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The Heart and Soul of the ‘Big’ Piano

Thirty years ago, one inventor’s lifelong passion for combining music and technology collided with a renowned but struggling toy store, Tom Hanks, and a body-switching movie, giving birth to one of the most iconic scenes in film history

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

Before the Big Piano was “the Big Piano,” it was a collection of large pillows in the shape of a giant flower.

Musical Daisy, which debuted at the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum in 1970, was inventor Remo Saraceni’s first major technological achievement. The soft, interactive sculpture featured eight petals, each containing a different musical note, and each activated by the weight of someone walking or sitting on it. Saraceni, an Italian immigrant who moved to the United States in 1965, believed it encouraged conversation and represented “the fact that technology was a playful thing to explore the possibility of expanding yourself,” he says. Enamored of the invention and its interactivity, he spent the next decade making variations of Musical Daisy, leaning on his electronics expertise to refine his creative and sensory invention. The daisy morphed into a musical carpet a few years later, and then inspiration truly struck.

Inside Saraceni’s 20,000-square-foot Philadelphia workshop—a loft filled with motion-sensor gadgets and light installations—sat a white, vinyl, tented pop-out futon for overnight guests and workers. “I thought with my assistant, ‘I know, let’s make [the futon] look like a piano,’” Saraceni tells me. With the help of just his assistant, he painted the mattress black and white and, after more electrical experimenting, the piece of furniture eventually turned into a keyboard prototype that looked much closer to a real instrument. Saraceni also made it more practical to play, scrapping the mattress pads for plastic paneling and a slender frame. The “Walking Piano,” as he called it, was born.

The 7-foot-long, one-octave invention was designed to replicate a piano’s musical characteristics while enduring what Design Magazine called a “trampoline-like regimen.” To withstand all the jumping, which triggered the sound sensors, the piano had switches beneath a layer of translucent acrylic keys and a Plexiglas sheet. Upon its completion in 1982, the oversized synthesizer caught the eye of FAO Schwarz, and the famous toy store bought it from him later that year, making it a floor display at its primary New York location. Six years later, Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia were playing “Chopsticks” on it.

Unlike in Big, where a three-octave keyboard is front and center in an expansive and colorful store, Saraceni’s smaller creation sat off to the side in a closed environment for the first couple of years, a product of the store’s diminishing capital investments. The piano didn’t gain more prominence until Peter Harris became FAO Schwartz’s CEO in 1985 and moved the store across Fifth Avenue into the General Motors Building and changed its culture to be more entertainment focused. Cash-strapped and needing grassroots marketing for its rebrand, Harris and his team wrote letters to major film and television networks, offering up the store’s 40,000-square-foot space as a filming location. It didn’t take long to find interest.We got a call, and our marketing person walked up to me and said, ‘Peter, you won’t believe this one. They want to make a movie about a boy in an adult’s body that works in a toy business,’” Harris remembers. “We looked at each other and said, you know, it’s destined to fail, but maybe 10,000 people will see it. So let’s do it. There’s no downside.”

Big celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, and still its legacy remains tethered to its most memorable scene, a celebration of generational connection and an exercise (quite literally) in, yes, fun. It takes place early in the movie. Josh Baskin (David Moscow) has already spurted into a Tom Hanks–size adult after making a wish at a Zoltar Speaks carnival stand. His magically altered 30-year-old self, portraying his inner child with convincing 12-year-old detail, has escaped for Manhattan and found work in computers at MacMillan Toys. His boyish characteristics don’t really belong in the stuffy, white-columned, suit-and-tie operation, but his uncanny, childlike charisma is discovered by the company owner, Mac (Loggia), on a Saturday trip to FAO Schwarz.

He bumps into Josh playing laser tag, bewildered but intrigued by his playfulness and reservoir of toy knowledge and history. Mac is scouting for new ideas, and Josh willingly shares his critiques of the industry, roaming the store before literally stumbling on some music. “Neat,” he says, looking down at a giant electronic keyboard he’s just walked across. After Josh tests the keys—pacing back and forth, then sliding into a glissando—he begins putting notes together. Watching Josh’s feet, Mac soon catches on, and starts playing his right-hand melody to “Heart and Soul,” humming the lyrics as a crowd begins to gather. At the song’s conclusion, during a brief pause, Mac whispers “Chopsticks” (as the two mentioned seconds earlier, they both took piano lessons), and they quickly jump into the song’s jaunty melody, making some impressive leaps, accelerating in pace, and then stretching their legs the length of the keyboard to finish in exasperation (watch Hanks pull up his pants to stay balanced). The crowd applauds. “What department did you say you were in?” Mac asks, gawking at Josh’s answer. “Computers?!”

