The Pianos on First Were Their Idea

In the winter issue of Benicia Magazine we published a quiz, “How Well Do You Know First Street?” testing residents on their knowledge of Benicia’s lively downtown thoroughfare. One of the questions centered on the two pianos that have been set up outside on First, asking residents to identify their different locations.

When I began my research in November one piano was stationed (spoiler alert!) in the courtyard in front of St. Paul’s Church and the other was next to the Capitol building. But after writing the piece I took a drive down First and noticed, to my alarm, that things had mysteriously changed. The pianos were gone! What the heck? Did the gang of thieves stealing everyone’s catalytic converters these days make off with our pianos too?

Fortunately my editor caught my error and updated the quiz before publication.

Nevertheless I was curious to learn more about the pianos (and where they went to!), and this led me to call Elizabeth Lewis, better known as “Bizzy,” a family nickname she was given as a young girl due to her abundance of energy. Her energy has not slackened. Now a forty-something elementary school teacher raising two young kids here in town with her husband Will Stockton, Bizzy is the busy chairperson of the Benicia Arts and Culture Commission, the group responsible for putting the pianos on First and, as it happens, taking them off, too.

When we spoke I confessed that I had never heard of the Arts and Culture Commission and had no idea such a group even existed.

“That’s so good you said that,” she responded, putting a nice, positive spin on my clear ignorance of city affairs. “Because that’s a huge mission for us. People don’t know about us and what we’re doing and we want to change that.”

The commission, she explained, provides the funding for a variety of local arts groups including Arts Benicia, Voena, and Benicia Theater Group. It also sponsors public art projects such as the colorfully rendered traffic boxes and public benches you see at various locales around town. These are painted by local artists chosen by Arts and Culture’s seven-member volunteer board of directors. More examples of commission-funded activity are murals by Benicia High students, the library’s mural of Benicia’s sister city Tula, Mexico, sculptures on First and at the Community Center, a Shakespeare in the Park performance, and a “Spooktacular” movie event at the Majestic Theatre.

Traffic box painted blue and pink with avocado-cat and pizza-cat

The commission is not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; rather its funding comes solely from the city. Bizzy and her fellow commissioners typically meet on the second Thursday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the Dona Benicia Room of the library, and they are always game for fresh faces to join them.

The pianos on First Street may be their most surprising civic success.

The impetus for it came from former City Manager Eric Upson, who, after seeing people play on one in downtown Walnut Creek and noting how warmly it was received, brought the idea to Terry Scott, Benicia’s vice mayor who was, then, chair of Arts and Culture. Scott pitched it to the board, funding was approved unanimously, and on a lovely spring day two years ago in the courtyard of beautiful and historic St. Paul’s, Benicia welcomed “Hippo” to town.

Hippo is a standard upright piano with an anything but standard paint job.

Artist Phyllis Hartzell splashed musical notes across it, a quote by Mozart, and in the whimsical touch that gave it its name, dancing hippos. The Mayor and City Council members spoke at the unveiling. Voena founder Annabelle Marie tickled Hippo’s ivories as did a Benicia High teen. Passersby on First and diners emerging from One House Bakery stopped to share in the moment. “People were smiling, dancing,” recalls Bizzy, “It was wonderful.”

Painted bench at the Library

Hippo’s smash performance that summer led to the arrival in 2023 of a second piano—a baby grand nicknamed “Jungle,” inspired by Josie Grant’s rendering of wild animals in a jungle setting. Jungle took over Hippo’s former spot at St. Paul’s and Hippo moved down the street to the State Capitol grounds—a site, Bizzy noted, that it will not return to this spring. Hippo’s first Capitol location was too close to the lawn sprinklers, and its second too far out of the public eye. Bizzy and the board are now actively searching for a new home for Hippo, and they’d love to talk to any downtown businesses that might have a suitable outdoor space for it.

One encouraging note is that even though the pianos are left out overnight during the summer, there have only been a couple instances of vandalism. “We’ve had very minimal problems,” reported Bizzy. “Once people know about them, they’re very supportive. They feel like the piano is theirs. They take ownership. People check it out and take care of it for us.” One of the “unsung heroes” of the program is Robert Gordon, who operates a shop in the Arsenal that restores and repairs pianos. Gordon donated Hippo and Jungle for use by the city, stores them in his facility over the winter, and he will transport them back to their respective locations when they return again in the spring.

Which brings up an interesting question.

With the city bleeding red ink and cutting services and staff, and some of our roads as badly cratered as the surface of the moon, why spend tax dollars on whimsically painted pianos and traffic boxes? 

“For me,” says Bizzy Lewis, “there’s nothing but positivity that comes with public art. It’s one of the things that unites us, that brings people together. It spreads joy, especially on the heels of the sadness of Covid. So many young people have their faces stuck in their devices. It’s so great to see them put down their phones and participate in what’s around them. We love this town. And one of the things we love about it is the feeling of community we have here. Our art and artists contribute to that feeling, and it’s one of the reasons we don’t want to leave.”