Born in 1881, Althelstan Lockyer Collis lost his father at a young age and moved back to Trouty, Trinity Bay, with his mother’s family, the Lockyers. Despite his severe tunnel vision—the condition was “like looking down a lead pencil,” in the words of his grandson Alastair—Althelstan went to Montreal for five years to study voice, piano and organ as young man. “He was a baritone, like [Luciano] Pavarotti,” says Alastair.
In 1910 he moved to Harbour Grace, where he repaired and tuned pianos out of his home on LeMarchant Street. Owning to Harbour Grace’s public infrastructure—the town had water and sewer 50 years before the capital—Althelstan felt Harbour Grace was the place to establish his music business. Athelstan was mobile, though, travelling around the island repairing pianos for extended periods each year.
His near-blindness didn’t hamper his work, however. In the Harbour Grace issue of Decks Awash (1982), Alastair recounts a story Athelstan’s friend Max King often told:
Max was a boy when grandfather arrived in Trouty, Trinity Bay. Max’s mother told him to ‘bring Mr. Collis to the church,’ where Max left him to repair the organ. Later, after supper, Max returned, but the church was in darkness. Groping his way up the aisle, he saw in the moonlight the organ in pieces all over the floor. Grandfather told Max to come back in two hours. Max rushed home and reported, ‘Mother, that man can’t see. He’s up there and there’s no lights on. I don’t know what’s going on!’ However, when Max did return the organ was back together and grandfather was happily playing it—still in the dark.
Athelstan married Mary Parsons, of Harbour Grace, and the pair had three children. Born in 1918, their son James Leslie followed in his father’s footsteps, cultivating a love of music at an early age. At four, he began music lessons under the tutelage of Flora Parsons, a student of Sister Loretta Croake. Croake was a strong supporter of Leslie’s musical gifts and influenced his career pursuit of music. In his teens, Leslie sat the exams for Junior, Senior and Higher Local at Trinity College and won first place at both the Junior and Higher Local levels.
For years, the father and son duo travelled Newfoundland tuning and repairing pianos. Time appears to have little meaning: If they finished in one town late Thursday, then they stayed until Sunday, just so that Athelstan could sing in the church choir while Leslie played the organ. According to Alistair, the family owed this sense of ease to Athelstan: “Once, when Leslie was concerned least they miss the next boat, grandfather Collis commented, ‘Don’t worry, son, if we miss it, there’s another in two weeks.'”
Athelstan died in 1940 and Leslie inherited the travelling business. However, Leslie almost met his own end in 1942, when he was badly burned in a fire and required 45 skin grafts on his legs. Fearing he might not walk again, Leslie convalesced in a St. John’s ward for three months. Returning to Harbour Grace, he found his house burnt. Even his girlfriend had deserted him. Undeterred, Leslie began his slow recovery, learning to use his hands and legs again. He began dating Lillian Martin, a nursing trainee whom he met at the hospital in St. John’s. Lillian came from Coley’s Point, in nearby Bay Roberts. The two were married in 1943.
Soon after, Leslie embarked on an ambitious plan to expand the family piano business. He acquired an old, three-story Water Street property, which luckily had survived the great Harbour Grace fire of 1944. Previously Edward Parsons and his son Reuben operated the building as a furniture and photography shop. Under new ownership, the building housed a piano showroom on the ground floor and a repair and finishing shop above. Later, an extension was built behind the original structure; the building even featured a small railway to transport pianos around the shop.
In 1954 Leslie and Lillian moved to St. John’s, where the expanded operations. In 1962 a new showroom and workshop opened on 556 Topsail Rd, where the business is still based today. Eventually, A.L. Collis had seven stores across the island.
Despite his new workshops, Leslie continued his tuning and travelling, now with a new companion, his son Alastair, who joined the business in 1976. “‘Collis’—he always called me ‘Collis’—‘no matter what it is, if it’s one piano in Fogo or Burgeo, whatever it is, you’ve gotta go do it.’ That was the key to business really,” his son recalls in a Telegram profile. His love of music continued, too. He played for Tony Bennett and Celine Dion, and even tuned Bob Hope’s piano in Botwood in 1943.
Leslie died in March 1982, when Alistair was in Japan. Alistair continues to operate the business on 556 Topsail Rd. While A.L Collis and Son’s Harbour Grace piano factory closed in 2001, the building remains, a memory of the town’s tall and narrow downtown architecture before the 1944 fire. No longer building the pianos, due to competition from the Asian market, A.L. Collis and Son focuses on their earlier trade, tuning and repair.
One interesting, recent restoration is the Wurlitzer Baby Grand piano formerly housed at the U.S. Naval base in Argentia. In 1943 A.L. Collis and Son built 17 pianos—five grand, six baby grand and six upright models—for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army at their Harbour Grace location. Though the Wurlitzer had deteriorated severely, Alastair repaired the piano because of its sentimentality and heritage value. Today, the piano is located at the CFS St. John’s. According to the Telegram, “no piano in this province has gotten more play in its day,” with such luminaries as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, Vera Lynn and Jayne Mansfield playing its keys.
Sources & Further Information
“Carrying on in the Collis Tradition.” Decks Awash, vol. 11, no. 2, November-December 1982, pp. 22-24.
MacEachern, Daniel. “Piano man.” The Telegram [St. John’s], 6 August 2013. https://www.thetelegram.com/business/piano-man-133069/. Accessed 22 April 2019.
Whiffen, Glen. “Baby grand once played by celebrities visiting Argentia now has a new home at CFS St. John’s.” The Telegram [St. John’s], 3 October 2017. https://www.cbncompass.ca/news/local/baby-grand-once-played-by-celebrities-visiting-argentia-has-new-home-at-cfs-st-johns-153607/.
“James Leslie Collis.” Kiwanis Music Festival of St. John’s. https://www.kiwanismusicfestivalsj.org/hall_collis.html. Accessed 22 April 2019.
— Written by Matthew Gerard McCarthy (Communications Officer) for the Conception Bay Museum, Harbour Grace.