by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
In celebration of the l0th anniversary of their theatre home on Sixth Street in Jacksonville Beach, Players by the Sea has brought back by popular demand one of the most successful and popular productions in their 44-year history, Piano Bar at the Chateau. It will continue at 8 pm on the main stage on October 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, and 24, with a matinee at 2 pm on October 18.
This musical has been such a hit because the man who conceived it, Mr. Gene Nordan, wrote all the songs and also stars in it. The setting is a cozy night club designed by Lee Hamby that represents the famous Le Chateau of Atlantic Beach. With a gorgeous ocean view and such elegance as ceilings draped in silk, Le Chateau was the place for fine dining beginning in the 1960s. The superb Friday night seafood buffet was unmatched anywhere in this city at that time.
Totally destroyed in Hurricane Dora in 1964, it was rebuilt and remained one of the area’s number one destinations for entertainment and dining until it closed in 1982. At that time, the owner and founder, Preban Johansen, was in poor health. His children did not want to continue operating the business, so the property was sold and a condominium was built on the Atlantic Beach Seventh Street location.
Other piano bars in Jacksonville during the period were unable to touch Le Chateau for ambiance, and this was because, as Nordan often sang out, “There is no danger here. No one is a stranger here…” For those of you who went to Le Chateau and don’t have a souvenir of those wonderful times, I understand Le Chateau Swizzle sticks can be found on E bay!
If you have never seen this show, you are going to enjoy a night of music, music and more music including 41 songs, although many are short and just segues to scenes in the show. The first act is just over an hour long and has 25 of those delightfully original Nordan compositions.
You will meet some of the employees, like the singing bartender, Stan the Man (Leonard Cross). An accomplished musician and singer, Cross was certainly one of the crowd favorites with his energy and marvelous vocals.
Jimmy Stepp reprises his role as Chef Mario and is perfect for this role. You would think he just stepped out of the Food Network. He provides a lot of the humor while seeking advice from others on how to cook up relationships with women. Nadine Bridges is the club’s only waitress and a very attractive one at that. I loved her outfit, a black skirt accented by a tie with printed piano keys. Also returning from the original production of this show is Dick Hegan, as Mr. Joe the owner, who along with Gene and Stan the Man, sings the haunting “Table of Life.”
As a veteran of the piano bar scene in the 70s, when I was a lot younger and could stay out until 2 am and get up at 7 to go to work, I can attest to the fact that many of the patrons of these establishments were colorful and unique. On any given night, you could hear some fabulous voices, some very average voices and some that should have been confined to showers at home. But it was a never ending show, at least until last call for drinks.
Piano Bar has its share of unforgettable characters. Take Jezebel (Kimberly Cooper York), who in an eye-popping red dress got everyone’s attention with her song “The Fun Girl.” Every piano bar seemed to have a guy like Bob Noxious, played by the show’s director, Richard Atkinson.You know the type, fancy clothes and always trying to pick up any single girl who comes in. Bob Shellenberger is the funny guy as Dan the Drunk, a daily visitor, who tells old Henny Youngman jokes quite well.
Harry Leeds is terrific as Banker Gasgill, who is here to foreclose on the mortgage, as he informs the patrons in a song called “The Mortgage Song.” Dressed in a snappy zoot suit, he plays the role like one of those old melodrama villains and is soundly booed often.
It was good to see Sally Kinny back, playing Sally who finds true love with Buddy (Bryan Stewart), and announces her engagement in the bar. (Such announcements seemed to have occurred frequently through the years). Ms. Kinny has been a professional singer for over 20 years, and her marvelous voice is always a joy to hear.
The list of patrons goes on, each with a different story but all there at Le Chateau to have fun. Among the other customers you get to know are those played by Lyn Arkinson, Pat Burton, Roger Akey, Elsie Jones, Scott Dennis, Bob Fischer and Gordon Kessler.
Gene Nordan’s songs have lyrics that you can understand and most of them are upbeat so you will find yourself tapping your feet to the delightful rhythms.
To try to list my favorite songs would require a long list, and you really have to hear them to appreciate them. I had two top favorites. The first was “Somebody’s Achin’ Heart” with Gene and Bob Noxious. The other was “Diane,” which should be on the list of songs in the Hall of Fame with women’s names in the titles. (You know the songs I mean, like “Michelle” by The Beatles, “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, and “Sarah” by Bob Dylan, well you get the idea.) “Diane” is a great song with a bit of doo-wop which Nordan no doubt wrote for his wife, Diane, who is also in the show as one of the patrons.
Gene, once again, as he did for over twelve years at Le Chateau, entertained with a memorable evening of music. He was ably assisted with the help of his friends, Leonard Cross (Musical Director), Constance Quilan (Choral Director) and Kimberly Cooper York (Choreographer). Lee Hamby coordinated the costumes which proved to be a fashion show treat.
To warm up to go to this show, I went to the Jacksonville Beach McDonalds to eat. They have a free juke box and I punched up Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” three times and I was ready. Then I saw the real Piano Man, Gene Nordan, a truly gracious and talented artist who really knows his way around a piano and a song. Don’t miss this trip down memory lane. Call 249-0289 for reservations.
Piano Bar at the Chateau
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM