A Visit with Domingo Mancuello

Although pianist Domingo Mancuello (pronounced Man-KWAY-o) lives only three miles from me (but not for long—see below), I did not meet him here in Lancaster. It was most likely at the Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and Old American Music Festival, which is normally held in the early fall in Orbisonia, PA. Orby, and the adjacent community of Rockhill Furnace, are the home of the East Broad Top Railroad, a short-line tourist road that represents another of Domingo’s passions, trains.

Domingo grew up near Kennett Square in Chester County, PA. His father, a native of Paraguay, is a landscape contractor. His mother became a Spanish teacher and is now the foreign language department head at a local high school. They met when she was in the Peace Corps in South America. His father spoke no English before he came here and his mother only learned Spanish after meeting her husband-to-be.

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Domingo attended the University of the Arts in center-city Philadelphia. After graduation he apprenticed at the Walnut Street Theater, a few blocks from the campus, and for the past six years has been with the Fulton Theater in Lancaster, one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating theaters. Starting as a production assistant, he has advanced to stage manager. Because the pandemic has temporarily closed the Fulton, Domingo has found another job, which he hopes to continue part-time after the Fulton reopens, with a local firm that repairs organs.

BH: How did you get started with old music?

DM: I love this question because I get to talk about my grandfather! He was a barbershop quartet singer with SPEBSQSA, which is now the Barbershop Harmony Society. He sang with the Chord Busters Barbership Chorus in West Chester (PA), and he had a quartet called the Jim Bills, so named because he sang lead and was named Jim, and the other members were all named Bill. I grew up listening to him sing music from the Ragtime era. He had a Brunswick wind-up phonograph, which is now mine. He found a store in Gap (a crossroads 15 miles east of Lancaster) that sold player pianos and other old devices where he could get steel needles for it. I saw a player piano there playing the “Maple Leaf Rag.” I was about six years old and was awed by it. It wasn’t until I was about 12 or 13, when we had reliable internet, that I was able to search out more of this music.

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When did you start piano lessons?

I started when I was six, and I had my last lesson the week before I went to college. I had a great teacher who let me work on things I liked. He didn’t force me to learn things I wasn’t interested in. In college I took xylophone for a year. In high school I was the xylophonist for the band and considered it my primary instrument until college. I was a theater major in college and continuing with the xylophone would have been an additional cost and I didn’t see a connection with the degree I was working toward. But on a whim I entered the World Championship Old Time Piano Playing Contest and went to the final round my first year there. I competed two years while in college, in 2013 and 2014, placing fourth the first year and third the second. That’s where I met Adam Swanson and other world-class pianists. In 2015 I had a job that needed me in May so I couldn’t go. Since then my work in theater has taken a higher priority.

Domingo Mancuello
Pianist Domingo Mancuello at the Homeland Center in Harrisburg PA in 2018. (Courtesy homelandcenter.org)

Who were some of the people who supported your interest in this music?

The Old Time Piano Playing Contest started posting videos of its contests, and I watched Ethan Uslan, Adam Swanson, Brian Holland, and others performing. When I was in college I started doing more research on my own and discovered pianists from the era. Rivermont Records was (and is) a great resource because they put out CDs of Frank Banta and other 78 rpm transfers. So not only did I listen to contemporary pianists but also original period recordings. All the while I never stopped collecting player piano rolls, which was a big part of my relationship with this music.

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Where did you find them?

My parents have always been very supportive of my hobby and when I was younger they would take me to antique shops and let me buy whatever I wanted as long as it didn’t bankrupt them! Now there are Facebook groups whose members buy and sell rolls, so it’s no longer necessary to just look for them at antique stores or conventions.

When you trade over the web, you can’t see what condition the roll is in. How do you deal with that?

True, there is some risk, but you have to expect that if you buy a large number of rolls, you will get some duds but also maybe some in excellent shape. And there could be some real rarities in the lot that makes up for the ones in less than pristine condition. Those that fit the latter category I give away for the cost of shipping, or I might peel off the paper and keep the actual spool and tubes to use to repair others.

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While we’re on the subject of piano rolls, tell me about your latest project—producing them.

Yes! It’s something I always wanted to do. I tell people that playing the piano has been a kind of survival technique for me. Since so few people played my kind of music, I either had to find a roll or learn the tune myself. After the pandemic hit, I had a lot of free time, so I started making rolls. This is much more complicated than I imagined. It takes about 30 hours to edit each roll. Someone like Adam Swanson will record the tune on a keyboard that sends midi-signals into a computer that creates a virtual roll. Using an audio editing program called Logic Pro I line up all the notes on a grid so that each one has a graphical value. I have to make sure that the roll sounds exactly like the way the pianist recorded it and that it’s optimized to play on a player piano. So far, we’ve released two rolls of Adam, one of Vincent Johnson, and one of myself.

A Visit with Domingo Mancuello
Newly produced piano rolls featuring the playing of Adam Swanson. (Jazzapation.com)

I envision producing two series of rolls: a composer’s series, which is the composer’s own tunes, and an artist’s series, which is a contemporary pianist playing an old tune in their own style.

Right now I’m working on rolls for orchestrions, automated musical instruments that play other instruments along with the piano. I’m adding percussion parts to existing piano arrangements. For the rolls I’m producing, I edit and create the computer files that I send to Tim Baxter who has a perforator who makes the physical rolls. I’d like to own a perforator myself but they are very expensive and are no longer made. I call my company Jazzapation; I sold out the first production run very quickly.

I know about your passion for old cars and trains. Talk a little about that.

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I inherited my maternal grandfather’s 1929 Model A. I’m grateful to him because I’m not in a position to acquire one on my own. I don’t know much about auto maintenance, but between my father and his brother in Paraguay, who’s a highly talented auto mechanic, we’re able to maintain it better than before. It’s a simple car to work on but there’s so much that’s still beyond my scope. As with player rolls, I benefit from the knowledge of Model A owners in Facebook groups. As for trains, I love steam locomotives. They’re so much fun to watch and see the mechanisms working. Trains and trolleys are part of the texture of the turn-of-the-century era and held it all together.

A Visit with Domingo Mancuello
Domingo Mancuello parks his Model A to watch a passing steam locomotive. (Facebook)

Maybe a love of old things is a genetic trait of musicians! Adam Swanson and Andrew Greene, both accomplished pianists and music historians, also love trains. Andrew even drives 200 miles each way on weekends to work at the East Broad Top. Glenn Robison, well known to many readers of this paper, while not a musician (to my knowledge), is also a big train fan.

Tell me about your impending move.

I just bought an old house in York that I think was built around 1910. It still has a lot of its original features, like intact transom operators. When I first saw it, I thought, “This is the one!” I’m currently preparing to renovate the kitchen to appear as it would have in the ’20s and ’30s, though I may take some liberties with the color palette.

You need to get together with Matt Tolentino! He and his wife are living in and restoring, inside and out, a Victorian house in Cincinnati they bought about two years ago. But that’s not all. His daily drive is a 1933 Buick Roadmaster, and I think he has about a ’53 Kaiser, still back in Dallas where he’s from, awaiting restoration.

We haven’t met, but I really enjoy Matt’s excellent livestreams. He’s quite talented, and we have a good friend in common, Drew Nugent, who’s another super-talented kindred soul. Drew lives in center-city Philadelphia and invited me to do a livestream with him back in March that was super fun.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the past hour or so, not all of it directly related to music. Thanks for stopping by and talking with me.

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Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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