Início Tech Remo Saraceni, 89, Dies; Inventor of the Walking Piano Seen in ‘Big’

Remo Saraceni, 89, Dies; Inventor of the Walking Piano Seen in ‘Big’


Remo Saraceni, a sculptor, toy inventor and technological fantasist best known for creating the Walking Piano that Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia danced on in a beloved scene of the hit 1988 movie “Big,” died on June 3 in Swarthmore, Pa. He was 89.

The cause was heart failure, said Benjamin Medaugh, his assistant and caretaker. Mr. Saraceni died at Mr. Medaugh’s home, where he had been living in recent years.

Mr. Saraceni’s specialty was “interactive electronics,” he told New York magazine in 1976. His other inventions included a clock that could reply aloud when you asked it the time, a stethoscope stereo system that could boom out your heartbeat, and Plexiglas clouds that lit up at the sound of a whistle with a pastel color appropriate for a room’s lighting. All were powered by what Mr. Saraceni (pronounced SAR-ah-SAY-nee) called “people energy”: the voice, touch and heat of the human body.

The power of this sort of technology to enchant its users became a pivotal plot element of “Big,” and in turn the central prop in one of the most fondly recalled scenes in recent movie history.

After wishing to be “big” at a magical Zoltar fortunetelling machine, the movie’s main character, Josh Baskin, transforms from a 12-year-old boy into a young adult (played by Mr. Hanks). He gets a clerical job at a toy company whose owner, Mac (Robert Loggia), recognizes Josh as his employee one Saturday at F.A.O. Schwarz, the toy seller whose flagship store at the time was on Fifth Avenue at 58th Street in Manhattan. Mac is a shrewd capitalist surveying his industry in action; Josh is a boy exulting in the world of toys (albeit in a man’s body).

As Josh impresses Mac with his close knowledge of F.A.O. Schwarz’s wares, they happen upon Mr. Saraceni’s nearly 16-foot-long Walking Piano. With childlike absorption, Josh begins hopping on it to the tune of “Heart and Soul.” Mac, inspired by Josh’s un-self-conscious delight, joins him, making the performance a duet. To an awe-struck crowd, the two of them then do a rendition of “Chopsticks.”

Mac names Josh vice president of product development at the company, setting the rest of the movie’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 supercharged Mr. Hanks’s Hollywood stardom, earning him his first Academy Award nomination (for best actor). It also inspired decades of visitors to F.A.O. Schwarz, where it was normal for hundreds of people in a single day to line up to play the keys with their sneakers, sandals and loafers.

“Even if you don’t know how to play the piano with your fingers, you can play it with your feet,” Mr. Saraceni told The New York Post in 2013.

He introduced the earliest form of the piano at the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum in 1970, according to the sports and pop culture site The Ringer. Called “Musical Daisy,” it was an interactive sculpture with eight pillowy petals that played different notes when sat on. He kept experimenting with the idea, turning the daisy into a musical carpet before he unveiled the piano concept at his Philadelphia studio in 1982.

F.A.O. Schwarz acquired a Walking Piano not long after. In 1985, new management at the store sought to make it a destination for film and television shoots. Anne Spielberg, the sister of Steven Spielberg and a co-writer of the “Big” script, paid a visit and “came back raving” 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 upon being played.

Though no other invention of Mr. Saraceni’s became even remotely as well known as his piano, many others inspired similar delight.

Remo Saraceni was born on Jan. 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 home.

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

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

He again found work as a TV repairman and affixed a note to 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 after. He is survived by their 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 particularly loved visiting, and many of Mr. Saraceni’s clients were children’s museums around the world. He made them devices like a “musical hand”: motion sensors hooked up to a sheet of music. Children could wave their hands like conductors and hear classical music coordinated to their movements.

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

At the end of his life, he was in a legal battle with a firm called ThreeSixty Group, which acquired F.A.O. Schwarz in 2016. Mr. Medaugh, Mr. Saraceni’s heir and executor, said that he will continue the suit, which accuses the store of selling knockoffs of Mr. Saraceni’s work without properly compensating him and says that this left him destitute.

Mr. Saraceni’s pianos may still be purchased for between $6,000 and $16,500, depending on size, by emailing info@bigpiano.com, Mr. Medaugh said. They represent the possibility of a wholesome, fanciful relationship between people and technology.

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



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