Piano Stories Episode 6 : The SD-10 And The Fly Guy
Baldwin SD-10 : The Baldwin Piano Company's top-of-the-line piano, a 9-foot Concert Grand.
Riverbend Music Center: outdoor concert facility located on the banks of the Ohio River.
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra: Founded in 1977,The Cincinnati Pops is composed of members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Erich Kunzel: conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since its creation in 1977.
Me: I'm the guy all this happened to.
In the summer of 2000, among other things, I was a free-lance piano technician working for the Baldwin Piano Company. One of the things I did for them was "touch-up work". "Touch-up work" consists of repairing the kinds of dings, scrapes, and scratches that all pianos seem to become aquainted with at some point in their existence.
When I got the call early one morning from one of Baldwin's local store managers asking me if I was available to do some touch-up work that day, I wasn't too excited. It was an absolutely beautiful day and the thought of spending it indoors sanding, filling, and polishing away piano "boo-boos" in a semi-dark piano warehouse wasn't all that appealing. But, when he told me that the job was to touch up the Baldwin SD-10 concert grand piano that was on loan to the Riverbend Music Center, my ears perked up. Riverbend is an outdoor facility that sits on the banks of the Ohio River.
I asked the manager what needed to be done to the piano, and he said, " Not much; it's just got a few scratches on it that need to be touched up. Somebody will roll it out onto the stage for you and you can work on it there." Now, my attention had been gotten. I was being offered a job that would have me working outside, next to the river, doing some relatively easy work, on a gorgeous day and, best of all, there would be nobody there but me. I said, " I'm on my way " and headed out the door.
When you do free-lance work, you learn very quickly never to take the description of an intended job literally when it is described to you over the phone. When the Baldwin manager told me that the damage to the Baldwin was "not much", I knew my best bet was to take my entire repair kit with me and decide for myself what "not much" meant when I got there.
I'll never forget the scene that unfolded before me as my Volvo wagon eased its way through the gates at Riverbend and toward the stage area. Instead of an empty stage with a piano sitting on it, I saw several semi-trucks, an entire crew of professional photographers, the entire Cincinnati Pops Orchestra on stage, stagehands moving equipment everywhere, and standing in the center of the stage Erich Kunzel, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Even at 8:30 A.M., I could tell something big was going on here.
Never being one to avoid a potentially memorable event, I parked my car and headed for the stage. I was greeted by a woman in a business suit who was carrying a walkie-talkie. She said, " Can I help you ?" I said, " My name is George ; Baldwin asked me to do some touch-up work on the SD-10" . Then the woman with the walkie-talkie said something I wasn't sure I wanted to hear, " Good, we've been waiting for you. The photograher wants to talk to you."
As I stood there not quite awake, I watched as the woman with the walkie-talkie spoke into it and said, "He's here." Within a minute a man looking very much like a professional photographer approached me and just started talking. He said, " We can't use the piano the way it is; it's too dirty and has too many scratches on it. It will never work for the cover."
Using my best version of " Yeah, I knew that" bravado, I began asking the photographer questions aimed at telling me what the heck was going on without revealing the fact that I didn't know what the heck was going on.
It turned out that the only information the corporate pipeline had gotten to the Baldwin manager who had called me up that was correct was the fact that the piano needed to be touched up. What they failed to communicate to him was the fact that it needed to be touched up so that it could be used on the cover of a Baldwin publication that would be shot THAT DAY.
So there I stood with the entire production team, a stage full of union stage hands, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel, and various Baldwin personnel all waiting for me ( Not the lazy day by the river I had imagined ). Once I deduced what the heck was going on, my survival gene kicked in. I had the stage hands move the piano to one side of the stage where I could give it the once over. The overall finish of the piano was dull, the kind of dull you might expect from a piano stored near a river. There were at least two dozen scratches in the finish and another dozen outright chips of finish missing. The inside of the piano was very dusty and had some superficial stains on it.
I adjusted my mindset to the "make it look great for one shot" approach and mentally ran through what I would have to do to make this thing" fly". Then the photographer asked me the big question, "How long ?" . I tried to look as "professional" as I could when I answered, "Two hours." Was I confident that I could pull this off in two hours ? No, but I I didn't have the guts to give him a time any longer than that. The photograher tried to barter me down to a shorter time, but I stuck to my guns. Why not; what did I have to lose ? After all, I wasn't even sure if this was really happening. The photographer reluctantly bought my two hour bid and walked over to Erich Kunzel to tell him.
What happened next was the last thing I expected to happen. Erich Kunzel must be a practical man because he decided to not waste the two hours; he decided to have a full-scale dress rehearsal for the Cincinnati Pops right there. So, less than ten feet away from me, as I was busting my hump to get this "old -shoe- looking" piano into "showroom" condition, the entire Cincinnati Pops Orchestra was serenading me. ( beats an Ipod by a mile ).
As I began scrubbing, sanding, filling, touching-up, and polishing every square inch of that piano, I never stopped to think about how fast I must have been moving, but the union stage hands must have noticed because they began to gather around me. I must have been a sight, half sweat, half polish, and half optimism.
There are two things I remember most about working at a heart attack pace to get that piano ready.
1. At some point, Erich Kunzel walked over to me and began telling me specific parts of the piano he wanted to look extra good. Had I actually been prepared for this event, this probably would have put pressure on me. But, everything was just too surreal to sink in.
2. A few minutes after Erich Kunzel left me and returned to the podium to conduct the orchestra, a very laid-back stage hand walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around just in time to hear him say, " Hey, man; check it out." He was pointing to a black-and-white television monitor mounted on the wall.
There was a black-and-white video camera feeding the monitor that was permanently mounted about fifty feet from the stage. Apparently, this camera and monitor were on all the time. I guess this was so people on the stage could see what the stage looked like from the audience perspective. If you've ever seen a black-and-white video monitor that has been on for ages, you know that the picture they produce is sort of blurry looking.
The video camera for this particular monitor was aimed directly at Erich Kunzel as he conducted the Pops Orchestra . What was unique about this camera was the fact that a fly had landed on the lens of it and died. On the monitor, this created the ghostly illusion that a giant dead fly was sitting directly on top of Erich Kunzel's head as he conducted the orchestra. As this bizarre image began to sink in, the same stage hand said, " Pretty cool; Huh ?". By the way, the song the orchestra was playing while all this was going on was "Old Man River", complete with vocal. Talk about your "one for the books".
In spite of all of this, I was determined to cross the finish line and win this race. I was seriously on autopilot; my body was totally disconnected from my mind. Finally, with a few minutes to spare, I called for the photographer's crew and told them the piano was ready. It really did look like a brand new piano, except for one small detail which I will reveal later.
As a ton of activity sprang into action, I packed up my " stuff " as quickly as I could, with my only goal being to "call it a day". Funny, the entire time I was working on the piano, every person there was interested in me and how long it would take for me to finish. The second I was finished, I dropped off every radar in the place with the only parting words being said when a Baldwin executive turned to me and said, " Send me a bill".
I am attaching the actual photos of the infamous Baldwin SD-10 that I camouflaged that day. If you look very closely at the rear section of the piano, the tail section to the right of Erich Kunzel, you will see what looks like streaks in the piano's finish. What this is, in reality, is a concoction of color, wax, and secret ingredients that make it look like the piano still has a nice finish on that part of it. About fifteen feet to the left of the SD-10's keyboard is where I spent the morning bringing the old gal back to life. Life can be somethin', if you're lucky enough to be there where reality takes a holiday.
The section of piano to the right of Erich Kunzel was made to look good using a touch-up magic concoction.
The finished product.