It’s hard to know why a certain scene leaves an indelible mark on movie audiences. On one level, those two minutes in Big work functionally—they forge a friendship between Mac and Josh, who is soon after named vice president of product development. But they also make up a transcendent moment in a story that’s playing with the concepts of what it means to be a child and an adult. The piano, much like Josh, is larger than it should be. And yet its obscurity offers a platform of partnership, a time machine of sorts that renders a glaring age difference obsolete. How often do you get to see two premier actors dancing with such glee? Director Penny Marshall’s genius was capturing the moment with a wide shot, providing room to admire the skill involved with Hanks’s and Loggia’s movements. “It’s so organic,” says the movie’s cowriter and producer Gary Ross. “Once they try to play the duet of ‘Heart and Soul,’ they are inevitably in a dance routine together. It has an inevitable simplicity that makes it work.”

At the time of its release, Big was the fourth movie in eight months to feature a story about magical body-switching (following Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, and 18 Again!), and Hanks’s costar Elizabeth Perkins has even admitted that they both presumed it would go straight to video. But its box office haulmore than $151 million worldwide, the fourth-highest domestic total from that year—made that fear look silly. (The movie’s success could also be seen in the demand for the piano: Saraceni and his company, Techno Future, supplied FAO Schwarz with the 7-foot versions, which sold for $6,250, and provided 2,000 more for the Neiman Marcus catalog, which sold for a slightly lower price.) Hanks earned critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, embodying the edge of puberty with a growing negotiation between childlike fun and lost innocence. The crystallization of that daily struggle—the movie’s guiding ethos—is felt as Loggia willingly joins Hanks’s dance duet, one of the reasons the Big Piano set piece became inextricably linked to the movie, encoded into its DNA. The scene has since been replicated and referenced in other movies (most recently in The Night Before), played at the store, mimicked numerous times on talk shows, featured on Academy Awards highlight reels, and become an instantly recognizable attraction at various exhibits in multiple countries.

“I think that it was new, that everybody loved that movie so much, and that everybody loved Tom Hanks so much,” the movie’s assistant production manager, Timothy Bourne, says. “You put all of that into a pot and it becomes an iconic moment. Would it have been the same if it wasn’t that movie and that actor? Probably not.”

Not long after Harris got a call from 20th Century Fox, Anne Spielberg, who cowrote the script with Ross, visited FAO Schwarz to scope out a prop that would give Josh and Mac an opportunity to build a relationship and kick the plot into gear. “Anne saw [the piano] in New York and came back raving about it,” Ross says. “It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but she had to talk me into it.” After another visit with Marshall, they settled on the piano, but Marshall needed it to be bigger so that both Hanks and Loggia could play it at the same time. She called Saraceni about the size issue. “I said, ‘OK, I need this many octaves, and I need it practical, so it lights up when they hit the right note,’” she told him over the phone. Saraceni came back with a synthesizer nearly 16 feet long and 3 and a half feet wide, and for the first time gave the keyboard a light sensor system.

The store shut down for filming, but the scene “wasn’t storyboarded or anything like that,” production designer Santo Loquasto says. The extras who gathered behind Loggia and Hanks were all store employees, something Harris negotiated with Marshall, as many of them were aspiring actors. Bourne, the assistant production manager, worked closely with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld to capture the right kind of lighting on the piano, putting gels under the keys to adjust the temperature. Every detail had meaning in Marshall’s production. “Her thinking is so layered on all of her movies if you look at it,” Bourne says.

Marshall wanted to shoot the scene with long takes and wide shots, which meant that Hanks and Loggia needed to learn both “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks” with few pauses. To help train them, she brought in choreographer Patricia Birch, who had devised the dance and musical sequences in Grease and worked with Marshall on Saturday Night Live. “I loved the idea immediately,” Birch says. “I had to figure out how to work the feet because we had to cross them now and then and I didn’t want them looking awkward. I played the piano, vaguely, so it was easy.” Then Birch gave her students an assignment. “I had them make two cardboard pianos and we practiced on those. I had them take them home and work on them.”

“It was exhausting,” Hanks told Playboy a year after the movie’s release. “We rehearsed until we dropped. Robert [Loggia] plays three sets of tennis every day, so he was in shape for it. It was like jumping rope for three and a half hours every time we did the scene. It was really hard work.”

“The first thing he told me was, ‘Remo, this was a very hard scene to do,’” Saraceni says of meeting Hanks.

After a couple of months of practice, Hanks and Loggia arrived on set to find two people wearing their same clothing. The producers had hired a couple of trained dancers to grab close-ups of just their feet. In case of emergency, Saraceni also provided another gadget. “I made the piano with a remote control,” he says. “It was another keyboard with a 50-foot-long umbilical cord with a switch that you could play from far away.” These additions didn’t sit well with Loggia. “We thought that was ridiculous,” Loggia said in a 2011 interview with The AV Club. “We told the guys who were dressed like we were to take a hike. So we were full-figure, which made it much more of a classic scene.”

