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Changing Keys: Martuni's Piano Bar Thrives in a Karaoke World 

Wednesday, Jul 25 2012

Design by Andrew J. Nilsen with photo by iStockphoto.

It's packed enough in the back room of Martuni's piano bar to fog up your eyeglasses, but people make room for Juanita Harris. Patrons secure their large drinks with both hands and lurch out of Harris' way as she emerges from the shadows and strides purposefully toward pianist Joe Wicht.

"That's it," she declares. She didn't want to sing. She needed to. "I got to do 'When You're Good to Mama,'" she announces to the room. Harris performs that very number onstage in San Jose — most weekdays and twice on Saturdays and Sundays — where she's playing Matron Mama Morton in a City Lights Theater production of Chicago. But, on this night, bar patrons stand an arm's length from a vocalist of the first order belting out a showstopper with the abandon you'd expect from a woman who just slammed down a fishbowl-sized martini and stood to sing because, damn it, she had to.

Harris and Wicht are showered with a torrent of orgiastic cheers. The singer has this crowd by its lapels and ain't letting go. She flashes a mischevious smile. "I'm gonna do 'Misty' now," she coos. "Deal with it."

Martuni's is a dimly lit, two-room cubbyhole at Valencia and Market on the ground floor of a building housing a tattoo joint, massage parlor, and laundromat. On a night like tonight, the crowd's blissful state is spurred by more than good songs sung well and stiff drinks served big. There's a vibe among patrons that they're sharing something special, something unique.

Nowhere else in this city can customers breathe the same air as incognito Broadway actors, local theater folk, and the glorified shower singers of San Francisco, all accompanied by a professional pianist, and all for the price of a beverage. The roll call of San Francisco establishments where audience members sing nightly to professional accompaniment is jarringly brief. "I take people in there and they say they didn't know such a place still existed," says 80-year-old music enthusiast and collector Bob Johnson, who donated the 60,000 musical scores he didn't give away over the years to piano bar singers to the city's Museum of Performance and Design. "There's only one true piano bar left in this city: Martuni's."

Not all that long ago, however, piano bars were as ubiquitous as fins on cars. Veteran San Francisco pianist Larry O'Leno recalls working piano bars ensconced in pizza parlors and even a bowling alley. Martuni's accompanist Maddaline Edstrom can rattle off nine defunct piano bars where she used to gig in San Francisco's theater district alone, including "one in the Zim's on the corner." Not only did San Francisco once have Zim's restaurants, it had a Zim's with a piano bar in it. The sentimental journey through San Francisco's piano bars of yore is a tour of places that aren't there anymore, populated by people who aren't here anymore, doing things people don't do anymore.

A piano bar is like a playground for the musically curious and a gym for professionals working on their chops between jobs. "And in the last 40 years," says veteran pianist Wicht of the bars he's frequented and worked in, "I've watched them all die off." Forty years ago, the notion of working-class archetypes like Archie and Edith Bunker sitting down to sing and play together on a piano in their own home was unremarkable. Those were the days: Blue-collar workers could, conceivably afford a piano (and a single-family home to keep it in). Tickets to a show on Broadway could be had for five bucks, and the Great American Songbook was still accessible to the vast majority of Americans.

This music is now perceived as anachronistic, as are the piano bars where it was celebrated. And the market for anachronisms is limited. For all but a few souls, the only remaining outlet for public singing is karaoke, a musical drinking game. Karaoke patrons doing "My Way" are not actually doing it their way; they're singing along to whatever inflexible arrangement is programmed into the machine. There's a striking difference between following the bouncing ball for a machine and a professional musician following you, accentuating your strengths and covering up your weaknesses; it's painting vs. paint-by-numbers. But, for most people, the distinction between karaoke and piano bars is something they either don't see or don't care to. Karaoke bars, in this and every city, are plentiful. Piano bars are dinosaurs.

Martuni's is a piano bar in a karaoke world. In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble — they're only made of clay. It remains to be seen if piano bars are here to stay.

Skip Ziobron emerges from the shadows into the back, piano room of Martuni's. He is strikingly tall, alarmingly thin, and cuts through the crowd with the steely determination of the Terminator (he even has the same haircut actor Robert Patrick sported in T2). Most of the folks drinking and singing and drinking some more at Martuni's probably don't realize the fastidious man in a gold lamé vest forlornly pushing a carpet sweeper or, with the speed of a snakebite, snapping their drink off the table and onto a coaster, actually owns the place.

