Ok, so here we are: getting closer and closer to opening this place called Dorothy's Piano Bar and Cabaret. Almost every week I field questions like "What is a piano bar?" "Isn't that like Keys on Main?" "What kind of music is there?" "Can anyone sing?" and more.
With that in mind, this blog is devoted to not just the history of piano bars but also why Seattle is in need of one and why Dorothy's will be a great fit.
Well, what is a piano bar? Most definitions all seem to agree on this: a piano bar is a place featuring a professional musician who entertains the patrons on the piano." These venues can be in restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, cocktail lounges and more.
It is generally agreed that there are about six different types of piano bars.
1) Instrumental only where the pianist provides background music, almost always without vocals.
2) Featured musician which offers a "star" performer who is the only person who sings
3) Musicians and servers sing venues feature a live pianist who entertains the crowd and calls upon the servers and staff to sing songs. Think of singing waiters.
4) Dueling Pianos - usually a stage with two grand pianos, lots of amplification and focus on rock, pop, R&B, country, etc with competing pianists and lots of crowd interaction.
5) Singalong - Patrons gather around the piano and sing songs in a group
6) Open Mic - guests are invited to take the mic and sing a song or two with the professional pianist backing them up.
Of course, many pianos bars are combinations of any of the above.
Piano bars began to be popular mostly after WWII. Patrons were often looking for something a little less raucous than a jazz club and less formal than a supper club. Staring in the 1920's pianos began to be a common fixture in many homes in the United States as well as the most popular instrument. Piano bars were naturally an off-shoot of the love Americans had of gathering around a piano at home and singing songs.
New York City was one of the first places where piano bars became popular. Piano bars filled many NY neighborhoods. They began as places for the hip crowd and later branched off to become popular with the LGBTQ community, especially during times when gay bars were prohibited.
When the Stonewall riots shook New York in 1969, the bar scene underwent radial change. Gay-owned establishments appeared, including several piano bars. Ranging from casual Village hangouts (The Duplex) to "proper attire" spots on the Upper East Side (Regent East), these piano rooms provided an alternative to the disco scene of the 1970s and 80s. They all featured singalongs, pianists with an encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes, and an admission policy that welcomed everyone. Open microphones were provided for customers willing to sing solos. (Willing? Hell, some soloists could not be scraped off a microphone!) At Ted Hook's beloved Backstage, the impromptu soloists could include fellow patrons, the wait staff – or Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera.
Many other piano bars soon developed in NY, including The Monster, Rose's Turn, Don't Tell Mama and more. In the 1980s and 90s, Broadway turned largely against the musical comedy and piano bars were once again a refuge for those who longed for music in that style. Of course, while many piano bars can be noted for being a haven for showtune singers, others feature every style of music from jazz to hip-hop.
So this brings us to Seattle. Seattle does have a proud history of piano bars including such famous landmarks as Sorry Charlie's and Thumpers. Charlie's closed in 2003 and Thumpers in 2006 and there hasn't been a piano bar in Seattle since with the exception of many establishments who provide a pianist playing background music and the venues with featured artists.
As many people know, Seattle is home to a vast number of quality theatres and naturally we have an amazing crop of gifted singer and performers. I read an old story in the times about Sorry Charlie's. It mentioned that patrons included singers from Seattle Opera who came to "stretch their lungs." Then as now, we have so many gifted singers in the area and Dorothy's will be a home for them to come and sing just for the fun of it, prepare for the next audition, try a new song, advertise an upcoming performance or just hang out with friends and make new ones.
Dorothy's will be a combination of many of the piano bar types. First and foremost we will be an open mic where all singers (not just those from the opera or theatre companies) can come and sing a song. We'll certainly feature some of the best artists in town who will headline our stage, we'll give our staff the opportunity to participate and sometimes we may just offer background music for a quiet date night.
Dorothy's will be much more than a piano bar too but I'll write about that more in the future. In the meantime, we hope you'll watch our current and upcoming events and come sing us a song!