By Carl Radford, RPT
(Reprinted with permission from the June, 2011 Piano Technicians Journal, official publication of the Piano Technicians Guild.)
"Would you like to play piano on the show?"
A friend of a friend of mine had been recently dating a producer from the Oprah Winfrey Show and we all went out to dinner one evening. During dinner, when we all were getting to know each other, the producer found out that I play the piano. He asked a few questions, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Just normal dinner conversation. But that question was so nonchalant that I didn’t really have time to consider what I was consenting to and what the implications might be.
“Sure…” I said.
At the time I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, right. Fat chance. He’s just showing off for his date.’ Anyway, I figured this guy’s all talk, like so many people, who say things and never do them. I never thought in a million years that he was serious, and so I forgot all about it.
A week or so went by and then I got a call. It was the producer.
“So, do you still want to be on the show?” he asked. “We need someone to play ‘As Time Goes by’ on the piano from ‘Casablanca’ this Tuesday. Do you think you can do that?”
He was serious. My heart was racing. I had sung and danced in musicals all over the Midwest, played piano in pit orchestras, played in some piano bars, even acted in a few commercials, but I had never appeared on a national television show. This was somewhat outside my realm, however, I felt pretty confident that I could do it, so I told him yes.
We negotiated a price and then he told me the details of when and where to go. Fortunately, just before we hung up I had the wherewithal to ask him to be sure to have the piano tuned at all costs. I could just imagine a scenario where I would get there and the piano hadn’t been tuned since the 1940’s, or worse yet was completely unplayable. He assured me it would be. And then I went into a controlled state of panic.
Preparing for Anything
I had never seen the movie ‘Casablanca’ and I have to confess I still haven’t seen it to this day, however I, like everyone else, has seen the famous “Play it again, Sam” scene with Humphrey Bogart. Sam plays and sings the now immortal standard tune on the bar piano to console Bogey. “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss. A smile is still a smile. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by...”
The piano as it appeared in Casablanca, in 1942
Since I knew there would be no rehearsal, and I wasn’t exactly sure how everything was going to take place, I practiced every possible variation I could think of. I practiced it as an up-tempo and as a ballad. I practiced it solo piano and while singing along with it. I practiced various segments of it, with, and without an introduction. I practiced it just in case Oprah or a guest wanted to sing along. Jazzy and straight laced. I practiced it forwards, backwards and sideways. I was excited and as ready to go as I possibly could be.
I arrived at Harpo Studios with plenty of time to spare and found my way to the greenroom, which was well stocked with generous amounts of fresh fruit, baked goods and other treats, which looked too impeccable and pristine to even consider touching, and at this point the butterflies in my stomach wouldn’t have let me eat anything anyway.
One by one, the other people who were also to be on the show that day wandered in. I enjoyed chatting with a distinguished, grey-haired Englishman, who I have since seen on several occasions on TV representing Sotheby’s Auction House. Everyone else seemed like pretty much normal, friendly people, who were all thrilled to be there. Various stage managers and other staff wandered in and out, and the makeup artist came in and began applying light touches of makeup to each of us, one at a time.
The guests began to talk with each other, and eventually I met the owner of the piano, who seemed like a nice, normal guy too. He sought me out and came over to talk to me, because he wanted to know my qualifications, so as to be sure that I knew what I was doing, and so that I wouldn’t somehow break his baby, which he told me was worth over a million dollars.
‘Holy cow, I get to play a million dollar piano.’ I thought. ‘How often does that happen?’
He relaxed a bit when I told him that I knew very well how to play the piano, and that I was also a piano technician and would treat it with kid gloves. I found his concern amusing, because it pointed out to me that he probably didn’t know much about pianos if he thought I could damage it just by playing it. He told me that as far as he knew the piano hadn’t been tuned since he acquired the piano from a movie studio warehouse decades ago, but that he only allowed the piano to be tuned this one time for the Oprah Show.
The alarm bells went off in my head.