Ziobron runs a piano bar, but he doesn't play the piano. His establishment serves as an incubator for professional singers and hobbyists alike, but he doesn't sing. In fact, Ziobron has a condition called spasmodic dysphonia that makes it difficult for him to even talk; on bad days, he needs to shine a flashlight at his employees to get their attention. Ziobron makes his money lugging massive trays of fruit-laden, Windex-colored cocktails to thirsty tipplers. He hasn't had a drink in 26 years. He does, however, have very definitive ideas about how a piano bar should be operated. And his employees are well aware of this. A few minutes after 9 p.m. on a Thursday, pianist Joseph Magdalena is meeting and greeting and working the room. This ceases, abruptly when Ziobron whispers a curt message into the ear of the man who's been playing at Martuni's since opening day in 1996: "I have no music." As Magdalena heads to the keyboard, Ziobron sighs. "The silence can kill a party. It's like a morgue in here!" He shakes his head. "After all of these years, I still have to be here every second." He wheels his carpet sweeper out of the back room while Magdalena obligingly plays some Gershwin.

An hour or so later, George and Ira's time has passed. At least three different birthday groups are dancing between the tables to "ABC." A party of middle-aged Asian women are atop the furniture. The Jackson Five aren't traditional piano bar fare, but no one can accuse Magdalena of not giving the people what they want. Amid this raucous scene, Ziobron enters the piano room. With his exclamation point physique and cool demeanor, he serves as the control rod in this nuclear reactor. He now hands the pianist a note, mid-song: "Take a break."

Five minutes later, everyone is catching their breath. The Asian women are back in their chairs, and a drink is waiting for Magdalena in the front room. Asked why he was cut off at the height of the moment, he smiles. "I don't know. After 16 years, sometimes Skip has reasons that I just don't know. He doesn't like dancing. Things get broken." In fact, Martuni's goes through about $200 worth of glassware every week. Magdalena drains his glass and places it, gently, on the bar. "But Skip owns the place. If he says take a break, I'm taking a break."

A lithe blond woman in short shorts and tall furry boots grabs Magdalena by the arm and demands his autograph. He is flummoxed, and only grows more so when cajoled to produce a pen and paper. The persistent fan reaches for a pad sitting on the bar and is immediately admonished by a bartender, mid-stir: "There are drink orders on that!" The seeker detaches a clean sheet from the bottom of the pad, extracts her desired autograph, and skips back to her table. "Well," says Magdalena, "You don't see that every night."

He then proceeds to plug in a disco ball, whip out a flügelhorn, and lead a roomful of joyous inebriates in a sing-along of "It's Raining Men."

It's not easy to silence the room at Martuni's. But she does. The tall, pretty, and painfully young woman ambles up to Monday night pianist Joe Wicht and asks if he knows "Over the Rainbow." Wicht, a wickedly funny man who, moments earlier threatened to "revoke the gay cards" of anyone who didn't sing along to "We Are Family," is at a rare loss for words. Asking a middle-aged, gay musician at a piano bar teeming with gay musicians if he knows the most famous of all Judy Garland songs is akin to asking the waiter at a Chinese restaurant if he serves rice and tea. Incidentally, Wicht does know "Over the Rainbow," and the young singer pulls it off. Were a Munchkin in the house, he might thank her very sweetly, for doing it so neatly.

Asked how Martuni's has staved off the fate of every other piano bar in town and legions across the country, Ziobron insists it's because nothing ever changes: "It's important for me to keep that sense of sameness." A customer can sit at the same table and order the same drink from the same bartender, year in, year out. This is why Ziobron won't switch to plastic glasses or revamp décor regulars affectionately refer to as "Disneyland's Haunted Mansion."

Fair enough. But when the clientele expands to include twentysomething straight women who wouldn't know Judy Garland from Judge Judy — and blithely assume no one else does, either — great change has most definitely occurred, even within the haunted mansion. In fact, its ability to change sets Martuni's apart from other San Francisco piano bars — and explains why it's still extant and they aren't.

The older regulars at Martuni's light up when recalling the smorgasbord of piano bars that used to dot this city, much as denizens of a sports bar may recall youthful forays to Seals Stadium or getting into Niners games at Kezar for the price of a carton of Christopher Milk. At the Galleon, older gay men would order up medallions of pork with medleys from Oklahoma! for dessert. The White Swallow was just one of several piano bars on Polk, then the city's main strip for gay nightlife — and that is the double entendre you think it is — where pledging fraternity boys used to regularly pose for photos in front of the bar while mooning the camera. At Sutter's Mill in the Financial District, whose décor featured unsubtle images of prospectors dancing with one another, the pianist finished every set by playing "San Francisco." Patrons would rock back and forth as if caught in The Big One, and someone would always reach up and give the chandelier a swing. "That was high camp," recalls Bob Johnson. When the featured pianist at Sutter's Mill took his act to The Mint, they would sing "San Francisco" there, too. But no one swung the chandelier because there wasn't one.

