Film featuring local piano shop to play at Orinda fest
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker John Korty’s “Miracle in a Box,” which follows the painstaking restoration of a vintage Steinway piano and the musical competition that followed to determine its eventual owner, has been making the rounds of local film festivals since its October 2009 premiere. And one of the stars of the show is John Callahan’s piano restoration and rebuilding outfit on Alameda Point.
Callahan’s family has been in the piano business since 1957, and his Callahan Piano Service has been on the point, in the former engine test cell shop on 1800 Ferry Point, for about five years. One day in October 2007, a friend brought Korty to Callahan’s shop, a large, light- and piano-filled space with a view of the Bay and San Francisco.
“He walked into my restoration shop and said, ‘Wow. I can make a movie out of this,'” Callahan recalls.
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that: Korty and Callahan had to wait for the right piano to come along. And six months later, it did. A former University at California, Berkeley professor bequeathed her 1927 Steinway grand piano to the school. But there was a catch: The piano had to go to a deserving student.
The school decided they wanted to hold a competition with the piano as its prize, but the instrument needed work. In fact, it needed a lot of work.
The piano was wrecked. You can’t give away a dead piano,” Callahan recalls. “Not only did it need work, it needed a complete restoration, which is a $30,000 restoration.”
The school didn’t have money to pay for the work. But Korty did. He took money from the film’s budget to pay for the work, which Callahan and his team of piano technicians did at a discounted rate. Nine months and a complete overhaul later – strings, hammers, dampers, the works – the piano was ready for the competition and for the party Callahan and his crew throw in their shop after they they finish each job (they come with food, wine, music and nice tablecloths).
The film, which is narrated by actor John Lithgow, has been making the rounds of festivals, with its next stop being the California Independent Film Festival in Orinda, where it has been nominated for best documentary. That showing is at 11 a.m. Saturday, and tickets are available through the film’s website.
Its makers have also been giving it to nonprofit organizations to screen for fundraising purposes, including the Alameda Education Foundation, which did a recent screening at Alameda Point.
“Eventually, I’m sure it will be on PBS,” Callahan said.
Callahan, whose high-end shop refurbishes about 25 pianos a year and is known around the country for its work, said he’s seen an uptick in business since the film was made.
“It’s a nice story, and I think it reflects well on our workshop,” he said.