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

Wednesday, Jul 25 2012

Page 4 of 4

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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