by Wendy A. Horwitz
Two men with the torsos of NFL tackles and the arms of Olympic powerlifters are maneuvering a spinet piano down the sidewalk and up 12 stone steps to a home in Mt. Airy. Without a scratch on the piano or the wood floors, Michael D. Williams, 45, of Germantown, and Virgil Johnson, 46, of Olney, neatly place the piano in a snug corner of the living room.
They work full-time as a team for Cunningham Piano Company, 5427 Germantown Ave. They deliver organs and pianos, some, as large as nine feet long and 1500 pounds, through narrow hallways, across pristine carpets and up winding flights of Victorian staircases. But on Sept. 25, Johnson and Williams have a singular appointment: they will place an electronic organ onto a covered stage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ensuring that there is glorious music when Pope Francis celebrates Mass on Sept. 27 for a million or more attendees.
Before the crowds gather, Williams and Johnson will have strapped the six-by-five-foot, 1300-pound organ to a specialized dolly the previous Monday, hauled it from Germantown to the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the 2015 World Meeting of Families, then to the Parkway on Friday. On Sunday evening, after the public Mass, they will return the organ to Cunningham’s.
They are excited but confident about the job. Johnson notes, “In some ways, it’s routine; we do it every day.” Besides, they’ve delivered pianos for Usher, Alicia Keys and Robert DeNiro, among others. But the men are not blasé: they agree it could be a peak moment in their careers. “To deliver for someone of this magnitude,” Williams exclaims, “with the world watching!”
Between them, Williams, who started with Cunningham in 2006, and Johnson, who started in 2007, have over two decades of experience moving pianos and organs, and more than that moving furniture. At 13, Williams began working with his late father, Samuel Jackson, who owned and operated Sam’s Moving in Philadelphia. “I learned to move furniture,” Williams says, “but most movers do not move safes, pool tables and especially not pianos. I got curious about how it was done.” An ad at Cunningham’s led to an interview, where Williams showed he could lift one end of a piano four feet off the ground. He got the job, and soon afterwards his long-time friend Johnson joined him at the store.
Delivering pianos requires more than strength. “It’s an art,” observes Williams, “and it involves creativity.” Although Williams is the truck manager, he and Johnson plan the logistics of each move together. “But you never know what you’re going to find,” notes Johnson, “like an unexpected flight of stairs, but you still have to deliver.” So, improvisation is the rule.
What is satisfying, Johnson says, “are the expressions on people’s faces. Our job really makes people happy.” Williams agrees: “The biggest moments, regardless of price or size, are when it’s a surprise or a gift.” They have even dressed up as Santa Claus and witnessed children’s glee when a piano is delivered on Christmas morning.
The co-owner of Cunningham Piano, Richard Galassini, 50, of Berlin, NJ, confirms that Johnson and Williams are expert piano-movers, with diplomatic skill as well. “When dealing with anxious clients,” Galassini says, “their calm demeanor is important. After all, they’re moving something that’s heavy, awkward and delicate into someone’s private home. [Williams and Johnson] handle a piano as if it was theirs, and they spend time answering questions for clients. They get a lot of repeat business.”
Galassini was the one who volunteered to supply the organ, free of charge, for the Papal visit. As a musician and director of music at St. Simon Stock Catholic Church in Berlin, he knew that Papal Masses outside the Vatican use a Rodgers organ, made in Hillsboro, OR. Cunningham’s is an authorized representative for Rodgers, so Galassini worked with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to map out the organ’s journey.
Despite its digital relays, the organ has the kinesthetic “feel” and rich sound of a true pipe organ. Galassini notes, “Any organist, even if they’ve never played an electronic organ, would feel at home at this console.”
When the magnificent musical chords for the Papal Mass echo along the Parkway, Virgil Johnson and Michael D. Williams will know they’ve helped create a bit of history and a lot of joy.
Wendy A. Horwitz teaches at Penn State Abington. She lives with her two children in West Mount Airy.