The piano with the all-Canadian tone

McKenzie Porter May 11 1957

The piano with the all-Canadian tone

McKenzie Porter May 11 1957

The piano with the all-Canadian tone

McKenzie Porter

From the beginning of this century until the middle Twenties the piano was as essential to the furnishing of a well-ordered parlor as the brass firedogs, the aspidistra and the picture of the Prince of Wales. Since the middle Twenties, however, one Canadian piano manufacturer after another has been forced out of business by gramophones, radios and television. Out of twenty-eight piano builders who were operating in Canada in 1922—the peak year for piano sales throughout the world—only seven survive.

Five generations of kids have fingered it. Klondike girls have sung and danced to it. It has pushed back our frontiers by dog sled and parachute. Here’s the romantic story of Heintzman’s

The oldest and most familiar of these is Heintzman and Company, whose stores are known to citizens of nine major Canadian cities. The thirdand fourth-generation Heintzmans still operate a west Toronto piano factory established nearly a hundred years ago by the founder.

He was T heodore August Heintzman, a German immigrant and veteran craftsman who established the company in the 1860s on the proceeds of a single piano he built in a Toronto kitchen. In temperament and technique Heintzman was similar to his compatriot and former work mate, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, who changed his name and founded the famous U. S. piano-manufacturing company of Steinway and Sons. When they set up their separate establishments, Steinway in New York and Heintzman in Toronto, they operated along parallel lines.

Both concentrated on the higher-priced piano market. Both refused to cut production costs by speed-up methods and the use of second-best materials. Both won customers by subtle rather than aggressive forms of salesmanship. Each made himself famous by building super-pianos for the concert platform. And each sired a dynasty to perpetuate his name and his precepts.

Today Heintzman’s has six Canadian competitors. Among them the seven produced six thousand Canadian pianos last year, of which Heintzman’s share was one thousand.

Although the Canadian Mason and Risch exceeds Heintzman's over-all piano production Heintzman’s does not regard any compatriot manufacturers as serious rivals in concert grands. This distinction belongs to Steinway's, which competes in Canada for Heintzman's upper-bracket market. Prices of Heintzman pianos range from about eight hundred dollars for a miniature upright to about five thousand for a concert grand. Comparable Steinway models are a little more expensive because they have a twenty-two-and-a-half-percent import duty. In spite of this Steinway’s gives Heintzman's a hot run in grand-piano sales. But Heintzman's is not unduly nervous.

Before the company was thirty years old the famous Heintzman concontinued on page 88

The piano with the all-Canadian tone continued from page 33

“After a wife’s first nibble at a piano it takes three months to hook her husband”

cert grand was being played before Queen Victoria in the Royal Albert Hall, London. The three foremost singers of the early twentieth century. Luisa Tetrazzini, Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso, all bought a Heintzman grand after cross-

Canada concert tours. Among dozens of celebrated contemporary pianists who’ve insisted on the Heintzman when playing in Canada are Jose Iturbi. Benno Moiseiwitsch and Solomon.

Like Steinway's, Heintzman’s believes

that the best promotion for a piano lies in the concert hall. Unlike Steinway’s, Heintzman’s has never paid a concert artist to use its piano exclusively. The firm believes there is more prestige to be gained from an artist who plays a Heintz-

man voluntarily because he likes it.

While Heintzman’s sustains prestige on the concert platform the firm makes its bread and butter in less august environments. A Heintzman, laden with price lists, rode into Vancouver on the first transcontinental train and helped sell pianos that were used during the Gold Rush to accompany Klondike dance-hall girls. Heintzman’s claims that the firm delivered by fish boat the first grand piano landed on Prince Edward Island. Heintzman’s says it shipped to a northern Manitoba mine the first piano ever delivered by air. Heintzman pianos have reached their destinations in this country on dog sleds and in the tropics on the backs of native porters. During the last war a Heintzman piano in a padded case was dropped without damage to U. S. troops in Alaska by parachute.

Since 1860 Heintzman’s has sold nearly a hundred thousand pianos, an average of about a thousand a year. The great majority are uprights for home use. Many are scattered throughout the British Commonwealth in which Heintzman's enjoyed a profitable export trade until restrictions were imposed on sterling transfers after the last war. Lower-priced models made by Heintzman’s bear the name Nordheimer, after a company Heintzman’s absorbed during the Depression.

Heintzman’s trade has always been an up-and-down affair. In 1922 Heintzman's produced three thousand pianos. In 1934. at the depths of the Depression, the firm produced fewer than two hundred. After the last war production rose to nine hundred a year and then was cut back to six hundred by the competition from television. Now that the novelty of television is wearing off annual production is up again to a thousand.

