The Music Box!

In 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released The Music Box, a short film comedy starring Laurel and Hardy. The film, which depicts the pair attempting to move a piano up a large flight of steps, won the first Academy Award for a live action, short film. Sixty years later, it became the de facto instruction manual for directing our attempts to move our piano up a spiral staircase to our second floor flat.

Spiral staircases have been around for centuries. During the Middle Ages, the spiral design was widely used to provide access to towers and give advantage to the King’s army against enemies. Right-handed, sword-bearing adversaries found it difficult to navigate the spiral stairs into the castle and especially difficult to go upwards in a narrow pathway. Several men at once could not storm the tower to take the space from the inhabitants, but instead had to go up one-by-one. (see Spiral Staircases)

Over the centuries, militaristic strategy has evolved. We have gained an upper hand on medieval combat tactics by dropping the sword. It was now, 1992. At dawn, we attacked with a piano!

Not just any piano…a Hammond 54-inch upright constructed by the Hammond Organ Company between 1963 and 1965. In 1962, Hammond acquired the Everett Piano Company of South Haven, Michigan to enter the lucrative, defense-industry supported piano market! Between 1963 and 1965, in a modest, brick-faced factory located along the windswept shore of Lake Michigan, approximately 5,000 to 6,000 upright pianos were manufactured, and subsequently wheeled onto the shipping dock and into trucks driven by strong, well-trained warriors to be delivered to parts unknown. Except for one.

On this day…a Sunday, No. 2166 had found its way to the base of a foreboding spiral staircase within in an old Victorian home located in Baldwinsville, NY. Absent the professional soldiers of yesteryear, this piano was now encircled by four unimposing, non-trained “weekend warriors”. The absence of a leader was evident in the shared expressions of confusion on their faces and to their task. “Just to review…we need to get this monster up those stairs to the second floor landing?” “That is correct…any more questions?” “Yes…when are the others getting here?” From the back…“Does anyone actually know how to play the piano?”

Upright pianos are quite heavy! We knew this before we started, as we had all watch the Laurel & Hardy training video. A 54-inch high upright can weight between 500 and 600 pounds. Based on a 7-inch riser and an 11-inch tread of an average staircase, you get an upward angle of attack of 32 degrees. As we all should know from that physics class we skipped in High School…the one on Newton’s Second and Third Laws of Motion:

  1. Force due to gravitational acceleration will increase weight (i.e., weight = mass times gravitational acceleration);
  2. A massive body in an inertial reference frame (i.e., a 32 degree downward angle) will behave in a predictable way when it is subjected to an outside force (i.e., gravity forcing the piano unexpectedly back down the staircase); and, finally
  3. The expected result of what happens to the body that was exerting the original force (i.e., it gets smushed).

But you are correct, this was not your average staircase, but a spiral staircase, with its defensive, narrow and winding design. Setting aside the additional complicating physics of vectors, the outcome is typically the same…gravity wins, while the person at the bottom…behind the piano…gets smushed.

I took my position on the upward side of the piano. “No no no no…no! What are you doing?” My father, who apparently had not skipped a physics class…ever…was reorienting me to my “team” position behind the piano. As I moved to the back, he followed with a nod and a not very instructive “Good luck!” My brother-in-law, stood at my side with nervous anticipation, silently staring upward; a young soldier going into battle for the first time. His father, my father-in-law, took the point position.

By mere happenstance, the ceremonial “dropping of the sword” brought with it a reversal in the relative risk associated with leading the charge. No longer was the point position the most exposed position in spiral staircase combat military formation. The hostile or insecure territory had transitioned to the rear position, which due to simple physics, had taken on 100% of the risk and burden. We awaited with trepidation our orders to advance.

With age comes wisdom and, from the point position, our fathers indicated that they had heard from experienced piano movers (who, for whatever reason, were absent that day) that it was very desirable to do as much of the piano moving as possible with as little human effort as possible. So, for the first five minutes, we just stood there. And so did the piano.

After five minutes, we reviewed the steps again…there were 12 to the second floor landing. The first step in piano moving, however, was to “tip and lift”. In doing so, it became readily apparent that the front, spindle piano legs would need to be removed to avoid breakage. Upon removing the legs, it became apparent that we had also removed any remaining stability. We had effectively created a large, 500-pound container with the feel of water swishing left-to-right, front-to-back with each upward movement. With only 12 more steps, we untipped and unlifted and rested!

We understood quite well that the most dangerous part of moving a piano up stairs is actually moving the piano up the stairs. Once the process starts, the piano can very easily go out of balance causing terrible things to happen very, very rapidly. To increase the stability of the movement, we envisioned three separate lifts of four steps along the move path, always shifting to the left to follow the counterclockwise spiral design and never letting go during the move…

Not having yet mastered the order of such steps as tip, lift, move, set down, let go and rest, we found ourselves moving rapidly back down the stairs; the piano and point men in hot pursuit. Luckily for my brother-in-law and me, the sudden and ignominious failure occurred during the first lift, lacking in sufficient momentum to cause much damage. We were only slightly smushed with our backs to the foyer wall; a Godsend for having stopped our movement beyond the house and into the street! “Are you OK?” my father inquired…“I’ll take your lack of a response as a yes!”

With the lessons learned behind us and twelve steps still ahead of us, we quickly reached consensus on the path forward which, short of switching fore and aft positions, included a thorough refresher on the proper order of procedures. As my father and father-in-law bantered back-and-forth regarding where the fault lay, I couldn’t help but notice their sudden morph into Laurel and Hardy, with their celebrated derby hats bouncing on and off their heads with each parrying quip. “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

It took us a while and, on occasion, two-steps forward were followed by one-step back; but we ultimately reached our 2nd floor, top-of-the-tower objective…piano and all. We reinstalled the spindle legs, untipped, unlifted, setdown, let go and rested.

Alas, what goes up must come down…hopefully in a well-executed operation. Along with the piano, my wife and I moved one more time. On the third occasion, we elected to give the piano to her brother along with the mover’s instruction manual…a VHS tape of Laurel & Hardy film shorts, including The Music Box.

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