Dueling piano bars again tickling ivories in South Florida

Posted at 6:41 AM, Jun 04, 2022

On a recent Thursday at Mickey’s Downtown Bistro, two men in business suits decided to put the “duel” in “dueling pianos.” They sipped wine and slapped $50 bills on the baby grand in a fierce bidding war to hear the better classic: “Edge of Seventeen” or “Landslide.”

Within a half-hour, $500 materialized in front of pianists Alissa Musto and Leon Novembre at the dim, stage-lit Lauderdale-by-the-Sea spot, their faces bathed in bouncing circles of greens and blues. Novembre turned to Musto, eyebrows raised, and quipped into the microphone, “Hey, why not play both?”

“People get a couple of drinks in them, you’d be amazed how picky they get with the music,” she says. “It’s all in good fun. This place is set up for crowd interaction.”

After a decade without them, dueling piano bars are once again tickling the ivories in South Florida. Mickey’s Downtown Bistro — with dueling-piano shows from Thursdays through Sundays — is the first such bar in the tricounty area in nearly a decade, filling a void left by bygone haunts such as Howl at the Moon at Fort Lauderdale’s Beach Place and 88′s Dueling Pianos at Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood. Mickey’s debuted April 28, with a grand-opening party scheduled for Fourth of July weekend.

Not far behind, dueling-piano chain Howl at the Moon is set to stage a Fort Lauderdale comeback in summer 2023. It will open downtown at 600 SE Second Court within a to-be-constructed, 5,000-square-foot venue behind Big City Tavern on Las Olas Boulevard, says Bradd O’Brien, president of Howl at the Moon.

At Mickey’s, the Mediterranean-accented Italian steakhouse is the brainchild of chef-owner Mickey Josephs and his brother, Moti, two Israeli restaurateurs who ran a similar dueling-piano eatery in Hamden, Conn., until the pandemic killed that 15-year-old business.

“It got to be too expensive there, what with the 25% occupancy and shutdowns,” explains Mickey Josephs, who scouted storefronts from St. Augustine to Sarasota before landing in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. “But life went on in Florida, it was open. I realized we were in the wrong state.”

The Pompano Beach resident and chef, who went to culinary school in Connecticut but learned Mediterranean cooking from his mother, says he wanted his cuisine to represent a better class of dueling-piano bar. He also dropped about $200,000 for state-of-the-art sound equipment, including stage lighting and wall insulation.

Because dueling piano shows get loud, soundproofing the bar from the rest of the neighborhood —including residential neighbors in the apartments above Mickey’s — was key.

“There’s 6 inches of insulation above the ceilings,” he says of the room’s acoustics. “They haven’t complained to us yet.”

The electricity of a dueling-piano show, of course, is fueled by tips and alcohol. Customers jot down first and second song choices on paper slips and leave them on the piano. If someone tips $5 for Elton John but a Neil Diamond fan slips $10 to the pianist, then “Piano Man” is out and “Sweet Caroline” is in. (That is, until it’s overridden by a $20 plea for Three Dog Night barnstormer “Joy to the World.”)

Dueling-piano shows have evolved in recent years, says Brad Alexander, founder of the Flying Ivories, a New York-based network of dueling pianists. (Mickey’s exclusively uses Flying Ivories musicians.) Shows have softened the bawdy sex jokes, onstage comedy bits and misogynistic humor that used to dominate the genre, he says — a sign of growing sensitivity after the #MeToo era.

“Some of that bawdy humor doesn’t fly with today’s audiences,” says Alexander, who began playing dueling-piano shows in New York in 2001. “But depending on the night, maybe you’ll get dirty lyric parodies of Disney songs. Our musicians not only have to memorize thousands of songs but know how to work an audience.”

When Howl at the Moon debuts next year in Fort Lauderdale, the format will be different from that of Mickey’s, O’Brien says. Howl at the Moon will take fewer song requests, he says, relying more on a preprogrammed setlist backed by a full band: two pianists, a drummer, a bassist and two guitarists.

“Our concept now is based around all music from all decades, from rap to hip-hop to metal to the classics,” O’Brien says. “There’s no bits, no joking vulgar humor list we did in the past. Las Olas needs quality nightlife energy and we’re the ones to bring it.”