But a thousand pianos a year is not enough to keep Heintzman’s four hundred employees in a job. Though Heintzman’s loves pianos as Homer loved his lyre, it has to sell other articles to make a profit. Of the company’s four-milliondollar turnover last year less than half came from the sale of pianos.

All Heintzman stores sell sheet music, records, hi-fi sets and the Hammond elec trie organ. In Edmonton, where cowboy laments induce many a fine frenzy. Heintzman’s sells guitars, accordions, saxophones, trumpets and any other instrument necessary for boot-and-saddle ballads. Some stores run music classes in different instruments, renting a saxophone or an accordion to the student who, they hope, will eventually buy it.

The seventh floor of the Toronto store is divided into soundproof studios rented on a permanent basis to music teachers, recording companies and radio artists. Temporary studios are also rented at fifty cents an hour to stagestruck stenographers, bank tellers and store clerks who, prevented from practicing at home by neighbors’ complaints, sing and play their hearts out at Heintzman’s in the hope of breaking into show business. The younger they are the more Heintzman’s coddles them, for they're all prospective customers for a piano.

Selling pianos is truly a Job's job. Usually the decision to buy one is a woman’s. Between a wife's first nibble and her husband's signature on an order blank an average of three months elapses. Most men take a lot of convincing that

it is worth a thousand dollars to hear Junior play “Drink to Me Only.”

The technique of selling calls for a soft pedal. The four piano floors at Heintzman's in Toronto are often as silent as a cathedral on Monday morning. Salesmen and customers move up and down the long files of instruments talking in low tones. Then one party will stop at a piano and linger. The salesman opens the lid. Suddenly the hush is broken as the salesman begins to play — standing up. The salesmen are good psychologists. Depending on the customer they'll render Chopin’s Revolutionary Concerto, With a Little Bit of Luck, Tea for Two. Do Ye Ken John Peel, or Tiger Rag.

A staff of outside salesmen follow up leads to prospective customers. Outside selling has always called for determination and the records of the salesmen are rich in enterprise.

Even in Edwardian days, when there was no competition from radio, outside salesmen stimulated business by accepting as trade-ins all kinds of household goods. But, when a Windsor salesman one day accepted a horse, the Toronto sales manager blew his top. He wired Windsor: “Sell horse at once for any price.” Back came the reply: "Sorry can’t sell horse. It just dropped dead.”

During the same era. Norman Allingham, now assistant sales manager, was in contact with a magistrate at St. Catharines, Ontario, who had been dickering for years about buying a grand. Allingham knew that this magistrate worshiped Enrico Caruso. When next Caruso visited Toronto Allingham got him to autograph an inside panel of a Heintzman grand. Caruso’s signature was particularly interesting in that it emerged as a brilliant little caricature of the artist himself. As soon as he was shown the signature the magistrate snapped up the piano.

Three pianos for one family

In the Depression, salesman Bill Fletcher used to tour the back roads around Oshawa, Ont., with a piano on a horsedrawn wagon. Outside a farm he’d arrange for a wheel of the wagon to drop off. Then, while the driver pretended to sweat over repairs, Fletcher would ask the farmer if he might bring the piano into the house to protect it from the weather. Once he’d got it inside Fletcher would begin to play. It was a rare week when he didn’t leave at least one piano behind.

Strangely, it was during the Depression that Heintzman’s booked its biggest single order from a private individual. A salesman named Joe Cooper was on the company’s stand at the Canadian National Exhibition when Mrs. James Harris, the widow of a packing-plant millionaire, showed interest in one of the mediumsized seven-foot grands. Excitedly, Cooper gave his sales spiel. Then Mrs. Harris said casually: “Very well. I’ll take three like that.” And she meant it. One was for her married daughter, one for her married son. and one for herself.

When Mrs. E. W. Sibley, the wife of a Toronto medical missionary, was preparing to leave for China in the early Thirties, Ernest D. Gray, the present sales manager of the Toronto store, persuaded her to buy a piano to take with her. Because she anticipated difficulty in keeping the piano tuned Heintzman's gave her two months' free lessons in tuning.

Some of Heintzman's best professional tuners are blind. They have developed a fine sense of tone in compensation for their lacl—f sight. As a rule blind tuners do t' a P°t>rk in the store. The fully or part one *ed ones go out to tune pianos in he t,rs’ homes. Often they find

pianos used as receptacles for secret possessions. Heintzman’s tuners have opened pianos to discover Aspirin, children’s toys, pairs of shoes, and once a wad of fifty one-dollar bills. In the last case the housewife said: “That’s the rent money I didn’t know what I’d done with five years ago.”

