Life Along the Loop: Man turns family heirlooms into pianos that play themselves

‘Ragtime Southwest' at Loop 1604 near FM 78 more than a decade

SAN ANTONIO, TX – As his retirement from the U. S. Air Force approached in late 1995, John Talbot made one promise to himself that was unnegotiable.

"I'm standing there one morning shaving and I told my wife, 'Yeah baby, when I retire,’ I said, ‘I'm going to quit shaving."

Now, with a bushy mustache hanging down past his chin -- reminiscent of the cartoon character “Yosemite Sam”-- Talbot spends most of his days just beyond the confines of Randolph Air Force Base.  He owns a shop called “Ragtime Southwest,” located along Loop 1604 near F-M 78.

It’s part workshop and part wonder, a business in which he makes player pianos out of family heirlooms.

“It's a shame to see some of these people getting rid of their history. They've been in the family for 50, 100 years,” he said.

A music lover, Talbot began tinkering with the instruments in his spare time more than a decade ago. Now, he has turned the piano pastime into a fulltime second career.

“It’s fascinating to see how air and a little hole and a pneumatic that runs off of air squeezes and makes a piano play," Talbot said.

After years of performing this type of musical magic in other locations, including his home, he opened up shop on the outskirts of the air force base in 2005.  Since then, it has become a warehouse full of nostalgia.  Talbot collects, buys, restores and sells everything from old Coke dispensers to old cars.

He also has a collection of more than 200 old signs that light up, hanging from the ceiling and walls.

"That's from Mitchell Hall at Lackland Air Force Base,” Talbot said, pointing to an old, but functional telephone booth. “There are some phone numbers in there and girls' names written on the side."

Among all the collectibles are some items which hold a special place in his heart, including a carousel horse and metal car.  Both, Talbot said, came from rides at a carnival where he worked as a teen.

“Those are not for sale,” he pointed out.

Memories from his adult life, meanwhile, decorate the walls of his inner office. There are photos from his days in Vietnam as well as his travels around the world.

Now, though, he said he has found a permanent home, helping to put music into the homes of others.

About the Author:

Katrina Webber joined KSAT 12 in December 2009. She reports for Good Morning San Antonio. Katrina was born and raised in Queens, NY, but after living in Gulf Coast states for the past decade, she feels right at home in Texas. It's not unusual to find her singing karaoke or leading a song with her church choir when she's not on-air.