A Key to the Past: The Original Piano from the Madame Walker Theatre
The first thing I noticed about this particular piano was a label sitting on top of the keyboard that read, “The first piano played on the stage of the Walker Theatre: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, among others of great renown have played it.” I couldn’t believe that this important piece of not only Walker Theater history, but jazz music history was sitting right in front of me! I knew I had to find out more about this object, so I started to do some sleuthing.
The Madame Walker Theater is still known to this day for hosting musical performances, and when the theater first opened in 1927 that was no different. Mr. Thomas Ridley, an Indiana Avenue native, recounted to our class how he would regularly visit the Theater to see movies, musical performances, and Vaudeville shows. The theater originally housed a pipe organ that was used by various musicians, and perhaps there were other instruments owned by the Walker Theater that have since disappeared. This one black piano remains as a symbol of the Indiana Avenue entertainment culture that was created by the Walker Theater throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
When I was finally able to examine the piano more closely I made some amazing discoveries. Inside the lid of the piano was a manufacturing mark indicating that this piano was in the style of a Hamilton upright and had been made by the Baldwin Piano Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hamilton uprights are known for being able to endure harsh and constant use which would have made this style of piano a perfect choice for the Walker Theater where numerous artists would have been banging on its keys (http://www.antiquepianoshop.com/online-museum/hamilton-by-baldwin/ ).
The Baldwin Piano Company can trace its roots back to 1862 when the company’s founder Dwight Hamilton Baldwin opened his first piano shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. By the 1890’s this small piano dealership had grown into the largest in the Midwestern United States. It was at this time that Baldwin decided to start manufacturing his own pianos, and he sold his first upright piano in 1891. The company thrived throughout the 20th century and even made it through the Great Depression unscathed. Today the company remains a subsidiary of the Gibson Guitar Company, but they have stopped production on new pianos as recently as 2008. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_Piano_Company).
The story of the Baldwin Piano Company resonated with me because it parallels in a lot of ways the story of Madame C.J. Walker. While Dwight Baldwin may not have faced as many obstacles as Madame due to his gender and race, he still created the largest piano manufacturing company from scratch.
After this initial discovery, still more interesting facts began to emerge from this unassuming black piano. I was able to locate the instrument’s serial number and determine from online resources that the piano was made sometime between the years of 1900 and 1922. While this doesn’t correspond directly with the opening of the theater it is possible that the piano was purchased either in anticipation of the theater’s opening, or perhaps it came from the home of Madame or her daughter A’Leila.
After examining the piano with this classes instructor, Richard McCoy, we were able to determine that the piano was initially made from quarter sawn wood and had been stained a handsome dark finish to show off the nice oak wood used to create it. It appears to have later been painted a white color, and then later at least one coat of black paint, the color we see it today. Also, we discovered that some of the keys were in fact ivory. It appears that some of the piano’s keys have been replaced since the piano’s original manufacturing which is why the keys are composed of different materials. This discovery was important because it shows that this was a high-quality piano made of superior materials. The Walker Theater took their musical instruments seriously and provided only the best for the multiple performers that graced their stage.
Examining this one musical instrument has shown me the importance of what one object can tell you about a place’s history. Objects not only answer questions, but pose new ones. After examining this piano I want to see if I can find a list of all of the performers at the Walker Theater to create a complete record of all the musicians who may have tinkered on its keys. I also want to see if I can dig through historic photographs at the Indiana Historical Society and see if any pictures exist of one of these great jazz musicians actually playing on stage.
While this piano may look worn on the outside, the rich story it contains makes it an important object for Walker Theater and jazz music history.