‘Uh oh.’ I thought to myself, and I immediately got mentally prepared for a piano that may be in horrendous condition. Thank goodness I had thought of having it tuned!
Everybody got quiet when Oprah stopped by the greenroom and I heard her sing in a cheerful voice from the hallway, “Hellooo, everybody!” Have a good show!” I was on the other side of the greenroom, so I didn’t see her, but I heard her chatting for a minute with a few of the other guests and then she was off.
After that, all of the guests, except for me, were led out of the greenroom and into the studio for the show. The stage manager told me that he would come back to get me later for my segment.
Suddenly, the hustle and bustle was over and everyone was gone from the greenroom. It became stone quiet. I was all by myself, and yet there was still a palpable tinge of excitement in the air.
Eventually, the monitors flickered on, the show began, and I was able to watch the first segment of the show from the monitors in the greenroom. The theme of this particular show was about people who collect things of various sorts.
I found it interesting that, even though the show was taped in real time and not live, the commercial breaks were still precisely timed. I was expecting that, since it was taped, that they would just start and stop as they pleased and for as long as they pleased. However, when the monitors went to black for the commercial break, a countdown clock with the exact number of allotted time appeared on the monitors and started ticking down the seconds.
The stage manager came to get me and take me to the studio. According to the monitors, we had about three minutes before the next segment began. Not much time to get set up, I thought, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing. As we walked down the halls of Harpo Studios, I couldn’t help but notice how clean and precise everything was. Most TV studios and film sets are a jungle of wires, set pieces and disorderly chaos. Not so here. Everything was like the fruit in the greenroom: clean, precise, immaculate and impeccable. There were still no other souls to be seen. Everyone was in the studio except for the stage manager and me.
As we got closer I could see the bright glow of the studio lights. The contrast from the dim hallway to the explosion of light in the studio was breathtaking. All at once, as we stepped into the studio, it was like stepping into another, surreal world. The stagehands were whisking set pieces past me and everywhere like a well-oiled machine. Was this really happening? Was I really going to be on the Oprah Show in a few minutes?
There to my right was the audience, oddly motionless and quiet. That was something that I wasn’t expecting. I think I assumed that they would be talking during the breaks, but no one moved a muscle or said a word. And there was Oprah ahead of me in the middle of the set, sitting on the floor. She looked right at me as I walked in and I expected her to greet me or say hello or wave or something, but no, she just sat there and looked right at me and didn’t say or do anything. I’m guessing that she long ago realized that if she engaged in conversation at all with the guests or audience she found that she may have difficulty getting things under control again by the time the commercial break ended.
The stage manager led me to the piano. There it was - the piano from’ Casablanca’. The piano was tiny; much smaller than I was expecting it to be, almost like a toy piano. It only had about five octaves and it was a deep yellow color with green leaves hand-painted all over it. It was so small I was expecting it to sound like a toy piano too, but surprisingly as I sat down to test a few chords, it sounded like a full sized piano and felt wonderful. I don’t know who tuned the piano, but whoever prepared it did an amazing job. I can’t imagine it would have been an easy task to make it sound as good as it did.
I didn’t have much time to admire the piano though, as there was a lot to think about. I had planned on placing my cheat sheet on the music rack, however there was a strong fan blowing from somewhere that would blow anything away that I put down. I asked a stagehand for a piece of tape, so I could tape the music to the piano. In mere seconds he was back with my choice of scotch, duct or masking tape. Oprah and the owner of the piano took their places standing at the back of the piano, and I was sitting at the keyboard facing them. This was fun.
I could see the director in a glass booth off to the left of where I was sitting.
“Ok, here’s what’s going to happen,” The director said over the loudspeaker. “After you play the song just get up and walk off.”
It seemed like the director was improvising on the spot.
“We’re going to run a clip from the movie and I want you to pick it up and play along with the music as we crossfade in, okay?”
