I thought that today I’d tell you how it feels to trip at the top of a flight of five concrete steps early in the morning, tumble straight toward the bottom casting backpack (with computer) to the winds, and breaking your fall by catching yourself in the pushup position. That technique worked a lot better twenty years ago. Nothing broken, except for my pride, but there are a few badly pulled chest muscles that make typing at the moment simply not in the cards. So, here’s a blast from the past, straight from Mykonos—where I’ll be in two weeks wearing decidedly different shoes than the &^%$# pair that hung up on the steps. So, here’s the very first Tale of the Piano Bar: The Red Hot Mama, from January 22, 2011.
During tourist season it seems at times that the entire world is on holiday on Mykonos. Age, race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, or sexual preference makes no difference; that Aegean Greek island is popping for everyone. But of all the nightspots catering to the myriad sorts contributing to Mykonos’ 24/7 in season lifestyle, just one brings everyone together. For thirty years, tourists, locals, yachters, Broadway and West End performers, have flocked to the Piano Bar, now located amid the narrow lanes of Little Venice as the Quartier Latin-style Montparnasse Piano Bar sitting at the edge of the sea across a bay from Mykonos’ signature windmills.
It is the Aegean’s “La Cage au Folles,” sans dancers, for here it’s all about cabaret. And if you think that guest from the audience who did a song or two seemed familiar, you may be right, for between sunset and two in the morning—when everyone’s off to continue the night in the island’s ‘til sunrise clubs and discos—the Piano Bar is a must stop for visiting musical theater folk.
The Piano Bar is the creation of Nikos Hristodulakis and Jody Duncan, and they’re behind the bar every night, amassing more stories than O’Henry. I’ve been trying for a while to persuade them to share some tales, hopefully the juicier ones. They’ve agreed to test the waters, so here’s their first one, chased with a recipe for one of their most popular cocktails.
Montparnasse Piano Bar Tale #1: “The Red Hot Mama,” as told by a blond Jody leaning over the bar and ignoring the dark-haired Niko making faces behind him.
The place was dead. It emptied out right after Phyllis’ midnight set. That happens sometimes. No matter, it will fill up for her one o’clock gig. Everybody loves her here. Some say they come to Mykonos “just to see Phyllis.” And she believes them. She should, she’s the Grand Diva of the island when it comes to cabaret and loves to accessorize her songs with props—none more famous than her bright yellow foam rubber, McGuire sisters’-style wig and trumpet-shape, silver kazoo. The kazoo is reserved for her nonpareil performance of “Dr. Jazz,” the Dixieland staple written by Joe “King” Oliver in 1926 and covered by such other notables as Jelly Roll Morton and Harry Connick, Jr.—but none with quite the style of our Phyllis.
So, there I am talking to one of the waiters, and thinking about what kind of mischief I could get into to kill time, when he asks if Phyllis is going to do Dr. Jazz in her next set. That got me to thinking about Dixieland, which led to thoughts of New Orleans, and on to the subject of…Tabasco!
|The scene of the crime.|
Phyllis was outside the front door talking to some fans, so I told the waiter to grab the kazoo from her basket of props in front of the piano. With one eye on the door I soaked the mouthpiece in Tabasco and had it back in the basket before she was back inside the bar. Now it was only a matter of time. I couldn’t wait to see her face.
But as the set wore on no one shouted up a request for Dr. Jazz and Phyllis hadn’t even glanced at the kazoo. This was not looking good. How could I get her to sing? I used the old standby. Cash. An anonymous written request accompanied by 500 drachmas to the piano player for Phyllis to perform Dr. Jazz guaranteed that kazoo would soon be heading toward her lips.
By now I couldn’t restrain myself and had shared my brilliant plan with several regulars sitting at the bar [“With me too,” says Niko waving from behind]. To be honest, most were horrified and thought it childish…but if the shoe fits… Besides, even the most critical were fascinated at how Phyllis would respond. After all, she was Italian. And not a word of warning went out from the crowd.
So, on went the wig, and out came the lyrics for Dr. Jazz, “Hello Central give me Dr. Jazz…” At the point where the lyrics took a break and the piano player took over, Phyllis did as she always did, told the audience that she wanted to be part of the band and picked up her kazoo.
I’m in stitches, almost convulsions. Here it comes. The eruption is about to blow, we’re all going to be dead for sure, but what a way to go…. You guessed it, absolutely nothing happened. Tepotah. Phyllis played her kazoo as she always did with not even a twitch of discomfort across her angelic face.
When she’d finished, she calmly and deliberately put the wig and kazoo away, picked up the microphone and said to the packed house, “When I’m in Mykonos I stay with Jody and Niko. Well, one of my roommates, no doubt the nasty blond one, must have thought it would be funny to pepper up my kazoo.” She cleared her throat. “Would someone please tell him that, yes, it did burn my lips, but there was no way I was going to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. At least not now. Please tell the convulsing gentleman behind the bar that, payback will be hell, and he’d best sleep with one eye open for the rest of his practical joking life!”
That took place more sleepless years back than I care to remember and I’ve matured since then [please take notice of Niko in the background rolling his eyes], so I wish to make a (Tabasco free) peace offering to our still dear friend and performing star. For the first time anywhere Niko and I are revealing our “ultra-secret” recipe for Phyllis’ favorite cocktail, the Montparnasse Piano Bar Chocolate Martini. Ours is clear—not one of those dark and creamy concoctions you find elsewhere—so it passes as a regular martini, but one taste and you’ll never go back to the others.
Montparnasse Piano Bar Tail #1, the Chocolate Martini:
Start with a chilled martini glass and roll the lip in powdered cocoa or chocolate.
Fill a martini pitcher or mixing glass halfway with ice.
Add 3 ounces of Vodka, along with 1 ounce of White Crème de Cacao (both clear spirits).
Stir well and strain into the rimmed martini glass.
Drop in a chocolate covered almond as a final treat at the end, but no fingers allowed, you must drink your way to the bottom.
Thanks, fellas, see you next month. In new shoes.
Jeff — Saturday