He sits down at the piano gently, like it’s a sure place of rest. He wears saddle shoes, polka dotted socks and a tartan vest. His stories skip like sprightly notes, zipping you along with them until you suddenly realize that in the past few minutes, he’s referred to eleven songs and their histories, three classic movies and four Hollywood legends by first name.
Dan has been playing the piano for 68 years. His first band was called “Danny Al’s Combo”, and he fronted it throughout his high school years of 1956-60. He’s played all over the United States and throughout Europe. He’s serenaded the sunset over the ocean on cruise ships. He’s played here at the Pfister for 25 years, spending many evenings opening up what he lovingly calls “America’s Songbook” in the lobby lounge, by memory alone.
He hones in on one story, and it’s such a good one it makes me wonder about all the others he could choose to tell, the collection of luminous moments when one has been passionate about something for almost seven decades.
On a night in 2004, Dan was playing a set at the Pfister when a woman he refers to as “Debbie” (Reynolds, of Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown fame), her pianist, drummer and personal assistant sat down here in the lobby lounge and ordered a pizza. When Dan finished playing at midnight, he joined them on the lobby couches, chatting into the night about Debbie’s granddaughter “Billie” (Lourd, of Star Wars fame), who at the time was reluctantly taking piano lessons but actually far more interested in learning guitar, and how her mother “Carrie” (Fisher, of Princess Leia fame), whose house was on the same property as Debbie’s, was wishing Billie would want to play Debbie’s stunning grand piano instead.
2 am by now, Dan and Debbie’s pianist Joey Singer were “talking shop” and happily taking turns playing bursts of Thelonious Monk tunes. These memorable wee hours led to a friendship, and after that night Joey would send Dan tickets every time Debbie performed in the Milwaukee or Chicago area.
Dan riffs now into stories about Debbie told as an insider, like how she spoke of how hard Gene Kelly was on her during practice and filming for Singin’ in the Rain. Debbie hadn’t been a trained dancer, and the grueling choreography for that film almost did her in. Fred Astaire told Debbie that she had to work through hard things to make them look simple, and Dan has never forgotten that wisdom.
This is a man who approaches the piano with such a tender familiarity that you can sense all they’ve been through together. He wants to play what Pfister audiences want to hear, but says that like a bartender isn’t able to just look at a patron and know what cocktail they’d love, it makes his job much easier when guests ask for what they want to hear. Beyond just cranking out the oft-requested standards though, Dan enlivens them into something more unexpected.
To demonstrate, he asks me to choose any three keys toward the center of the piano and the order I play them in will help him create a song. He takes my fumbling notes and deftly glides them into a bouncy tune. He does this with certainty; these keys, and all the characters in his catalog of stories, are lively old friends.