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

Wednesday, Jul 25 2012

Page 2 of 4

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."

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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