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 problem is, the brothers work on a small scale and have a hard time competing with the larger stores and mass marketers. A new Yamaha or other brand name starts at $15,000, the brothers say, although off-brands can be had for less. Prices are a quarter of that for most used pianos that aren't fancy or antique. "We try to keep prices affordable -- $2800 to $4000 is the usual range," Rick says. "'Cause there's that kid out there that wants to take piano lessons."

Bruce is suddenly inspired. "There's enough war out there right now; we'd like to see a little bit more music in the world," he puffs. Rick gasps in mock admiration: "Oh my! That sounds like something out of a movie." Bruce looks pleased. "Eh, am I good? Or should I be like in Deuce Bigalow?" he asks, then puts on his best gigolo voice. "I got the money for this racket from man-whoooring." The idea of pouring his 296-pound frame into a tiny Speedo to romance women for money delights Bruce, but Rick just snorts.

"Did you see the way that fish tank exploded [in the movie]?" Bruce resumes. "I once had a beautiful fish tank, like a picture window on the inside and outside of our house. One night, it's four “o clock in the morning and the wife says, “Somebody broke in the house.' And I say, “Go see who it is.' And she says, “No! You go.'" Bruce dutifully tromped into the hall. "All of a sudden, I hear a boom! and I see water. I think it must be pipes busted in the bathroom, one of them turlotthings -- I call it a “turlot' 'cause I'm from near New Yawk. I turn around and I see fish. It looked like Hurricane Andrew all over again, [coming] through my living room! Everything was destroyed." They never found out what caused the tank to break, but Bruce says it took months to convince the insurance company he hadn't done it himself. He looks forlorn. "So I'm not allowed to have a fish tank no more."

Steve Satterwhite
The piano life ain't all glamour and glitz, for a couple of buttheads
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The piano life ain't all glamour and glitz, for a couple of buttheads

Walking into the workshop, Bruce lightly runs a finger across the natural wood finish of a 1923 Chickering baby grand. It's an updated version of a player piano, using a special CD player instead of a paper music roll. Almost reverently, he slips in a Billy Joel greatest-hits album. The keys of the piano depress themselves in perfect time, as if the Piano Man himself were playing "She's Always a Woman" to Bruce's beatific smile.

Rick pulls out a photo album of old piano jobs they've done. There's a white piano they fixed up for the former Pan American Hotel on Miami Beach; a circa 1852 black one for the Best Western on 41st Street in Miami; a gold piano they sold to a designer who told them he had worked for Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. The DiLido Hotel on Lincoln Road bought a gorgeous baby black from the Rutskys and then gave them its old one, which they fixed up and sold to a cop from Coral Springs. "We restring the pianos, put in new dampers, check the whole thing out," Bruce explains. For the Sagamore Hotel on South Beach, the Rutskys restored the old front desk to its former glory, cleaning out its cubbyholes, repairing broken spots, and refinishing it.

But "we enjoy doing pianos," Rick reveals. "It's like a part of history. You never know where a piano's been. As you open it up, you can see the age. You look at some of the stuff they made in the 1800s and you wonder how they did it without [today's] technology." This sets Bruce off on one of his favorite rants: "Nowadays, everything is mass produced," he says deploringly. "You don't have the craftsmanship of the old days. When Chickering made pianos, they used old-world craftsmen, people that put heart and soul into it. And they lasted a hundred years. Modern pianos are mostly made of pressboard and plastic finishes." He shakes his head in disgust. "In our own world, me and my brother are dinosaurs," Rick adds. "People want everything that's new, high-gloss." "It's not what's on top that counts but what's underneath," Bruce pontificates. "Oh, that sounds kinda dirty," Rick cracks. "That's like letting a refinisher in your [dresser] drawers."

The job they really like to talk about, though, is the time they were called in to fix the finish on the doors of Gianni Versace's former Ocean Drive mansion. "And then we got a tour of the building, which was absolutely beautiful," Bruce breathes. "The guy who owns it now [Peter Loftin] is a millionaire," Rick breaks in. "I heard he bought stocks in AT&T and BellSouth before it split up. He's got an upstairs room that's a dome and you wheel the room around with this crank so you can look at the stars."

"The dining room is all done with stone," Bruce reports. "All the bathrooms are marble, and the faucets are fourteen-karat gold. We were told Versace brought his own people from Italy to do it." Rick shakes his head. "And I coulda bought that property for $50, $100 fifteen years ago," he laughs. "'Cause all that was down there were like bums and winos sittin' on the streets. Everything was decayed. And now it's like a million-dollar spot."

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