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Live Piano Sounds Are Mixing With the Music of the Cash Register

December 12, 1986|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Maybe it isn't Alexander's ragtime band, but Mark Alexander has what he feels is the next best thing at his Hollywood stationery and office supply store: live piano music.

The Bank of America branch in Westwood will similarly have someone tickling the ivories in its lobby, albeit only for a couple days before Christmas.

Some department stores and several hotels have long employed keyboard artists to brighten the visits of their customers, but the idea is gaining favor--and there's at least one car wash poised to join the trend.

And while it may be taking hold here, for nearly three decades the Manhattan Savings Bank in New York City has had live piano playing year-round on the premises of most of its branches.

No matter where, the customers seem to find it a happy change from the pervasive piped-in recorded music. At one store, according to the pianist there, a woman began dancing while waiting in the checkout line and was seen still twirling as she stepped outside and continued down the sidewalk.

"Where's the candelabra?" Jules Milton of Hollywood wisecracked to Jeffrey Urband, who was sitting at the keyboard of a baby grand.

The setting wasn't a living room, or a concert hall, or a lounge. It was just inside the entrance of the Alexanders store at 1531 Cahuenga Blvd. Urband, decked in a black tuxedo and red pocket hankie, was running through the theme from "Gigi," as customers peered at shelves and stood in lines at the cash registers.

"It sure soothes the nerves," commented Aggie Pittenger of Los Angeles, pushing a shopping cart. After one number, customers in scattered parts of the store broke into applause.

"I did this because we are in the entertainment capital, and because I wanted to add a touch of class," store owner Mark Alexander explained.

The 37-year-old Urband, who has a master's degree in piano performance and whose jobs have included being musical director for a cruise ship and also for a former Miss America, began his new role late in November and will stay there at least through January. He plays 45-minute sets and said he can go five hours without repeating.

How It Took Shape

The interest in live piano music at local businesses took shape in Urband's mind when he was in New York City last year:

"I happened to pass by a launderette, and there was somebody playing a baby grand inside. My first reaction was, 'only in New York,' but then I got to thinking about how people were waiting there with little to do, and they were an ideal audience.

"Then a friend told me about the piano playing at the Manhattan Savings Banks. I auditioned and was accepted, but I didn't want to move to New York."

A few months after returning, Urband was having dinner with James James, a local music producer. Thus was formed a partnership called Holiday Productions. Much of the activity now involves supplying live music for the holidays, but the service is available year-round.

"In addition to the stationery store, we will have a piano at the Westwood branch of the Bank of America on Dec. 23 and 24, we are about to conclude a contract with a car wash in Toluca Lake, and several other businesses have expressed interest," James said.

He said the outfit has access to about 40 pianos and an unlimited supply of pianists. Urband said the fee is $25 an hour and up, depending on the location, a charge that includes delivery of the instrument and player, complete with tuxedo.

Growing Attraction

What is this apparently growing attraction for having someone play music live--not just in bars and fashionable restaurants--but in sometimes unlikely business establishments? In some cases it is just for the holidays, but in many others the beat goes on all year.

"With a live instrument on the premises, people get the human contact that is so necessary," said Steve Leeds, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 47 here.

"It's a link between the sound and the people hearing it. Piped-in music is like eating those TV dinners--everything seems the same."

Certainly not the case at the First Interstate Bank in Laguna Niguel. A couple of months ago the manager, Aynn Mullin, received permission to have her personal seven-foot grand piano moved into the lobby--mostly for the benefit of any customer wishing to play.

"I am amazed at how many people pause to use it, and at how well they play," Mullin said. "Sometimes customers will bring me something to play, which I do when I get some free time.

She is hoping one person in particular will show up. "A woman said her father is in his 90s and used to be a concert pianist, but that she hadn't heard him play in 20 years. She said, now that he has heard about the instrument in our bank, he has resumed practicing after all these years."

Arturo Bermudez, who opened a chain of eight local flower shops after growing up on Olvera Street, has had a piano on hand for 20 years now at the main one, Arturo's Flower Shop at La Brea and Fountain avenues in West Hollywood. (Currently, it has two pianos.)

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