Pounding the keys for entertainment

Entertainers Jeff Vance and Michael Mastromatteo are center stage Nov. 12 in front of a full house. Audience members participate in their act, as well as request songs. / photo by Jakeh Landrum

by Samantha Sincock
photography by Jakeh Landrum

The smell of liquor rises from the sticky black floor. The air hovering around the large group of bystanders is close and hot. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” making every woman sigh, is being pounded through the worn ivory keys. It is nights like these when visitors and regulars gather to put bread in the piano man’s jar.

By day, the cherry red booths are shined to perfection and tables polished until you can see your own reflection. Every light bulb is screwed into place and liquor returned to rightful shelfs. The stage is reconfigured to its original form. The dueling masterpieces face each other like a western standoff, and the percussion and string accents adorn the remaining parts of the scene. But by night, a show unlike any other will unveil nostalgic music and adventurous games to the evening’s lively guests at this frequented club.

Behind the keys

Piano Piano’s dueling night bar in Claremont has entertained thousands for more than two years since its November 2008 opening. Every Wednesday through Saturday, the night venue musicians serenade with their musical selections and vibrant performances all comers, from Bucco de Peppo employees just off the job, to couples on a date, to college students looking for an entertainment ride away from the books. The pianos create a noise that rumbles your insides as they yell back and forth throughout the evening. The duelers throw comments at each other as they bend backwards, play one handed or footed and bring each arrangement to life. But the pianists are not long restricted to their benches; they randomly jump off the keys and into the drum set or strap on a guitar as if they were acrobats in a circus.

It is not uncommon for a female patron to sit next to Ryan Bueter or “Ryan The Piano Guy” as he melodically woos her with a comical song. And individuals are pulled up on stage to participate in dance and charades. “I’ve been playing here since November of ’08, day one, and I love every night,” exclaims Ryan, one of the entertainment hosts for the venue. With more than 25 years of musicianship and entertainment under his belt, Ryan makes every night seem more like a Vegas show than a small town bar. “The night is a complete show, burst full of entertainment and musical comedy,” he says. “We’re are not just about pianos; the night is way worth the money and much more.”

As for entertainment, the staff knows how to make the evening fun for everyone—from those who want to join to the people watchers who sit back, relax and take in the crazed antics. “We keep upping the ante on the show, bringing in new, talented entertainers to keep Piano Piano rockin’ for years to come,” explains outlet manager Jeff Clark. During the evening, one will see waiter/performer Shaun Taper singing hip hop arrangements to the crowd. If you catch him by the arm during the night, he will let you pick one of the numbers—and there are dozens on the list. Susan Erwin, co- entertainment director, and Ana Guigui, Susan’s sidekick, take song requests to new heights with their modern renditions and clever lyrical transformations. The two are often found badgering a 21st birthday or local bachelorette party. “As a performer, it is not about ‘me’; it is about the crowd,” says Susan. “From the bar to the door, we are all looking for a good time, and, if you are not having fun, something is wrong.”

The dueling night bar makes the old, young, fresh and mature feel right at home. “I have been coming here for a year, and the act never disappoints,” says regular Robbie Rugg, from Upland. Robbie frequents this rocking hole in the wall whenever he can get a group together. “I use any excuse to come here; the liquor is top notch, and the company is excellent. I love how it’s all in my backyard town.”

Like Robbie, many come to rehabilitate and wind down after a long work week. “It is comfortable and clean, unlike most clubs out there,” says Dani Woods, of Claremont. “I feel sophisticated as I sip on my martini and enjoy the pianos’ tunes.” Although the room is crammed with people, one never feels cramped or invaded. The flaming booths and dim lighting in the blackened room transports you to an old jazz club feel from the roaring ‘20s.

As for music, anything from Carry Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” can be heard playing on the stage. “We are really up to date on music in a more ‘modern’ sort of way then other clubs,” says Ryan. While the piano may sound like a carnival, the people in the room add to the rhyme by singing along to their treasured songs. “We rock it out pretty hard at our bar and try not to just make it a sing-a-long event,” says Ryan. “Our show is based on the crowd, and it’s what we live for.”

On with the show

Although this smashing club is only open a select number of nights, “we can open this baby up any night of the week we aren’t already running and have private parties,” says Ryan. Every Thursday is college night. Deals abound on drinks and appetizers. On Wednesdays, Rock Star Karaoke night performers take the stage. Game? The musicians toss you a sheet of music, and you sing to the pianos’ tune. More? Individuals are also encouraged to bring instruments. “Local” jam sessions breakout spontaneously.

Depending on the night you decide to head down to this rock hopping club, drinks can range from $2 to $7, and Piano Piano knows how to mix a good cocktail. The bartenders uniquely craft each and every drink to perfection. If you are hungry, there is no need to wait until after the party. From cheesy garlic fries to Yoko Ono Vegetarian pizzas, chef Jose crafts dishes that make you wanting more. As far as a cover charge, do not expect to pay any on Wednesday or Thursday nights, and, as long as you get there before 8 p.m. the other nights, it is $5 per head.

Piano Piano has much planned for its visitors. Holidays and special occasions trigger the wildest tune parties. Special guest appearances are upcoming: consider Valentine’s or St. Patrick’s celebrations; the entertainment is downtown. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, so come on down to drink, sing and have fun,” exclaims Jeff. A price cannot be put on memories and good entertainment (even if it is starring you), and if you get to Piano Piano at the right time, you will not have to.

Teasing a bridal party with clever lyrical arrangements, co-entertainment director Susan Irwin wakes up the night crowd with comical tunes and dramatic skits on her “keytar.” As the night progresses, Susan and fellow performer Mark Michaels play a variety of music, from classic rock to modern pop, take requests and accompany audience members as they attempt karaoke. / photo by Jakeh Landrum