Despite all my preparation, that was the one unexpected thing I would never have thought of preparing for. The problem was, that what he wanted me to do was nearly impossible. It would have meant instantly figuring out what key the song in the movie was in and transposing on the spot if necessary, not to mention trying to figure out what part of the song he was playing and just jumping in with and no rehearsal and only a billion people watching. The director didn’t realize what he was asking for.
I knew there would be no way to do what he wanted on the spur of the moment, so during Oprah’s intro I decided that the only thing I could do was to play it as I had practiced it and hope for the best.
The famous clip from the movie began and Sam was playing somewhere in the middle of the song. When it seemed like the right time, I began playing my version of the song over the film clip and the director crossfaded in. It actually worked out very well and sounded just fine. Oprah began introducing her guest and I gradually faded the song out underneath her.
Now was another dilemma. The director asked me to walk off after the song, however by the time I had faded out and finished playing, Oprah was already interviewing the owner of the piano right in front of me. The cameras were behind me, and I was in the middle of the camera angle, so if I stood up now I would probably block the camera shot on Oprah and her guest. What to do? Should I chance upstaging Oprah and do as the director told me, or should I just stay put? I decided to stay put and find a place to play the song again to close out the end of the segment.
While Oprah was interviewing the guest I had some time to observe my surroundings and take it all in, and believe me it was one of the most surreal moments of my life. There I was in front of a million dollar piano from ‘Casablanca’. To my right was the Maltese Falcon statuette on a pedestal that the owner told Oprah was priceless. It was jet black and looked like it was made some kind of onyx or mahogany. I recall thinking that I was so close that if I had wanted to I could have knocked it over with a wave of my hand. And if all that wasn’t enough, Oprah Winfrey was three feet away.
I’ve met a handful of celebrities over the years, and most of them were very pleasant, and yet at the same time they seemed either self-absorbed or plastic or like they had to try to “be” something. In other words, they didn’t seem authentic to me. But she was different. I noticed a ring on one of her fingers that had what appeared to have an inscription from an ancient language on it. I got the impression that it had a significant spiritual meaning to her.
As I observed Oprah I got a strong sense of groundedness. There was an inner calm about her that made me intensely interested in asking her about it if I ever had the chance. Where did it come from? How did she attain that? I could see where doing a television show in front of millions every day, when everything you say or do will be examined under a microscope, could make one a little anxious after a few years. I was extremely anxious after a mere few minutes on the show, for crying out loud. I can’t imagine doing it every day. So, I can see where being so grounded would be very helpful, if not essential.
Eventually, we came to the end of the interview and Oprah began her summation to take the segment into another commercial break. I started playing “As Time Goes by” underneath her remarks, which I could tell she wasn’t expecting, because her eyes lit up as I played, and to her credit she went with it and sang a few bars along with me. And we went to commercial.
Stepping off a Cloud
The stagehands immediately went into a flurry of activity again and the stage manager came and whisked me off the set and back into the dimly lit corridor. I walked in a daze by myself back to the greenroom to fetch my personal belongings. No one else was in the corridor or the greenroom. Everyone was still back in the studio. One minute ago it was an intensely concentrated high, being on the show and seeing all those amazing things and wonderful people, and in the next minute - nothing and no one. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an extreme dichotomy from one moment to the next before. I felt like I had just stepped off a cloud.
It occurred to me then that something like eight million people watch the show nationally and who knows how many millions more internationally. Did I really just appear in front of that many people? That was ten times more people in five minutes than all the performances combined during my entire ten year long performing career.
As I was about to enter the greenroom and still in a daze, I had thought I was by myself, but no, I could hear that there was someone behind me, so I turned to look - It was Oprah. The show was still in progress and everyone else was still back in the studio, and yet there she was. She was hiking up the hem of her sheer, silk dress so as not to step on it in her heels, and we looked at each other for a moment.
“Thank yooooooou!” She sang.
“Thank you!” I replied, with a smile.
And with that she stepped out the door and into a waiting limousine.