"Sing us a song, Rusty. You're still the piano lady!"
The regular crowd shuffled in to the Fireside Inn in Encino Friday night to say farewell to the schmaltz and showmanship that pianist Alice (Rusty) Riddle has kept alive for 17 years at one of the San Fernando Valley's last piano bars.
Riddle, 59, was told last month that her cocktail-hour performances were being phased out. A new dance floor and rock band were going to replace her grand piano and repertoire of Broadway classics and mellow music.
"It's the death of the piano bar," sighed one of the old-timers, an elegantly dressed woman who identified herself only as Terrie. As she spoke, Riddle went through the repertoire the woman had heard many times before: "Let's Fly Away," "Cabaret," "Feelings."
Since a development company bought the Fireside in April, it was clear the new owners wanted to play a new tune. The dance floor was enlarged and the piano was sold.
For the last few weeks, Riddle performed her five-hour show on whatever electronic keyboard that newly hired band members would agree to leave for her.
On Friday night, customers, some of whom have frequented the bar for two decades, staged a wake and donned black armbands. They showered the pianist with gifts--a telephone shaped like a piano, white carnations tied with a black ribbon, silver balloons with "You're So Special" printed on the front.
Spurred by longtime patrons Desiree Cole and Judith Kostal, more than 200 regulars already had signed a petition asking the new owners to keep Riddle on.
Although general manager Howard Davidson said Friday that the owners would spend the next four weeks evaluating the changes at the restaurant before making a final decision about Riddle's fate, the piano lady indicated that she has little hope.
She acknowledged that evening business at the Fireside has more than doubled since the changes.
"It's been a wonderful 17 years, 3 months, and 4 days," she said, "so how can I complain?"
"The piano bar era is phased out and I go with it. This hard rock stuff, you can't play it by yourself, so I know that my time has passed."
With the rhinestones on the shoulder of her shiny, black pantsuit glimmering, Riddle laughed and wept with her audience of mostly middle-aged men and women as she sang another song, "I Just Called to Say I Love You."
And then one more: " Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end. . . . But they do, don't they? " Riddle sang.