The most curious find inside a piano, the shell of a baby tortoise, was made by a tuner named Bill Metcalfe. The housewife explained: “I haven’t spoken to my neighbor for two years because she said my little boy stole her little boy’s tortoise. Now I know she was right. I’ll have to go around and apologize.”

Metcalfe is a specialist in locating the sympathetic vibrations one note of a piano frequently sets up in electric light bulbs, window panes, china cabintts and other furnishings. The most difficult he ever had to find was caused by the pasting of ceiling paper over an old stovepipe hole. On the upper side of the taut paper was a safety pin that produced a high-pitched drumming every time Fsharp was played.

The job Heintzman’s tuners like best is traveling with concert artists who play the company’s pianos. The head tuner, Reg Cridland, has been from coast to coast on these tours. His most exacting task was accompanying a five-piano ensemble in the late Thirties. They traveled with the pianos in a moving van, a procedure that played havoc with the instruments’ tone and the players’ tempers. Often they arrived in a town so late that Cridland would still be getting his five pianos into tune as the audience arrived.

He liked to play uphill

Once, at Massey Hall, Toronto, Cridland coped manfully with a South American pianist who refused to play God Save the King because he said he’d had no opportunity to practice it. Cridland went on the stage and played the anthem himself.

In the practice studio in Heintzman’s Toronto store tuners and other members of the staff have had an opportunity to study the idiosyncrasies of many famous pianists at close quarters. Jan Cherniavsky, the Canadian pianist, has been observed to practice while nonchalantly puffing a pipe, while his wife, in stocking feet, danced prettily on top of the piano. When Solomon, the English pianist, arrived to practice one morning he had a hard time getting in because, as the man in charge of the studio explained later, “he looked more like an insurance salesman than a concert artist.” Percy Grainger, the Australian pianist, was once caught lying flat on his back on the floor. “I always relax like this,” he explained. “It’s firmer.”

The artist who left the most indelible memory of temperament at Heintzman’s was Vladimir de Pachmann, a Russian pianist who died in 1933. In the Twenties he demanded a Heintzman piano with a one-and-a-quarter-ounce instead of the conventional two-ounce touch. The laborious adjustments were made. Then he demanded that the piano’s keyboard height be lowered to twenty-six inches from the conventional twentyeight. The legs were shortened. Next De Pachmann wanted the right leg raised one inch higher than the left leg because he liked to play “uphill toward the treble.” Workmen dutifully tilted the piano.

Just after he took his seat on the stage of Massey Hall De Pachmann rose, with an air of exhausted patience, tore a leaf out of a pocket notebook and slipped it under one leg of the bench. From his pocket he then took a handful of dia-

monds, placed them on the music rack, turned to the audience and said bitterly: “For these I must play to you.” From time to time during his performance he swung round on the audience and cried: “Is this not divine?”

He received thunderous applause.

Next day president George Heintzman, overwhelmed with admiration for De Pachmann, sent his son Bradford to deliver two bottles of dry French champagne to the artist’s hotel room. “Muck!” cried De Pachmann. “Throw them out of the window! All the world knows that De Pachmann prefers sweet German champagne.” After a hurried visit to the doctor for the usual prohibition-era prescription, and a long search at the liquor store, Bradford Heintzman procured two bottles of sweet German champagne and delivered them to De Pachmann. Whereupon the artist poured himself out a glass of dry French champagne and said: “Ah, now De Pachmann is happy.”

Four generations of Heintzmans have mollycoddled and entertained famous visiting artists. The custom was initiated by old Theodore. He was born in Berlin in 1817, apprenticed at fourteen to a piano maker and married at twenty-seven to Matilda Grunow, his boss’s daughter. In 1850, when Prussia was on the brink of war with Austria and nobody was buying pianos, he emigrated to New York and got a job in the piano factory of Leuchte and Newton. His work mate was Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, who had been a bugle boy in the ranks of Wellington’s Prussian allies at Waterloo.

When Steinweg left after a few years to set up Steinway and Sons, Theodore Heintzman followed his example. He went to Buffalo and established the firm of Drew, Heintzman and Anowsky. Drew was the father of John Drew, the renowned American actor of the Nineties. The partnership failed as a result of the American Civil War and a slump in piano sales.

Penniless, Theodore and his wife moved to Toronto. In the home of their daughter, who had married a Torontonian named Charles Bender, they built a piano. It sold. With the money he got for it Theodore opened the first factory and store on York Street in Toronto. The business flourished and eventually store and factory were separated, the one to downtown Yonge Street, the other to the west end.

