Returning to your silver screen…

Kevin Hanna, left, and Nathan Smith with the restored Wurlitzer Photoplayer. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

Kevin Hanna and Nathan Smith have a huge surprise for members of a trust whose dream it was to restore the only photoplayer of its type left in New Zealand.

The two men will fire up the 1915 ‘K’ style Wurlitzer photoplayer – one of only two in the world – that they’ve spent more than a decade working on, for a special viewing on Saturday at their Pirongia property.

One cabinet section hosts the percussion section.

There will be tears, Hanna acknowledges, particularly when guests hear what the photoplayer sounds like. Photoplayers gave sound to silent movies, previously known as photo plays, before talkies made them redundant. They replace a 15-piece orchestra.

The News was given a preview and is not about to ruin the surprise. But suffice to say having a Charlie Chaplin silent movie playing in the background was the icing on the cake.

The four current trustees – John McLeod, Don Paynter, Graeme Duthie and Michael Wilson – will be there as will Deearna Leshams of Auckland, who gave the photoplayer to the trust in 2010.

Then it was in the back of her property damaged by the weather and a far cry from the model which had pride of place at the Strand Theatre on Queen Street.

Now it is on the Ministry for Cultural and Heritage’s Nationally Significant Object Register after having more than $600,000 spent on its restoration. It cannot be removed from New Zealand.

Another 20 plus supporters will also be there to see the photoplayer and a collection of other mechanical musical instruments owned by the late landscape artist and trust patron Jonathan White, who died nearly two years ago.

Hanna and Smith were given the pick of White’s collection to purchase after his death.

Once the guests get past the photoplayer, they will hear a nickel-controlled banjo orchestra comprising piano, banjo, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, wood block, castanets, bass drum, and cymbal.

The Photoplayer Restoration Trust was formed in 2010 by a group of businesspeople in Opotiki whose aim was to carry out restoration work on the photoplayer, maintain it for future generations and raise funds.

After two years of research and an extensive feasibility study, they engaged Hanna and Smith to undertake the restoration.

“Nobody else in the world knows how to look after and repair that instrument,” says Paynter.

They found missing parts around New Zealand and travelled to the United States and Australia for more.

Many of the parts and the side cabinets have been made by hand. The plan, once they were finished, was for the photoplayer to be moved to a film museum but Covid put paid to that and the market for the instrument dropped.

Kevin Hanna inside the front of the Wurlitzer photoplayer.

Instead, Hanna and Smith have built their own temperature-controlled showroom come museum.

There is another reason for the celebration on Saturday. The trust is transferring ownership of the photoplayer to Hanna and Smith.

The men will celebrate their 20-year anniversary on Queen’s (now King’s) Birthday Weekend – they joke there have been plenty of times in the last decade when the Wurlitzer tested their relationship.

Now they own and operate Hamilton Piano Company at their Pirongia lifestyle block. They were formerly based in Chartwell, Hamilton.

Hanna, an experienced piano tuner and technician, is in huge demand and has worked on servicing and rebuilding pianos for years.

Smith is New Zealand’s only full-time piano technician.

Kevin Hanna, left, and Nathan Smith with the restored Wurlitzer Photoplayer

They bring in from Japan second-hand pianos which they refurbish and on-sell.

After they get through the weekend – preparation for which has involved weeks of long days – they will turn their attention to adding to the musical room so they can host groups.

It will be appointment only with the maximum number set at 12. They are in the process of adding a storage room, toilets, bathroom and catering facilities.

“The rest homes are queuing up,” said Smith.

The drawcard will be the Wurlitzer. Guests will get to see a silent movie and witness what moviegoers used to queue for early last century.

“This is our legacy, who else is going to do this?” says Smith.

“We got handed this rotten photoplayer. We got a contract to build a piano and look where it’s led to.”

The refurbished Wurlitzer with a Charlie Chaplin movie playing in the background.

Hanna, 47, and Smith, 40, are conscious there is no-one else who can maintain the Wurlitzer. So skilled are they, they are heading for the US soon to work on another photoplayer.

Asked what is to stop it ending up like it was 10 years ago, they shake their heads in disbelief.

Not on their watch is the answer. So, here’s hoping they live long enough to pass on their skills.

Kevin Hanna, left and Nathan Smith in front of their “to die for” view across towards Pirongia. On a clear day they can see Tongariro National Park to the south, the Kaimais to the east and everything in between.

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