The titular characters of History Channel's "American Pickers" reality series recently found themselves on the North Shore, searching for hidden gems in one Long Islander’s collection.
Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, who, fans know, are on a self-proclaimed mission to “recycle America,” visited Richard Smith of Glen Cove and his vast inventory of antique pianos on an episode titled "Road to Race," which aired Monday, May 7.
Smith is also a collector of classic pop culture memorabilia, though it was his baby grand player piano once owned by Babe Ruth which attracted the attention of the “Pickers."
The instrument had not been fully restored at the time of filming — which took place in September 2017 and lasted more than seven hours — but that didn’t stop Wolfe and Fritz from enjoying just being able to touch something that the baseball legend might have once played himself.
While they appreciated seeing all Smith’s store, The Piano Exchange, had to offer, the “Pickers” were (spoiler alert) not interested in purchasing one for themselves. However, they did manage to discover a variety of other vintage goods located above the showroom.
There, the cluttered attic was filled wall-to-wall with vintage finds that the TV hosts couldn’t wait to dig in to.
The “Pickers” ended up walking away with a variety of unusual pieces, including a restored jukebox, a Washburn string banjo, Victorian mechanical bellows and— their most expensive find— an ornate archway from a North Shore estate, on which they made a deal with Smith for $2,100.
“I’m interested in almost everything: fine, vintage automobiles; posters; motion picture films,” Smith said during the episode.
Smith told the hosts that he has “been finding and collecting and picking up stuff off the sidewalk” since he was a child and he hasn’t ever stopped.
In an interview with Newsday, Smith elaborated on his appreciation for artwork, saying that even mechanical devices can be art. In fact, he’s been restoring all types of them all his life. Starting out as a mechanic, he rebuilt cars and automobile engines, eventually opening his own auto body shop on Long Island after moving from Brooklyn in 1965.
"It was easy to make the transition into pianos because it’s just another mechanical device,” Smith says.
Smith recalls that while growing up in Manhattan, he noticed “people always had pianos” because the instrument “told the world that you were somebody special.” He says he always wanted one for himself, but his family had neither the money nor the space in their apartment.
“But I’ve made up for it,” Smith jokes. According to him, he has acquired the largest collection of Gershwin player piano rolls, the second oldest Steinway in existence, the world’s first electric piano and an electric piano that debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair.
However, he doesn’t just keep them all for himself. In addition to their “American Pickers" cameo, pianos that Smith has restored have been featured in other TV shows, movies and Broadway plays. Most recently, two pianos he worked on appeared in the Oscar-nominated musical “The Greatest Showman,” and he says 35 of his pianos were in the Broadway production of “Coraline.”
He occassionally hosts classes at his store on the science of sound for students from The Progressive School in Merrick, and on select Sunday mornings, Smith offers free, personal tours of his store, imparting his knowledge about the historic items on display.
For Smith, these invitation-only tours are like a jumping-off point for the music museum he hopes to open one day to showcase all the pieces he’s accumulated over the years -- a collection he says won’t be shrinking anytime soon.
“It’s a constant state of excitement to discover the unknown and to see things that you’ve never seen before,” Smith said on “American Pickers.”