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."

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.”

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.

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