Profiles: Earning Bucks the Old Way

"I think that the picture with live music is essential," he adds. "I think it has to be live to have the real [feeling]."

He is heartened by a new generation of accompanists with new playing styles keeping the craft alive.

"The young people are keeping it up so wonderfully," he says. "They're all marvelous at improvising music in the mood. … I think it will live forever."

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Durrell Armstrong, 70 -- Owner, Player Piano Co., Wichita, Kan.

Armstrong got into the "nostalgia business" of player pianos in 1951, shortly after he graduated from high school.

"It was just kind of an overgrown hobby that grew into a business," he says. "I was working at a printing company making 75 cents an hour. I found that I could earn $2 an hour repairing player pianos."

He founded the Player Piano Co. in Wichita, Kan., supplying parts — such as electric suction box adaptor kits that could replace old, manually pumped bellows — to maintain the aging suction-powered instruments.

Even then, player pianos were considered antiques. Mass marketed in the 1910s, they saw their heyday in the 1920s, when vinyl records, radio and the Depression undermined their popularity.

It took a stroke of luck to turn Armstrong from a small-scale hobbyist into an entrepreneur: From the late 1950s to early 1970s, old-fashioned player pianos made a comeback.

"It reached a peak somewhere around 1973, '74," he says. "At one time, we had about 31 employees. We're down to five now … but we're still providing the same basic line of materials."

Most player piano manufacturers ended production by the mid-1980s, though Story & Clark Pianos in Seneca, Pa., still makes them. However, most are newer, digital, CD-driven models, according to the company's plant manager, Dan Shirey, and sales of the old-fashioned, paper-roll-driven machines that Armstrong deals with are "down to a trickle."

Armstrong estimated the Player Piano Co. does about the volume of business it did in 1958, but on a downward trend.

Still, Armstrong is happy.

"I still think of it as an overgrown hobby," he says. "I'll stay with it until I die."

"If I had to, if it comes down to that, I'd run the whole business by myself," he adds. "I kind of feel responsible in a way. A lot of our customers have said from time to time, 'I hope you don't leave the business. What would we do?'"

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Herb Andler, 59 -- Owner, Justin Carriage Works, Nashville, Mich.

Thirty years ago, Andler raised Morgan horses, the kind that pulled carriages back in the real horse-and-buggy days.

One by one, he bought about a half-dozen vintage buggies and carriages for his horses, but he couldn't hang on to them. People kept saying, "I'll buy that horse if you sell me that buggy."

Andler the entrepreneur got to thinking, quit his job at an auto plant, and hitched his future to horse carriages. His father thought he was crazy.

"He just about came unglued," Andler says. "[He said,] 'What the hell is wrong with your head, boy? They don't use horse buggies anymore.' But fortunately, he lived long enough to see it grow into what it was, and he was pretty proud of me."

Andler now has 13 employees, and he struggles to keep up with orders for about 30 carriages per year. He's filled orders from Disney, parent company of, and built models that ride through New York's Central Park. Currently, he's working on three chariots he will ship to New Orleans for singer Harry Connick Jr.

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