Piano Bars, often seen in Hollywood movies, gave an atmosphere of both elegance and rough times. One would see a piano player swooning audiences at a martini bar as a man and woman exchanged glances of passion. Or one might see a piano player keeping patrons spirits high in a western film or a film depicting a brothel. Those were not just Hollywood images though, those images were real to life in the large cities and in rural areas.
The first piano bar I was introduced to, was one reminiscent of the underground spas of the 1970s. It offered both the quiet music of the piano so one could seek out a partner for the evening, and as the night progressed a one person vaudeville type show would occur before winding back down to just the piano for the late evening night cap. This venue existed within a larger establishment with a dance floor, and a stage for large live performers. By the late 1980s this night club closed its doors.
When I came to live in Orange County, NY in the early 1990s there were four piano bars that I frequented, each with its own style. Others existed as well, although I was not a patron of these establishments. The bars, again had their own definitive style.
Bodles Opera House originally was located inside an old railroad station. There was a bar a stage and a piano, as time went by a house band was added. There was never any seating in the building, it would have gotten in the way. The Establishment offered a vaudeville show, the cocktail waitresses were expected to and did perform live on stage singing. (fully clothed) auditions for this place were cold. You got on stage, sang, and left it up to the crowd. As years went on the bar moved a block down the street, kept the same show, but added seating and food. This place had a good run of twenty five years.
The Bradstan Inn, still is an operating bed and breakfast, although I have heard they too have closed their piano bar. This Venue was reminiscent of the 1940’s and 1950’s piano bar. Small but grand in its stature. A large Grand Piano on a small stage surrounded by leather couches and chairs, an elegant bar with Tiffany lighting. Yes this was taken out of a Hollywood Movie. The pianist was usually well schooled and often classically trained. The performers were often studies of theatrical arts. The material suited both the atmosphere and the performances.
Two other venues in the area also closed their piano bars during the late 1990s in this area. Now there are none left. Which leaves those of us that are music lovers and musicians at a loss in many ways. Why did they go? There are many theories as to why. The state cracked down hard on drinking and driving when the law was first introduced, establishments were often watched, especially the popular ones. The smoking in public laws went into effect. The Martini and cigarette were no longer sexy, like they were in the piano bars of old Hollywood movies. The cost of licensing music went up in price, and the unions got tougher in regards to this. The patrons of that era were getting older, some were dying off, others were finding yoga classes instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Whatever the reason, the era for that romantic sound of the piano, quiet voices and boisterous ones seem to be long gone for this region. Only in the big cities do they exist now.
In a way, it is goodbye old friend.