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

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.

Most Martuni’s patrons likely don’t realize that waiter Skip Ziobron owns the place.
J.P. Dobrin
Most Martuni’s patrons likely don’t realize that waiter Skip Ziobron owns the place.
Those not singing “We are Family” along with pianist Joe Wicht risk the revocation of their “gay cards.”
J.P. Dobrin
Those not singing “We are Family” along with pianist Joe Wicht risk the revocation of their “gay cards.”

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.

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