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Keeper of the Keys 

With a skilled hand and a bad joke, piano man Bill Kap carries on a lost art.

Chairman of the keyboard: The Bill Kap behind Kap - Piano. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Chairman of the keyboard: The Bill Kap behind Kap Piano.
Being the proprietor of an acoustic piano palace isn't easy these days. Thirty years of microchip music have taken their toll. On this slate-gray afternoon, the only callers at Kap Piano in East Cleveland are two boys hawking tools door-to-door and a girl in a Catholic-school uniform.

"I called yesterday about maybe getting some piano wire," the girl says shyly. Kap manages to slip in a quick joke, and she giggles. "Come on with me," he says.

A cutup from way back, the 69-year-old Kap is hard up for fresh ears to listen to his jokes now. But he manages to make do with telemarketers, his employees, and the occasional delivery boy who waltzes through the door. Or maybe even a cluster of retired nuns who've been sent his way to marvel at his collection of swirled-vanilla Wurlitzers and the brass camel whose hump plays Hungarian Rhapsody #1.

"They like to get out of the convent every once in a while," Kap muses, munching on a cigar. "I'm glad to show them around."

An ice-cream-cart vendor turned player-piano restorer, Kap can build a piano from scratch. (He even designed and built 10 nickelodeons in the 1980s, a few of which are on display in his block-long complex.) But he can't play a lick on the darn thing. "I like the mechanics of the piano," he says. "That's the fun of it -- getting it and restoring it."

Even during its heyday, Kap Piano was a relic of that spit-and-polish era when salesmen didn't just know their products; they could custom-make one from scraps of lumber. "Every used piano we get, we tear completely down back here," says salesman Lou Ortez, who started as a piano refinisher, but found his true calling in sales. "Over the years, we learned by doing."

But the top American piano lines they once carried are gone, their scripted names vanishing like smoke. "Aeolian, Mason-Hamlin, Knabe," reminisces Ortez. "Unfortunately, they never came back." Electronic keyboards with auto-accompaniment and built-in MIDI ports took their place. As the neighborhood declined, remaining customers scattered to suburban stores, where "they sell from a brochure," says Ortez disapprovingly.

When visitors do drop in, the white-haired, white-skinned Kap might introduce the shop's black piano refinisher as his brother, "the black sheep of the family." As they leave, he'll remind them to "Beethoven up" their overcoat. In between, the phone might ring, and Kap might ask the woman on the line selling magazine subscriptions if she carries braille versions of Playboy, Penthouse, and Esquire.

Working at Kap's, "You get teased a lot," says Wanda Dawson, a piano tuner who, like many unskilled young people, came in here looking for a job and ended up learning a trade. "But that makes the work go better."

In the late 1960s, Dawson was in high school, taking a correspondence course in piano tuning on the side. "A piano tuner had come to our house, and I watched him take our piano apart," she remembers. "So when he left, I took it apart again." Her family didn't mind. "My dad was a mechanic and a body man, and he always said, 'If someone put it together, someone can take it apart.'"

While in training, she broke a string. Her dad took her to Kap's. "Bill said, 'We got all the stuff here. Why don't you come in and learn?'"

Working with hundreds of pianos was a dream come true, curing her indecision about whether she wanted to be a piano tuner, a sewing-machine repairwoman, or a kindergarten teacher. "I worked there from 1968 to 1972. We got all the pianos in every condition there ever was," she says. "Broken this, broken that, school pianos, church pianos -- those really take a beating! Grand pianos, new spinet pianos. It was really intense."

Though the front showroom can be as quiet as a graveyard, the adjacent repair shop -- where spinster spinets are arrayed in various stages of undress -- is abuzz. Here the more princely secondhands are resurrected, while the splintered trade-ins are stored in a warehouse across the street.

The mahogany lid has been removed from a Weber grand, revealing a yellow wood core called the pin block. "That's the heart of the instrument," explains Ortez. "That's something that has to be chiseled out and made by hand. That will last a hundred years."

Ortez, a former refinisher, can't play the piano either. Kap hired him 27 years ago. "I got him out of jail," Kap jokes. "He was charged with throwing rocks at airplanes." Actually, Ortez's dad brought him by. Ortez used to work here six days a week, plus a day job with the Cleveland Board of Education. "And then I cut back," he says. "But every time I try to get out, Bill calls me back: 'Lou, get back in here.'"

Ortez only works the occasional weekend now. The store sees but "a half-dozen or so" customers a week, he says, sighing. "Used to be a time I got that much in one day. There were 20, 30 customers at least. On weekends, I see maybe three. Some days, I don't see anybody. But it'll be a shame to ever close it up. We don't have to sell a lot. If a customer comes in, they usually buy."

One attraction that still brings people in is Kap's museum of pipe organs and music boxes, a popular stop for senior citizens' groups. Stuffed hummingbirds chirp inside a Victorian "bird-box" that's powered by a mini-waterfall. And metal hounds race in the belly of a combination betting machine/player piano.

"Here's my first project, when I was a refinisher, a touch-up man," Ortez says proudly, caressing a box with delicate leaves carved in the woodwork. "I guess that's almost 25 years or so ago." He runs his hand over it, as if in disbelief. "This is the box I redid. And it's still like new. I hand-rubbed it and refinished it, and it's still like new." Resurrection accomplished.

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