Grinnell's pianos and the world's largest mass piano concerts

1,000 young pianists participate in the Michigan Music Festival at the State Fair Coliseum in June, 1961.

ImageThe Grinnell Bros. Music House on Woodward Ave., south of Grand Circus Park.

In l872 Ira Grinnell founded his piano firm in Ann Arbor. His brother, Charles, later joined him and they opened a store in Detroit in l882. By l908 they constructed their headquarters at l5l5 Woodward just south of Grand Circus Park for $l50,000. It was expanded in l963 to take over the adjoining Sanders store.

In l9l3 their manufacturing plant opened in Holly, Mich., as “the largest piano factory on the earth”. It offered l5 models in a choice of mahogany, walnut, oak, ebony and fruitwood. By l955 Grinnell’s had more than 70 workers and was the world’s largest piano distributor and one of the leading piano makers.

Only such a large firm could supply the number of pianos needed for the Michigan Music Festival. Inspired by a similar musical event in Indianapolis in the late l930s, the Detroit area began enjoying a similiar annual spectacular piano concert in which thousands of students performed in front of their proud parents and friends. And it also showcased the durable Grinnell pianos.

Grinnell’s and a music teacher’s group, Festival Teachers Association, co-sponsored the annual extravaganza. Only three of Detroit’s largest halls could accommodate the crowd and the pianists: the State Fair Colosseum, Olympia Stadium, and later Cobo Hall.

The young pianists, divided into four groups according to ability, played different tunes. The Grinnell store on Woodward scheduled groups of 65 students to rehearse on Saturdays with the conductor, Francis W. Smith. He tapped his baton to get the squirming musicians to pay attention, breaking many iun futility. The squirmers offered little hope of excellence, with the girls trying to carefully follow his directions while the boys’ attention often seemed to be elsewhere. These events may have produced a few rock bands later, judging from the practice many of the students got jumping and pounding on their instruments. But the sessions proved the Grinnell pianos could withstand abuse.

ImageThe author, dressed up for the 1956 concert at the Olympia.

The girls dressed in bridesmaid-style formals with matching shoes and white gloves, and the boys wore white shirts and ties.

The pianos formed a half-circle, all facing the conductor. Most of the pieces were duets which allowed more players to participate.

In the l938 Detroit concert, the 400 pianists presented Chopin’s “Polonaise”, Moszkowski’s “Valse Brilliante”, Shubert’s “Marche Militaire” and a certain “Vale of Song” by Rolfe. The last song was played four times, once by each group.

In l958, l,200 participants of the “world’s largest mass piano concert”, also listened to l8-year-old Lois Pachucki, who had won a $l,000 scholarship the previous year and was currently studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

In 1960, Grinnell’s vice president, Lloyd V Grinnell, attended his 17th concert, having never missed the event. Also the popular Detroit Belle Isle Concert Band conductor Leonard B. Smith, joined by his trumpeters, performed with the organist Eric Norris.

In l972, the 400 stars played “Home on the Range”, Golden’s “Toymaker’s Dream”, Khachaturian’s “Masquerade Waltz”, Scherzo from “A Midsummer Nights Dream,” Martin’s “Valse Caprice”, Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”. Tickets to the concerts were free at Grinnell stores.

The 30th concert, held in 1973 at Cobo Hall, was the last such concert noted in The Detroit News files.

ImageParticipants rehearse for the 1967 concert.

    In l969, the Holly plant had a five-month strike, and in l977 most of the branch stores closed. In l98l the downtown store closed and the few remaining branches soon followed. The Japanese competition and new technology in music combined with the demographics of fewer children spelled the end of the firm. Financial reverses and lawsuits helped seal the fate of the once prosperous old company.

However, many of the well-built pianos undoubtedly remain in many Detroit-area homes.

In 1994, 15 years after Grinnell’s closed, a new firm, Grinnell Bros. Piano Co. was opened by Joseph Marras Sr. in Dearborn Heights. It offers pianos built to the old Grinnell Bros. sturdy specifications. By Vivian M. Baulch / Special to The News