Remo Saraceni, 89 years old, dies; The inventor of the walking piano seen in “Big”

Remo Saraceni, the sculptor, toy inventor and technological fantasist best known for creating the Walking Piano to which Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia danced in a beloved scene from the 1988 hit film “Big,” died June 3 at Swarthmore , Pennsylvania. 89.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said Benjamin Medaugh, his assistant and caretaker. Mr. Saraceni died at Mr. Medaugh's home, where he had lived for the past several years.

Mr. Saraceni's specialty was “interactive electronics,” he told New York magazine in 1976. His other inventions included a clock that could respond aloud when you asked it the time, a stethoscope stereo system that could resonate your heartbeat and clouds of plexiglass that lights up at the sound of a whistle with a pastel color suitable for lighting a room. All were fueled by what Mr. Saraceni (pronounced SAR-ah-SAY-nee) called “human energy”: the voice, touch and warmth of the human body.

The power of this type of technology to enchant its users became a key element of the plot of “Big,” and in turn the central element of one of the most fondly remembered scenes in recent cinema history.

After wishing to become “grown up” in front of Zoltar's magical fortune-telling machine, the film's main character, Josh Baskin, transforms from a 12-year-old boy into a young adult (played by Mr. Hanks). One Saturday he gets an office job at a toy company whose owner, Mac (Robert Loggia), recognizes Josh as his employee at FAO Schwarz, the toy seller whose main store at the time was on Fifth Avenue, at 58th Street in Manhattan. Mac is a shrewd capitalist watching his industry in action; Josh is a boy who revels in the world of toys (albeit in a man's body).

While Josh impresses Mac with his intimate knowledge of FAO Schwarz products, they come across Mr. Saraceni's nearly 16-foot-long walking piano. With childlike absorption, Josh begins jumping on it to the tune of “Heart and Soul.” Mac, inspired by Josh's unconscious pleasure, joins him, turning the performance into a duet. In front of a stunned crowd, the two perform a version of “Chopsticks”.

Mac makes Josh the company's vice president of product development, setting the rest of the film's plot in motion.

“It was like jumping rope for three and a half hours every time we did the scene,” Mr. Hanks told Playboy in 1989. “We rehearsed until we dropped.”

The film grossed over $150 million and boosted Hanks' stardom in Hollywood, earning him his first Oscar nomination (for Best Actor). It also inspired decades of visitors to FAO Schwarz, where it was common for hundreds of people in a single day to line up to play the keys in sneakers, sandals and moccasins.

“Even if you can't play the piano with your fingers, you can play it with your feet,” Saraceni told the New York Post in 2013.

He introduced the first form of piano to the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum in 1970, according to sports and pop culture site The Ringer. Called “Musical Daisy,” it was an interactive sculpture with eight soft petals that played different notes when you sat on them. He continued to experiment with the idea, transforming the daisy into a musical carpet before unveiling the piano concept in his Philadelphia studio in 1982.

FAO Schwarz purchased a Walking Piano not long after. In 1985, the store's new management sought to make it a destination for film and television shoots. Anne Spielberg, Steven Spielberg's sister and co-writer of the “Big” screenplay, visited and “came back enthusiastic” about the piano, the other writer, Gary Ross, told The Ringer.

At the request of the director, Penny Marshall, Mr. Saraceni made a new version of the piano with three octaves instead of one and keys that lit up when played.

Although no other of Mr. Saraceni's inventions became nearly as well known as his piano, many others inspired similar pleasure.

Remo Saraceni was born on January 15, 1935 in Fossacesia, a city on Italy's Adriatic coast. His father, Giuseppe, worked with relatives to make shoes and other leather goods, and his mother, Filomena Carulli, managed the house.

Remo started inventing as a boy. His father got in trouble, he told The Chestnut Hill Local, when Remo turned a poster of Mussolini into a kite.

He attended electronics courses in Milan and worked as a radar specialist in the Italian army, but as a civilian he worked as a television repairman. He also started his own brand of large, suitcase-like portable turntables. He went to the United States in 1964 for the World's Fair and to seek a better life, even though he spoke no English and had no American friends or savings.

He found work again as a television repairman and posted a note on his bathroom mirror: “America is where everything is possible.”

He married Maria Francione in 1965. They divorced in 1976 but remarried in 1995, when she was ill, and she died shortly thereafter. He leaves behind his sons, Ugo and Luca, and two grandchildren.

At the height of his success, in the early 1990s, Mr. Saraceni had his own 20,000-square-foot workshop in Philadelphia with about 20 employees. Children especially loved to visit, and many of Mr. Saraceni's clients were children's museums around the world. He created them as “musical hand”-like devices: motion sensors connected to a sheet of music. The children could wave their hands like conductors and listen to classical music coordinated with their movements.

After “Big,” Saraceni's work exploded in popularity. But he was also forced to spend time chasing down imitation manufacturers and suing companies for trademark infringement.

At the end of his life, he was in a legal battle with a company called ThreeSixty Group, which acquired FAO Schwarz in 2016. Mr. Medaugh, Mr. Saraceni's heir and executor, said he would pursue the lawsuit, which accuses the store that he sold imitations of Mr Saraceni's work without adequately compensating him and says this has left him destitute.

Mr. Saraceni's pianos can still be purchased for between $6,000 and $16,500, depending on size, by emailing [email protected], Mr. Medaugh said. They represent the possibility of a healthy and imaginative relationship between people and technology.

“Technology should live and breathe with you,” Saraceni told the Daily News in 1983. “It should respond to you, not you to it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *