Monday, April 10, 2006

The Dead's piano tuner


Signatures key to this piano

Legend has it that Hollywood impresario Sid Grauman got the idea for putting stars' handprints in wet cement after seeing a dog traipse through Mary Pickford's newly poured driveway.
What legend will say about the stars' signatures on the grand piano at Bergen Performing Arts Center is harder to say.

Especially since Greg Baron, the Grauman behind this particular stunt, can't even remember how he thought of it.

Baron, a professional piano tuner who has been tweaking bergenPAC's Steinway grand for 20 years -- starting back when the Englewood venue was called the John Harms Center -- does remember that he broached the idea about eight years ago. But he can't say what made him think of it.

"I said to the management, 'It's not going to harm the piano, and we have great artists coming through all the time,' " Baron says.

Dave Brubeck, George Benson, Dr. John, Chick Corea, Marvin Hamlisch, Diana Krall, Peter Schickele, Roberta Flack, Rita Moreno, Wayne Shorter, Nancy Wilson and Victor Borge are among the 75 or more artists who, while playing engagements at bergenPAC, have taken time to sign the "harp" -- the metal inner chassis of the piano where the strings are strung.
"When Roberta Flack was signing, I said, 'Look at those signatures -- this thing has got to be worth at least half a million,' " Baron recalls. "And she turned to me and said, 'It's worth over a million. And if you sell it to anyone else, I'll sue you.' "

In fact, Baron isn't really sure how much the thing is worth now.

He knows that even without the signatures, the 9-foot concert grand would sell for maybe $40,000. And he suspects that with the famous names attached, it could be a far pricier item, if bergenPAC was ever disposed to part with it. "There are many people who would love that in their living room," he says.

Baron, who shows up at bergenPAC perhaps four times a month to service the piano, isn't always on the scene to remind the stars to put their John Hancocks on his beloved instrument. But he does urge bergenPAC staffers to remember to get the celebrity signatures (sometimes they do, sometimes things just get too hectic). And when Baron is there, he's totally on it.

Like, for instance, the time the late Victor Borge, Baron's lifelong idol, came to Englewood. "I was tuning at the top end [of the piano] when he came in," Baron recalls. "Same note, over and over. He came running over to me and said, 'Who wrote that?' I didn't crack a smile. I said, 'I did, but I'm still working on the lyrics.' And we became friends like that."

Borge's signature on the piano is one of Baron's great achievements. "What a guy," Baron says. "He was marvelous."

The Passaic-born Baron, a Clifton resident since age 8, has conducted a lifelong love affair with the piano. And it's been a fairly long life, too (he's 68).

Among his resume-building experiences: long stints on the road with NRBQ and the Grateful Dead as resident piano tuner. He's written about many of these experiences in a self-published book, "Backstage: Where High-tech & Low-life Collide."

"With the Grateful Dead, I tuned the piano three times a day," says Baron, who toured with the band from 1974 to 1982. "I tuned it when they unloaded it. After the sound check, I'd retune it. And then, when they would take a 45-minute break in the show -- to go up and do what they do -- I'd retune it again."

He remembers his Dead days, the Dead themselves and their famous fan base, the Deadheads, with great affection.

Well, most of them, anyway.

"When I was retuning in the break, I'd have to duck whiskey bottles thrown at me," he says. "I was the only one holding up the show, as far as the crowd was concerned. I still have a Frisbee that I took right on the bridge of the nose. Knocked me off the bench."
Life is easier for him now that he's just tuning the pianos in people's living rooms and on the stages of empty concert halls.

And, of course, getting the stars to sign on the dotted line.

"I work over at the Morristown theater [Community Theatre, Morristown] too," he says. "They had me choose their piano from Steinway. And as soon as it got delivered to Morristown, I told them what I had done over at bergenPAC with the signatures. And they've started doing it, too. The first one they got was Ahmad Jamal."



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