Denver-based piano technician Jere DeBacker specializes in working on, restoring and documenting Melville Clark Apollo player pianos, which were built in DeKalb from about 1904 to 1919, when Wurlitzer took over the company. DeBacker talked to reporter Katie Dahlstrom about his search for information about a photograph taken inside the DeKalb piano factory.
Dahlstrom: What interests you so much about pianos?
DeBacker: These particular pianos were the first American player pianos. They were very, very high quality and they had a number of interesting and unique innovations. I saw my very first Apollo player piano in 1970 or 1971. I had never seen anything like it, but I knew immediately it was something special.
Dahlstrom: So what is the photo you have?
DeBacker: I specialize in working on the Melville Clark player pianos. The photo I have is from the factory where these pianos were built in DeKalb.
Dahlstrom: What is your interest in the photo?
DeBacker: I have two, well actually four pianos that are almost identical to the piano in the picture. It was really, really exciting to see these pianos manufactured and see some of the guys who built them originally.
Dahlstrom: What do you know about the photo?
DeBacker: I can tell by looking at the pianos that the photo was taken between 1911 and 1913. It’s really interesting to see that they had electric lights. It’s pretty primitive electrical lighting. Also over on the wall between the windows, there are six piano rolls hanging up and my guess is those are test rolls for the various pianos used. So they could test the pianos and make sure they worked. Also, there are three different pianos.
Dahlstrom: What do you want to know about the photo that you don’t know?
DeBacker: On the back of the photograph it is handwritten, “this is where Herb worked.” He’s the one in the middle. I would love to know who Herb was and more about his life. If he worked at the piano factory his whole life. I’d love to know who the other guys are and maybe they had a history in DeKalb or if anyone knows anything about them. Especially I would love to know if anyone has any more of these factory photos.
Dahlstrom: What would you do with the photos?
DeBacker: I am working with a couple of very prominent piano history writers, Art Reblitz and Terry Hathaway. We are working very hard to make a registry of these Melville Clark pianos as we can find. We want to document the history of the pianos and the company.
Dahlstrom: If someone has information on the photo or other photos, how do they get in touch with you?
DeBacker: My email address, firstname.lastname@example.org or my mailing address, 9360 E. Center Ave., Unit 5A, Denver, CO 80247, or my telephone number, 303-570-6243.