Via Music Trades:
THE REAL DR. DON SHIRLEY, classical pianist and subject of the movie Green Book, would only perform on a Steinway grand. For historical accuracy’s sake, that meant the filmmakers needed at least three of them. Captured in concert halls, intimate recitals, and the artist’s own studio, Steinways appeared in at least ten Green Book scenes in six filming locations, dressed to look like stops along the African American virtuoso’s 1962 tour through the Deep South. When they arranged to provide the pianos back in 2017, Steinway & Sons and its New Orleans dealer Hall Piano Company had only a general idea about what kind of movie it would be. A little over a year later, the film had earned nearly $200 million at the box office and taken home Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards. “We knew this sounded like it was going to be a good piano-focused film, and we knew who it was starring,” said Anthony Gilroy, senior director of marketing at Steinway & Sons. “But we didn’t know there would be multiple Steinway mentions in the dialogue at the time. Those—and of course the overwhelming success of the film itself—were a big surprise.”
As Gilroy recalled, Steinway began working with the Green Book team in September 2017. At the Steinway Selection Center in downtown Los Angeles, co-star Mahershala Ali, director Peter Farrelly, and score composer Kris Bowers (a Steinway artist) met with Steinway’s Ben Salisbury, manager of concert services for the West Coast, to get a feel for the history and cultural impact of the Steinway brand. When it came to providing pianos for the film, Gilroy considered having them shipped to Green Book’s sets in and around New Orleans from Steinway’s central warehouse in Kentucky. As it turned out, though, there was a local dealer with enough concert-caliber Steinway grands, plus piano moving and tuning services, to supply the movie on its own. As Hall Piano Company co-owner John Wright remembered, “They had just about all our concert instruments for about a month.”
A New Orleans-area piano dealer since 1958, Hall Piano Company has rented pianos for hundreds of film productions, said Wright—but none that worked at quite the pace of Green Book. Filmed on a tight schedule between November 2017 and January 2018, the production called for piano deliveries to New Orleans’ Orpheum Theater, Roosevelt Hotel, Houtling Mansion, and a handful of other locations, sometimes within hours of each other. Because the instruments also needed to play at an elite level, Hall Piano tuners accompanied each delivery to get the instruments concert-ready. An outline of scene locations and required pianos frequently had to be rearranged on the fly, said Wright, who worked with Green Book set decorators Selina van den Brink and Michael Dares to stay on schedule.
“They were wonderful people to work with, always very appreciative of our efforts,” Wright said. “But it was a pace like no other. They would call and say, ‘We don’t care what it costs—can you get it here tomorrow morning?’ And if it was like that for the piano movers, imagine what it was like for the actors.”
All told, Hall Piano supplied four instruments used on the Green Book set: a Steinway Model D, Model B, and Model M—plus one more instrument, not a Steinway, that’s best described as a junker. Viewers will remember it from the scene where a stage hand along Shirley’s tour tries—unsuccessfully—to skate by with a shoddy no-name piano instead of the Steinway required by the artist’s contract. After filming, the three Steinways were returned to Hall Piano as planned, and the Model D has since been sold to the Lafon Performing Arts Center currently under construction outside New Orleans. The “junker,” however, was given away to the prop company that worked on the movie. “They asked when we wanted to pick it up, and I said, ‘It’s yours now,’” Wright recalls. “‘You bought it for the rental fee.’”
If there’s something laymen will learn about Steinway from watching Green Book, Wright said, it’s the reverence Steinway artists hold for the pianos and their absolute insistence on playing one. “There are thousands of artists worldwide who refuse to play anything but a Steinway, and I think that’s going to be well-known now,” he said. As for Wright and the Hall Piano team, their efforts were rewarded on the world’s biggest stage as Green Book took home three Academy Awards including the night’s top honor. As Wright said, “I had to call up everyone I know and say: ‘That’s our piano!’”