Back in the 1820s, a New York carriage driver inherited an unexpected fortune from a Southern relative and found new life as a Louisiana plantation owner. In hopes of being accepted by local society, he commissioned Loud Brothers, a Philadelphia instrument maker, to build an elaborate grand piano.
Although widely acclaimed in Europe, the grand was still a curiosity in the United States. The plantation owner wanted fancy wood carvings on the exterior and a keyboard compass of 7 1/2 octaves, one quarter more than the standard piano of today--and one quarter more than was needed.
The huge grand piano was probably never played for his society friends but it sure looked good.
Some things never change.
"What we're getting is people in their 30s and 40s buying culture," says Ian Davis, assistant manager of Sherman Clay's South Coast Plaza store.
The piano salesman breaks his customers down this way: "About half of them don't play the piano and have no interest in playing the piano. About 25% don't play but want to learn or have a child learn to play, and another 25% can play.
"But most buyers of grand pianos want to show that they have good taste. It's really a cultural status symbol."
Davis' charges are hard to deny. The grand is a symbol of taste and romance.
It's the intensity of Horowitz playing his soul out on synthetic ivory-esque keys. It's "As Time Goes By" echoing in Rick's Cafe. It's the sensuality of Michelle Pfeiffer spread out on Jeff Bridges' piano in "The Fabulous Baker Boys."
But while the big grand piano may always have a place in our hearts, most of us don't have a place in our pocketbooks or, more importantly, our living rooms to accommodate such a dream piece.
Piano manufacturers are responding to our shortcomings. "Kimball makes a very small grand called 'La Petite,' " Davis says. "Its dimensions are about 54 inches by 54 inches, which makes it ideal for the small condominium or apartment, and it sells for around $4,000. Of course, it doesn't have the same sound quality of a larger grand piano, but it is a real grand piano."
The advance of technology has meant that a piano doesn't have to be made up of hammers, strings and dampers. "Samick makes an all-digital baby grand that sounds like the real thing," says Allan Ansdell, owner of Ansdell Piano in Anaheim. "It has headphones so that someone who's practicing won't disturb others in the house, and it has a weighted key action that makes it feel like an acoustic piano. And if you don't want to play, it can play by itself." The 21st-Century wonder retails for around $5,000.
If you've made up your mind that you've got to have a grand to grace your home, there are some important considerations.
"If you or someone in your family will be playing it, try and get the best that you can afford," Davis says. "Prices can range from $4,000 for the Law Petiti to $60,000 for a Steinway, which is the premier instrument."
While used or rebuilt pianos can be a bargain, Davis cautions that "Most pianos older than 50 years are difficult to rebuild and often don't have the same sound as a newer instrument. While a concert violinist may use a 200-year-old violin, a concert pianist will use a new piano."
However, Ansdell, whose sales of grands and baby grands have risen 27% in the last three years, says that good used grand pianos can be a bargain, both because of their sound and price, which range from $2,000 to $39,000. "We have a big market for old used Steinways. There were no shortages of good Sitka spruce at the turn of the century, and time adds mellowness to the sounding board which gives these older instruments a better tone."
Larry Spillan, assistant manager of Esquire Piano in Buena Park, which specializes in rebuilding pianos, says that most of his customers look at price before quality when selecting a piano. "They want something that looks good for the cheapest dollar amount, which is fine if you want a piece of furniture. But if you're looking for a good instrument, you might want someone to take a look at it before buying."
Spillan estimates that a good rebuilding and refinishing costs from $3,000 to $7,500, depending on what needs to be done. However, a rebuilding job should only be considered on an instrument that's worth the effort. "There are a lot of cheap pianos out there that are made poorly and don't last. But if they have a nice old Steinway they'd like to keep, rebuilding is probably worth the investment."
"While it might look beautiful," Davis says, "a piano is only as good as it plays. Try and stick to the better brands. If you're looking for an investment, Steinways always appreciate."
As in most other industries, the Japanese are moving in and Yamaha has challenged Steinway's claim as the foremost piano. "The Yamaha is famous for its bright tone, it records very well and it's used by many pop stars," Davis says. "But a hand-built Steinway is always the concert pianist's choice."
The most popular color for a grand piano? "Nine out of 10 grands that we sell are black," Davis says. "Deep black lacquer."
Just like the movies.