Of Theodore’s four sons, Herman, William, Charles and George, the last, George, was the best salesman. He followed the railroad west in the early Eighties, making side trips by dog sled arid horse and buggy, and booking orders for pianos from a price list. He had a keen eye for publicity. By riding the cowcatcher of the first train into Vancouver he got his name into the newspapers and, as a result, sold many pianos.

The following year he took twenty pianos to the British and Indian Exhibition in London. When Queen Victoria arrived one day other exhibitors stood to attention by their pianos. But George Heintzman began to play one of his. The Queen stopped and listened. “I didn’t realize,” she said, “that such beautiful instruments could be made in the colonies.” George was on the point of selling one to the Queen when a courtier reminded her that time was limited, and he lost his chance.

Later in the day, however, a noblewoman in the Queen’s party invited George to bring one of his pianos to a reception at her home. He accepted, played the piano, and sold it to his hosts.

Through their influence he got the chance to put the piano into the Royal Albert Hall for a concert. The workmen

broke off one of the pedals as they were heaving it onto the stage and the concert had to be delayed for half an hour. While Queen Victoria waited in a private salon and ten thousand people watched him the sweating George Heintzman fixed the pedal on the stage. The piano proved a great success and from this beginning George built up an export trade throughout the empire.

Heintzman’s did so well that when old Theodore died at the close of the nineteenth century he lived in a west Toronto mansion, employed a butler and drove to meetings of the Liederkranz Club and other German-Canadian societies in his coach and pair.

His grandson, Bradford Heintzman Sr., who retired from the presidential chair in 1956, modernized the seven branches and increased to forty (he agents through which pianos arc now sold in Canada from coast to coast. A cousin of Bradford Sr., Charles T. Heintzman, a former vice-president, paid a hundred thousand dollars cash for a home at Thornhill, outside Toronto, spent another hundred and fifty thousand dollars on renovations, and, when he died in 1954, left three million dollars.

The thirdand fourth - generation Heintzmans now with the company are all veterans of the last war. George, a grandson of Theodore, now in his early forties, is a vice-president. The three great-grandsons, now in their late thirties, are vice-president Herman, office manager Bradford Jr., and factory manager Wil-

liam. Recently outside capital was brought into the company and as a result of a financial re-organization Edward L. Baker, a former brewery executive, was appointed president. But methods at the seventy-year-old factory on Heintzman Avenue, Toronto, have changed little since Theodore’s day, although the workmen no longer turn up in top hats and morning coats.

The pianos are made by a hundred craftsmen — half the number employed during the Nineties. On each of the four floors are pianos in various stages of construction, thinly fringed with scattered workmen engaged in finicky tasks. There are no assembly-line techniques. The farthest Heintzman’s has got to mass production is a machine that carves eight piano legs at the same time.

Into a concert grand go twelve thousand separate parts. Its foundation is a massive cast-iron frame, shaped like a harp. Across this the strings are stretched, imposing a stress of twenty tons. Under the frame is the sounding board, a slightly domed panel of slow-grown, close-grained spruce, especially cultivated in the New England states.

When the keys are depressed wooden levers transmit the movement to the hammers, which strike the strings. Hammer handles are laboriously dropped, one at a time, onto a solid block of wood by a man with a fine sense of tone. If they make a plink instead of a plonk they are discarded as likely to break off during a rambunctious Rachmaninoff concerto.

On the frame, on the sounding board and on the action of grand pianos leaving the factory, there is a distinctive hieroglyphic. This is the craftsman’s personal mark of pride and confidence in his job.

In the last two years piano sales have taken a sudden upward spurt and Heintzman’s ascribes this to the influence of Liberace. Heintzman’s has noticed a new attitude toward the piano since the end of the last war. At one time many people bought pianos for show. Today every piano is bought to be played.

“In the old days,” says Herman Heintzman, “people forced unwilling children to play. But that’s all gone. Now the kids are forcing the parents to buy them pianos. We had a customer here recently whose two teen-age children had been learning the piano secretly for two years. Group piano lessons in the schools are partly responsible for this change of attitude.”

Each of the younger-generation Heintzmans has children, some of whom will go into the company. And like all the Heintzmans before them they’ll do five years in the factory before they get an executive job.

Occasionally members of the Heintzman family sputter with rage when newspapers call the company “The Steinway’s of Canada.” Herman Heintzman says: “We are not the Steinway’s of Canada. We are Heintzman’s . . . the Heintzman’s . . . Heintzman’s of . . . of . . . Heintzman’s of the world.” ★