Forget the Sopranos, Here's the Pianos!

How two Jews from Jersey grew up in North Miami and found their inner Billy Joel in the bowels of an 88

The Rutsky snack shop saved Rick's behind more than once. He knew all the older kids who came in, especially the guys on motorcycles. "One time I had a little problem with a guy -- his girlfriend said I was foolin' around with her." He shrugs to indicate maybe he was, maybe not. "He came around with a bunch of friends, and before you knew it, all the bikers showed up on my parents' lawn! There were about 30 of them, and they protected me. I was like their little brother."

After high school Bruce went through a number of jobs before he found what he was really good at. He spent a summer working security for the Palm Bay Club, a ritzy private hotel and leisure complex just east of Biscayne Boulevard and 69th Street that attracted the rich and famous in its heyday of the Sixties and Seventies. (The place was known for its eccentric socialite owner Connie Dinkler, and her famous clientele -- former Vice President Spiro Agnew, Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, football great Joe Namath, actor George Hamilton, Prince Alexis Obolensky, and tutti frutti.) One time, Bruce recounts, a guy came in the door and he asked him for his ID. The guy, incredulous, gasped: "You don't know me? I'm your Uncle Miltie!" "Well, I still need your ID," the oblivious young Bruce replied. He says now, "Then I find out the guy was Milton Berle!"

That gig didn't last long. So Bruce started working for Victor Piano on 54th Street and NW Third Avenue, and then moved on to an apprenticeship at Furniture Doctor in North Miami. Meanwhile Rick had become a motorcycle mechanic but later joined his big bro in his parents' driveway, refinishing furniture. Bruce had started what would become B & R Refinishing & Piano Co., and the two took on odd refinishing jobs until they could pay for workshop space. Mostly they got work by word of mouth and, when they had money, through advertising in the local penny saver. It was alfresco restoration.

We swear, that piano just kinda fell off the truck
Steve Satterwhite
We swear, that piano just kinda fell off the truck
Bruce and Rick owe it all to the women in their lives (from top): Repo Mom, the War Colonel, and the Football Player
Bruce and Rick owe it all to the women in their lives (from top): Repo Mom, the War Colonel, and the Football Player

In the early years, some of the jobs were a little strange. There was the time a funeral home called and asked if they would fix up an antique wooden embalming machine they had laying around. Not that they were planning on using the thing to pump blood out of dead bodies -- or put formaldehyde back in. "They just kind of liked it and wanted to preserve it," Rick recalls. "So we stripped and refinished it, good as new." But it was weird, just the same, thinking about all the life fluids that had passed through that machine generations ago, from people nobody even remembered anymore. "We were joking, saying, “Here you work all these years and then your blood just goes down the drain.'" Rick chortles at the futility of man's fate.

"For a while there, we were repairing coffins," he continues. "Funeral homes would bring them in 'cause they had scratched the tops, or they wanted us to fix the trim." But finally they had to get out of the stiff business. It got too eerie looking at coffins late at night in the dim light of the workshop they were finally able to afford because of all the "corpse shells." "One time we did a job with a body still in [the box]," Bruce remembers. The body turned out to be that of the bookkeeper for the old Wintter-Kirby Funeral Home in Hollywood, who had suddenly passed away. Naturally his family got a deal on a nice box, but as he was being wheeled into a viewing room, some numskull banged the coffin on the door frame, taking a chunk out of it. The Rutskys were called in for a quick fix because the bookkeeper's loved ones were coming in later that day. The whole thing made Bruce's skin crawl. "I made them cover the guy up 'cause it gave me the creeps," he says with a theatrical shudder. Rick laughs. "I go out to the truck to get the tools and I turn around and he's right behind me!" He points his chin at his big brother disdainfully. "He says [mimicking a high voice], “I don't want to be alone in there.' I says, “You ain't alone. You got somebody with you!'"

After a few years, when Norman Rutsky saw his boys were serious about the business, he became a sort of manager for them until he succumbed to a heart attack in the late Seventies. The name and address of the Rutskys' workshop has changed over the years, but in its current incarnation, B & R Refinishing and Piano Co. is located in a warehouse strip just north of the county line in Miramar (2300 SW 60th Terr. to be exact). The brothers bought homes a few miles away.

It was here the Pianos were born, equal parts show-biz aspiration and big appetite. Alas, they've had plenty of brushes with greatness, but -- until now -- nothing really stuck. Bruce claims their "destiny" really started when they were kids and their parents took them to New York's Catskill Mountains on a vacation. They stayed in Esther Manor, one of the old hotels on Swan Lake. The boys immediately headed for the basement, where the pinball machines were kept. When they got down there, there was a young guy playing a beat-up piano in a corner and singing "Calendar Girl." The Rutskys swear it was Neil Sedaka (who had a huge hit with the song in 1961, and who did marry the daughter of the manor's owner in 1962, so why not?).

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