“Well, it was a common-sense precaution and proved entirely unnecessary,” Ross says. “Once you learn the tune, the dance is perfect. Tom and Robert were way better at it than the dance doubles we hired.” The two of them nailed their series of takes. “They went ahead and did it and had so much fun with it and were so proud of themselves,” says Harris, remembering the day of filming. “What was captured on the screen was a sincere happiness.” For the first time, Saraceni says, “the piano really became an instrument played by two people.”

Harris remembers how much fun Hanks had off camera. “We pulled him around in a Radio Flyer wagon a little bit because he didn’t want to get out of character.” Adds Loquasto: “He was very shrewd as an actor in adopting those habits. It made it so compelling when he had those moments.” Looking back, Bourne says, it’s impossible to see anyone but Hanks prancing on top of the keyboard. “I think the piano became what it is because of him, as much as the movie.”

Today, on the bottom floor of New York’s Herald Square Macy’s, the Big Piano sits inside a mirrored hallway that connects a small food court to a women’s clothing section. Bright confetti decorations frame the exterior, which is punctuated by a neon-lit sign. Despite its enclosure, the wall’s flashing lights and the piano’s synthesized sounds invite those stepping off the adjacent escalators to take a brief break from shopping to jump on some keys before sheepishly remembering their errands. There’s not much signage explaining the piano’s history or cultural significance, no videos with dancing demonstrations, no organized queues.

It’s still an instantly recognizable attraction, though, something Katherine Corp noticed when she went to check out the piano in 2016, around the same time Macy’s acquired it from FAO Schwarz, which had shuttered its flagship Fifth Avenue toy store in 2015. “I saw firsthand how everyone wants to be on the piano, but you’re at Macy’s, so you’re competing with every other person at Macy’s who wants to play the piano,” Corp remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow, for people who actually want to get on it and play, which everyone does, there’s no opportunity.’”

Katherine and her identical twin sister, Kimberly, former Radio City Rockettes, were approaching their 17th year as owners of Pilates on Fifth, a workout studio, and wanted to develop a new program that catered to their musical interests and dance background. Using the piano from Big—a suggestion given to them by a young boy at a dance recital—turned out to be the perfect idea, a distillation of their proposed brain-and-body workout. Saraceni loved the idea, and in six weeks shipped them a specially made, four-octave piano. After months of training their employees, the Corp twins officially launched the class—called Big Piano Fitness—in November. Demand has been high enough that they’ve begun selling the class as an experience on Airbnb, providing time to teach recently married couples, or an entire group of Miss America contestants. The piano is as much a workout facilitator as it is a marketing magnet. “People don’t typically want to get off of it,” Kimberly says. “That’s part of our goal. We want people to want to come back.”

The Miami Children’s Museum wanted something similar when it opened Music Makers Studio, an experience featuring numerous interactive exhibits, in 2016. Naturally, the museum reached out to Saraceni, who collaborated on the renovated space by building another of his signature Big Pianos, as well as Musical Stairs, a recently updated keyboard that covers an entire staircase and plays notes as parents and children scale its steps. Much like how the Corp sisters have given the Generation X crowd the chance to revisit their nostalgia and reengage their motor skills, the museum has exposed children to the same kind of developmental process of play. For newcomers, a video screen above the Big Piano shows loops of Hanks and Loggia dancing, as well as other kids playing different songs. The installation is inspiring a cross-generational conversation—as well as a full-body workout. “[The piano offers] great access to learning and development,” says Alina Celeste, a teaching artist at the museum, “but it’s also creating really wonderful memories with a bond between parents and children.”

“The piano is not just a prop for a movie, for an exhibition,” says Saraceni. “The piano is an object that I created with this idea.” In his old age, he still loves chatting about how the movie changed his life, and he maintains an optimistic stance on technology and its capabilities—how music and color, even in small doses, can lead to positive, impactful moments.

For everyone involved in making the Big moment happen—and for anyone who remembers the movie—that hypothesis is self-evident. It’s an iconic moment in film, but also an indelible image for Hanks’s career, a supreme accomplishment for Saraceni, and a moment that defined and became inextricably tied to one of America’s most famous toy stores. Harris still remembers how dramatically attendance at FAO Schwarz shot up the summer after Big was released, as people looked for the piano, which had since been roped off in a special section of the store. During the holiday season that year, he estimated that 80,000 people filtered through the doors each day.

“It became the movie that took our experience—our entertainment, our interactivity, our fun—to folks all throughout the world. And it never stopped,” says Harris, who moved on from FAO Schwarz in 1992. “It’s one of the true highlights of my life to be involved with that movie.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in, and The New York Times.

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