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The recession that gripped the nation the year I graduated University of Florida was serious. Businesses shut down. Construction came to a halt. Architects, my field of study, were firing their staff.
I made the rounds anyway. Principals of design firms had plenty of time to sit and chat with me and review my portfolio. They had nothing else to do. As one employee shared with me, the biggest responsibility their bosses had each day was to make sure the soda machines were filled.
I had a second skill, one that I truly enjoyed. After finishing my homework in college I would find places around campus to play the piano. It was my pleasure when people listened to me.
I enjoyed an audience, loved taking requests, watching girls dance, making everyone happy with my music. During college vacations I offered to play the piano at various local restaurants in Sarasota in exchange for just an evening meal. The restaurants were glad to oblige so cheaply.
One of my favorite places was Raul's, the pleasant Cuban café across the street from Sarasota's city hall. The couple that owned it were very nice. I particularly loved their salads. With all the garlic they put in the dressing the flavor had a real kick. Each night I would play at Raul’s for hours. I had my favorite tunes. But when their Cuban customers heard me play “Guantanamera” that was the end of my extensive repertoire.
It was requested that I repeat and repeat and repeat that song. Each time all the customers would rise up from their seats to dance. So cute. I didn’t mind.
But I did miss playing my other faves, from current popular tunes to some real oldies. At Raul’s each night an older woman would often dine alone at the table right in front of me. She would order a drink during dinner and as I would play each night tears would appear in her eyes.
After graduating, with no work available for which I’d been trained in college, I returned to my other skill of playing the piano. I started at The Wildflower, a fun light health food cafe out on Siesta Key.
The owner, a friend, had his mom’s piano set up next to the smoothie bar. Each time a blender was started I had to stop playing. Then resume playing when the smoothie was done. It was also fun being so near the beach.
A more refined restaurant, one that served a lot less smoothies, asked me to entertain their customers. The Café Prague on Palm Avenue served crepes and wonderful desserts. The owners were two men who presented themselves as brothers, but were actually something quite different. One had been a famous opera singer in Czechoslovakia.
After the restaurant closed one evening, over wine and candlelight, I wasn’t aware that the atmosphere was intentional, he entertained me with the story of their harrowing escape across the Czech border. I learned that night of their life, and that part of the reason I’d been hired was not because of my piano playing. The room I played in was elegant, the patrons very respectful. I enjoyed my very brief stint there but the pressure from at least one of the owners was a bit more than I bargained for. I moved on.
A new place opened up, The India House restaurant. It took up the main floor of the old John Ringling Hotel, a beautiful historic building that has since been torn down and replaced by the Ritz Carlton. The restaurant’s owner, Mr. Sarna, was from India and was quite wealthy, having made a fortune importing small brass bells from his native land.
He decorated his eatery magnificently, including an extremely large scale model of the Taj Mahal all in white. This he displayed in the center of the main dining area. The restaurant was quite popular at first, I’m sure because it was so exotic. One could even watch the men from India he’d brought over to cook in the kitchen through a large plate glass window Mr. Sarna had especially installed.
But what the patrons couldn’t see is that when these Indian chefs dropped food on the floor, by accident, which they did, often, the chefs would pick the food right back up and place it on the plates just as they were being taken out to the hungry diners. I especially loved the tasty appetizers, a crispy spinach mixture, but soon had terrible diarrhea.
One evening some friends came mainly to hear me. I ran by their table every couple of minutes making a quick dash to the bathroom, to their increasing bemusement.
The main floor of the old John Ringling Hotel was a restaurant when John Ringling was alive. The ceiling was a mixture of aged wood beams and hand painted motifs. There was beautiful imported Italian tile everywhere. It was a lovely place to play. The elevated stage on which the large grand piano was located could be operated as a lift during Ringling’s time.
On it he used it to bring his circus animals up from the basement. There were large rings in the ceiling where his trapeze artists would perform over the heads of the diners as they dined.
I was even told privately that during very private dinner parties the trapeze artists would perform in the nude. Ringling, apparently, had a sexy streak.
Two local cuisine critics in one weekend panned the India House. They had nothing nice to say about its’ food or service. The piano player, however, was highly complimented. I was the only positive review.
A good friend who read the reviews urged that I drop in early that day and ask for a raise. I did stop by the restaurant that afternoon, but the manager summarily fired me instead.
I guess he took what was written about him out on me. I was shocked, as I loved playing in front of people and was beginning to wonder by that time if entertaining on the piano might not become my career.
One night, while still playing there, Dicky Betts, a famous rock star and member of the Allman Brothers band, showed up with a bevy of beautiful girls. He took a large table, surrounded by his very pretty company. When their meal was over he walked across the restaurant to where I was playing, shook my hand, and said, “You’re a damn great piano player!” I thanked him, and appreciated it. But despite the great reviews and positive feedback, I was out the door.
After I was fired they tried replacing me with a sexy belly dancer. I’m not sure why a middle-eastern belly dancer had anything to do with Indian food. Perhaps it had more to do with the manager wanting to look at a half naked girl every evening. She didn’t save the place. Two months later the India House closed down. People had stopped coming.
The India House may have disappeared, but I continued to perform. I moved onto other clubs. I joined two very talented girls who loved the musical, “Chicago”.
I played while they sang and danced. We were a local hit. As my musical career improved there were so many little fun filled moments. The friends who come and see you, the laughs you share, those spontaneous comic moments.
As this aspect of my life kept taking off I wondered if playing the piano and entertaining was meant to be my life.
My mother was certain I could become the next Bobby Short. The only problem: performing paid a fortune in fun and free eats, but not much when it came to money.
But it helped me eat well and have fun during what was a rough economic recession, until I could start my own design and media business, which eventually became quite a success as the U.S. economy recovered.