On a recent Thursday at Mickey’s Downtown Bistro, two men in business suits decided to turn the “duel” into a “piano duel.” They sipped wine and slammed $50 bills on the big baby in a fierce bidding war to hear the best classic: “Edge of Seventeen” or “Landslide.”
Within half an hour, $500 materialized in front of pianists Alissa Musto and Leon Novembre at the dark, lit Lauderdale-by-the-Sea spot, their faces bathed in bouncing circles of greens and blues. November turned to Musto, eyebrows raised, and joked into the mic, “Hey, why not play both?”
“People have a few drinks there, you’d be amazed how picky they are with the music,” she says. “Everything is in a good mood. This place is set up for crowd interaction.
After a decade without them, dueling piano bars are once again tickling South Florida’s ivories. Mickey’s Downtown Bistro – with dueling piano shows Thursday through Sunday – is the first bar of its kind in the Tricounty area in nearly a decade, filling a void left by past haunts such as Howl at the Moon in Fort Lauderdale’s Beach Place and 88’s Piano Duel at the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood. Mickey’s debuted on April 28, with a grand opening party scheduled for the July 4 weekend.
Not far behind, piano dueling chain Howl at the Moon is set to stage a return to Fort Lauderdale in the summer of 2023. It will open downtown at 600 SE Second Court in a 5,000-square-foot yet-to-be-built venue behind Big City Tavern on Las Olas Boulevard, says Bradd O’Brien, president of Howl at the Moon.
At Mickey’s, the Italian steakhouse with Mediterranean accents is the brainchild of chef-owner Mickey Josephs and his brother, Moti, two Israeli restaurateurs who ran a similar dueling piano restaurant in Hamden, Connecticut, until the pandemic is killing this 15-year-old affair.
“It got too expensive there, with the 25% occupancy and the closings,” says Mickey Josephs, who explored 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 cuisine from his mother, says he wanted his cuisine to represent a better class of dueling piano bar. He also dropped around $200,000 for state-of-the-art sound equipment, including stage lighting and wall insulation.
Because dueling piano shows get loud, it was essential to soundproof the bar from the rest of the neighborhood, including residential neighbors in the apartments above Mickey.
“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 booze. Customers jot down first and second choice songs on slips of paper and leave them on the piano. If someone tips Elton John $5 but a Neil Diamond fan slips the piano player $10, then “Piano Man” is out and “Sweet Caroline” is in. Joy to the world.”)
Dueling piano performances have evolved in recent years, says Brad Alexander, founder of the Flying Ivories, a New York-based network of dueling pianists. (Mickey uses musicians from Flying Ivories exclusively.) The shows have toned down the bawdy sex jokes, bits of on-stage comedy and misogynistic humor that dominated the genre, he says — a sign of growing sensitivity after the #era. MeToo.
“Some of that bawdy humor doesn’t sit well with today’s audiences,” says Alexander, who started performing dueling piano shows in New York in 2001. “But depending on the night, you might have to be dirty lyrical parodies of Disney songs.Our musicians not only have to memorize thousands of songs, but also know how to work with an audience.
When Howl at the Moon debuts next year in Fort Lauderdale, the format will be different than Mickey’s, O’Brien says. Howl at the Moon will take fewer song requests, he says, relying more on a pre-programmed setlist backed by a full band: two pianists, a drummer, a bassist and two guitarists.
“Our concept is now based on all music from all decades, from rap and hip-hop to metal and classics,” says O’Brien. “There are no ends, no list of vulgar joking humor that we have done in the past. Las Olas needs quality nocturnal energy and we provide it.