached blower. Reproduco piano-organs have a blower to supply pressure to the pipes. In some instruments, a box-type vacuum pump is mounted above the keyboard, and in others, it is mounted alongside the blower in a separate "soundproof" cabinet. Two different blower sizes have been observed, the smaller one used for the Standard Reproduco Piano Organs, and the larger volume blower used with the Reproduco Unified Mortuary and Theatre Organs.

Coin Entry Chutes

Early Coinola puss-pull slide type coin entryOperators used several types of coin entry chutes for coin-operated pianos and orchestrions. One early style had a push-pull coin slide mounted horizontally. A mid-era style also had a push-pull slide, but it was mounted diagonally. The last major style had a pushbutton with a vertical slot immediately above.

Coin Accumulator Mechanisms

xxVictor Coin and early Coinola pianos have a coin accumulator mechanism similar to the Cremona type 2. Later coin-operated instruments have a spring-loaded ratchet wheel similar in concept to a Nelson-Wiggen or Wurlitzer accumulator.

Parts list drawing of a play-counting accumulator magazine.Reproduco organs did not normally ship with coin-in-the-slot capabilities, because they were intended for the mortuary or theatre trade, whereby a pianist or organist actually played the instrument, or alternately it simply played music rolls, in some cases with an operator standing by to change rolls, other times unattended and playing the same roll over and over. The closest thing to a coin mechanism mentioned in the observed Reproduco literature is a remotely controlled "magazine," which could be actuated by pushbutton using a low voltage battery powered circuit. The magazine consisted of a sturdy cast iron box containing a "play" counting ratchet wheel mechanism and two sets of carbon-block electrical contacts, one contact set for the blower motor, and the other for the smaller motor inside the Reproduco case used to power the roll mechanism (and vacuum pump—unless the pump was located in the external blower cabinet). The first tap on the remote button would power up the organ, and each successive tap would add another tune "play" to the magazine's ratchet wheel counter. A couple of instances of coin mechanisms having been installed in a Reproduco piano organ have been reported, but the originality of any such instances cannot be verified and therefore remain suspect.

The Operators Piano Company Database

The primary information that went into building up the Operators Piano Company (Coinola) database has been meticulously gathered over a period of 45 years by Art Reblitz, a longtime expert in the restoration, history, and music of automatic pianos and organs. Whenever he has had access to or enjoyed the opportunity to rebuild an Operators piano or orchestrion, he has carefully recorded mechanical and historical details of interest. Many other people, listed under Acknowledgements in the Introduction to the Registry, also submitted information to Art. Don Teach and Dana Johnson have been particularly helpful. The result of their painstaking effort is presented in an orderly, easy to read format in the report offered below.

By default, current ownership information is not integral to the database project, but a provision exists whereby the current owner's name information can be accommodated and then shown in database reports. However, this will be done only if and when specific written permission is granted to the Mechanical Music Press specifically authorizing us to show and/or distribute individual ownership information. Furthermore, if and when such authorization is granted, the Mechanical Music Press and/or its authors shall assume no liability or responsibility of any kind, nor to any extent, regarding any inferred, purported, or actual privacy intrusions, incidents, or claims.

Updating the Database and Reporting Errors

We cordially invite and solicit additional information for the database on any Operators Piano Company instruments under the brand names of Victor Coin, Coinola, and Reproduco, and that are not in the current database report and/or additional details for instruments that are already listed but have little information.

To ADD ANOTHER ITEM TO THE DATABASE or to facilitate the reporting of errors regarding any Operators Piano Company instruments, please click on the Coinola/Victor Survey Form or the Reproduco Organ Survey Form button in the options panel below. Please note: We welcome any survey information, whether it be only the brand, model, and serial number, or all requested details. We realized that it can be difficult (even for an experienced restorer) to find certain serial numbers without partially disassembling an instrument. Nonetheless, please submit a form regardless of how many spaces you can currently fill in.

All database report information is offered "as is," without any guarantee or warranty whatsoever of any kind, neither stated, implied, nor inferred, as to the accuracy, correctness, exactness, suitability, or usefulness of any content.


Distribution of Database Information
Last Updated on February 26, 2017

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instrument by clicking the right hand button.
Download the Operators Piano Company by Serial Number Report.
15 pages.
Coinola/Victor Button to report new or corrected database information.
Download the Operators Piano Company Grouped by Brand Name Report.
15 pages.
Reproduco Button to report new or corrected database information.
Download the Operators Piano Company Grouped by Brand and then Model/Type Report.
18 pages.
Unified Organ Button to report new or corrected database information.
Credits:

Compiled by Art Reblitz, and transferred into database format by Terry Hathaway.

Graphics:

Terry Hathaway, Q. David Bowers for catalogue source material.

Photographs:

Art Reblitz, Dana Johnson, Rob Goodale, John Kadlec, Richard Lokemoen, Mike Mount, Stevens Mortuary, Jim Quashnock, John Rutoskey, and Don Teach.