Seals Stadium is a memory, as are 50-cent kids' football tickets. The piano bars of yesterday are gone, too; The Mint is even a karaoke joint. When San Francisco real estate began commanding ludicrous prices, a number of establishments disappeared, along with the middle-class folks who patronized them. Live entertainment has always been the first item tossed overboard in sinking bars. Americans, through the years, have placed less and less of a premium on live music. A sound system costs less than a piano, and you don't need a pro to play or tune it. And, hey, when the piano's gone, there's more room for tables.

Piano bars were already on the ropes when the AIDS crisis of the 1980s wiped out a generation of entertainers, staff, and patrons. "AIDS hit piano bars especially hard," recalls longtime cabaret singer and pianist Houston Allred, who began playing in 1962 after he was denied a job in the office of Vice President Lyndon Johnson for being "seen in the company of a known homosexual." The ascendant generation didn't dig the repertoire of pianists who considered Your Hit Parade to be new music. Piano bars showed their age and inflexibility. "The older generation would stay all night and drink a lot," Allred recalls. "But the kids would meet someone, have one drink, and go off with them."

The piano bars of yesterday kept that "sense of sameness," catering, in the end, to a dwindling older gay clientele. The reason Martuni's still survives — and packs 'em in midweek, even — is that it pulls off the delicate act of appearing to never change while, in fact, constantly changing. It's a wholly different bar on a Monday, when Joe Wicht and a room thick with working performers sing show tunes and standards, than three days later, when Joe Magdalena pulls out a horn and plugs in a disco ball. Martuni's even changes hour to hour. Not long after Allred plays a Saturday afternoon show to the delight of silver-haired homosexual gents who can sing along to "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," Dina Rao, pianist Dee Spencer's weekend sidekick, may tell a largely heterosexual crowd sprinkled with the inevitable tiara-bedecked bachelorette party contingent, "We've got a classic for you now" — "Lights" by Journey.

And the crowd goes wild. But not as wild as when Spencer hits a button and a canned drum track thumps in the background. Contrary to what Billy Joel professed in "Piano Man" — a song that may yet induce the dead to rise from the grave and turn off the radio — at 9 o'clock on a Saturday no one is in the mood for a melody. They want the beats, and popular music has grown progressively more beat-driven through the years.

"You've got to bring piano bars into the 21st century," explains Spencer, a jazz pianist and S.F. State music professor. The heavily bridge-and-tunnel weekend crowd doesn't want to hear show tunes and ballads. They want what's on the charts, and in their Spotify accounts. They want the drum track. If the "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" crowd wasn't already long gone, nothing would drive them from the room faster than Journey, let alone Journey and a drum track. But Spencer's job is to keep the room lively and the drinks flowing. The place is crowded and everyone's looking for a good time. She's giving the people what they want.

There's a term for change in reaction to a dynamic environment with the aim of ensuring survival: evolution. Dark moths' advantages on sooty English walls notwithstanding, it's hard to "see" evolution. But, during a recent Maddaline Edstrom Wednesday night set, Martuni's seems downright Darwinian. As the night begins, a solid quadrant of the room is populated by an older, exclusively male contingent outfitted in coats and ties. They stand in stark contrast to the younger, mixed, and casually dressed crowd occupying the majority of the room; the generations do not mingle.

The piano bar's natives do not have the fortitude of the younger, invasive species. Hour by hour, the older generation cedes more ground. By a little after 11, the last man to have been assigned a draft lottery number has left the room. "Some of my older regulars aren't coming in anymore," notes Edstrom. As the room is gradually overtaken by noisy, texting younger people, there are fewer chances for old people to sing and enjoy the songs old people want to sing and enjoy. It's sad, but it's the way of things. "If you just cater to your regulars, you don't get new blood in. It gets old and stagnant. You've got to keep a piano bar going. You've got to sacrifice for the sake of the whole room."

Not long after the last graybeard has departed, a spat breaks out in the corner while a statuesque drag queen murders Elton John's "Your Song," even while reading the lyrics off her iPhone. A martini glass bursts on impact with the wall, and a young, bearded drunk stumbles out of the room while being berated by the man who was his erstwhile target (in more ways than one). "He threw a fucking drink at me! That is fucking disrespectful! Fuck you!"

