Piano bars aren't that far removed from revival tents, with bustling, boisterous crowds belting out familiar songs to drain away the weight of the world. But instead of railing against the devil, piano men banter with bachelorettes and field endless requests for "Boomer Sooner."
The latest such site is Michael Murphy's Dueling Pianos, which opened to lively crowds on April 16 at 25 S. Oklahoma in Bricktown.
"This goes back to vaudeville, and what we are going through now is barely even a recession compared to back then," said entertainer "Jimmy C" Calanni. "Especially during a downturn, people want to be entertained. They want to go out, get some drinks and take their minds off things. These types of bars and comedy clubs thrive when times get rough."
Bobby Dennis is one of the minds behind Murphy's, which is designed to draw more diverse traffic than Stooges Comedy Club & Piano Bar, located down the street within CityWalk, also owned by Dennis and Bobby Spann.
"Stooges loses a lot of their demographic due to being located inside a nightclub," Dennis said. "People older than their 30s have a different pace of life and may not go to nightclubs as much as they did in the past, but they will go to a sit-down club, they'll go to jazz lounges, and they'll go to a piano bar."
Different piano bars exist for different occasions. Maker's Cigar and Piano Lounge and the Skirvin's Red Piano Lounge represent the more standard format, where one piano player provides relaxing background music for a laid-back crowd.
Dueling piano bars are more rare, catering to a party crowd. Such venues are harder to run, to perform at and to start, with at least one prior Bricktown attempt " a Texas chain called Pete's " failing to take root. Once open, Calanni said, dueling piano bars that are run well rarely fail.
"The key is to go to a tourist area. You don't want to open one up in Plano, Texas," he said. "The (Murphy's) owners were really intelligent. They put it in a tourist/convention center area, where there will be a lot of traffic. This bar isn't really a destination place, but the walk-by people will come here before they go to another club."
Stooges, on the other hand, will draw its audience from crowded dance floors in CityWalk's other clubs. Part of a trio of musicians from Dallas, Ron Logan has performed for more than five years at Stooges, where much of the crowd doesn't come specifically to hear dueling pianos.
"It can be a little tough, because the attention span is short, so you try to get people who come in just to see us," Logan said. "As it goes on, and they get drunker, it starts getting looser."
A benefit of being a part of CityWalk, Dennis said, is being a limb of a multi-venue club, which means Stooges' business will hold steady.
At Murphy's, Calanni said the most important thing is to start training the crowds to learn how to request songs correctly.
"People don't know. They give you a buck and say they want to hear 'Piano Man.' They don't know that it gets requested 700 times a night, and we're not going to play it 700 times," he said.
He doesn't mind playing certain songs that come up ad nauseam, but not so often that the room goes "stale."
A good tip is also relative, he said. If there are no tips on his piano, then $1 is sufficient. If there are several $10 tips, a dollar isn't going to get him to play "Don't Stop Believing."
Money isn't always the driving factor, however.
"It's a request show, but it is not request-driven. We play the stuff people want to hear, but sometimes we'll play stuff just to change the room," Calanni said. "The best tip I ever got was a lady that paid me a dollar, and I knew it was her last dollar, to play 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant' by Billy Joel. That is the only song I play that is longer than 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' and I played it in its entirety because it was her last dollar. From her, a dollar was worth more than $100 from some wealthy guy." "Charles Martin