Edstrom, a consummate pro — and mother of six who's seen it all — responds perfectly. She doubles the volume of her playing and induces the entire room to drown out the tiff by joining the song's astoundingly apropos chorus: "I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind ..."

When Brent Bailey wants to practice a new song, there's only one secluded place he can go — for a drive. Not long ago, his intonations were mistaken for intoxication. He was pulled over by police and run through a battery of sobriety tests: He walked the line, blew into the Breathalyzer, and counted backward from 100 with his head tilted back while standing on one foot. The one thing they didn't ask him to do was sing.

Placing his sheet music in front of Wicht, he gets a much friendlier response. "Yes!" says the pianist. "Yes, you should do this song. Because this is the song that made me gay! Elaine Stritch singing 'You Took Advantage of Me' made me gay." Everyone laughs, and Bailey, a physicist with a soft, charming voice, receives a polite reception from a room laden with professional singers and actors who have encouraged his musical hobby. When a pretty young actress asks Wicht if she can sing "Piano Man," he's less accommodating. "Maybe later. That song requires a lot of drunks."

In an era when society has grown wary of "gatekeepers" — the mainstream media, publishers, certified experts of all sorts — the piano bar is anachronistic in ways that have nothing to do with a roomful of men singing "The Trolley Song." The pianist here is most certainly a gatekeeper, an expert, and a professional — and bar patrons are expected to hand over the keys. Certain rooms need certain songs at certain times, and longtime patrons understand this: "What are we singing tonight?" is a common refrain among regulars approaching the keyboard. The flipside to this pact is that it's the pianist's job to make a singer sound as good as he or she possibly can. Novice singers may not even realize the amount of attention lavished on them by accompanists who switch keys and tempos to match quavering voices, hum the melody, cue lyrics, and turn pages — often simultaneously. Advanced singers form a synergy with the pianist; a gospel number may morph into a rock ballad or a Top-40 tune might turn jazzy. If a singer wants to hold a phrase that much longer or engage the audience, the pianist will follow; a deep breath or hand raised in the air will indicate the coming high note, and the accompanist is watching. At best, mere singing is transcended and the audience is treated to a performance. Subpar or mediocre singing lasts a few minutes. But a performance stays in the memory.

As much as Martuni's strives to create that "sense of sameness," people stick around until closing time because, when things are right, you never know who's going to walk in that door or what's going to happen next. You never know when that next performance will come.

Also, the drinks are big.

Every last one of them was drunk well before they floated through the door. Happy, drunk, and ever so young. The youngest and happiest of the women — all outfitted in orange Giants gear and buzzing after a blanking of the Dodgers — was further bedecked with a sash reading "It's My Birthday!" A bar patron inquired, facetiously, if it was her 21st. Not picking up on the sarcasm, she responded that, yes, it was. And everyone looked down into their drinks and felt like a relic.

When the last of the orange-clad revelers, who numbered nearly enough to form a baseball team of their own, entered the back room, she scowled. Blinking her eyes to adjust to the darkness, she focused on an old, bald singer crooning a tune that was a hit before her mother was born. "Who does this?" she exclaimed to no one in particular in a nasal, California twang.

Rodney Earl Jackson Jr., a tall, strikingly handsome musical theater student at Carnegie Mellon — a school that produces Broadway performers like USC mints quarterbacks — took the mic alongside Angela Travino, an angel-voiced local fresh off a touring run of South Pacific. They sang the duet "A Whole New World" from Aladdin about as well as that cloying number can possibly be performed. Disney songs are the show tunes of the younger set, and the orange table was ecstatic.

A few minutes shy of 1 a.m., Cami Thompson, a professional singer who splits time between the Bay Area and Reno, slipped Wicht her own arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well Be Spring." He laughed, and shouted "We're gonna sight-read this motherfucker!"

There are only so many ways to denote that a performance was amazing, spectacular, unforgettable, magical. Let it suffice to say it was all of the above; Thompson's scat singing bounced off the walls like kernels in a popcorn machine and the room melted like butter.

When the riotous applause died down, a blond woman from the orange table stumbled up to Wicht and shouted, inches from his face, "You were great! I want you to know that!" She caught him in an awkward hug, rendered all the more precarious by the fact he hadn't ceased playing the piano yet. Perhaps she answered her own question: "Who does this?"

The group piled out the door, happier and drunker — but not younger — into the bosom of the night.

None of them left a tip.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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