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

By this time his piano has stopped playing, so Bruce walks back to restart Billy Joel. Rick leans over in his chair conspiratorially. "That's Bruce," he whispers. "If it's not that, he'll be putting the Christmas music on -- all year." Then Rick reaches into the dark interior of the desk and pulls out two flat pieces of cardboard. Sandwiched between them are fragile scraps of an old newspaper. "Billy the Kid in Custody: Locked up on a charge of defrauding boarding house," screams a headline from a November 18, 1882, edition of the Philadelphia Record. "We found it behind a mirror on an antique brass table a lady customer brought in," Rick says. "It was just cushioning the back of the mirror. I thought Billy the Kid was mostly out in Arizona, but here he is causing trouble in Philly. I got another newspaper sittin' up there somewhere from the World Series, 1950-something. I'd like to preserve it."

This leads to a discussion of all the strange things found in pianos over the years by the brothers, and by Joe, a third-generation piano technician who works for them. "We find Indian-head pennies," Rick says. "You ever find any, Joe?"

Joe nods. "Yeah, I've got old nickels too," he affirms. "Little kids drop them in between the keys, like a little bank. Years later you find the stuff." Joe adds that he found a diamond bracelet in a piano once.

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

"What about the guy whose teeth we found in a piano?" chimes in Bruce. "And he says, “You know, I've been looking for those teeth for twenty years!" "All right," Rick demands. "Go back in there and put on different music." "You want me to put on some Christmas music?" Bruce asks. Rick shakes his head. "Did I tell you?"

Sensing his brother just made him the butt of a joke, Bruce decides to get the audience laughing with him. He takes a dusty, derbyish hat off a peg and sets it on his head. "He looks like Fidel Castro in that," Rick quips. "Shhh," Bruce warns, glancing about the cramped office, as if anticipating some old Cuban-American bombers hiding in the workshop behind him. Rick ignores him. "And if he shaves his beard, he looks like -- who's that guy from that Archie Bunker TV show?" "Rob Reiner," notes Bruce, with not a little touch of pride. "People sometimes ask me for my autograph." "I don't ask for his autograph," Rick snickers, "but sometimes I call him Meathead."

The door to the office bangs open and in strolls Rick's son Michael, whom the brothers only half-jokingly refer to as "the boss." "Mike is the heart of the Pianos right now," Rick announces proudly. "He can't talk to you in person, but when he's on the phone he's a different person. He can talk you out of your shirt." Bruce interjects, "He comes in in the morning around ten o'clock and says, “Well, the boss is here. You guys better get to work.'"

Michael, a strapping six-footer with Rick's round face but a full head of hair, knows better than to respond to the almost-constant ribbing by his father and uncle. He merely nods noncommittally and walks back into the workshop. "He's got more gold than us, by the way," Rick confesses. "Yeah, he's got a Mr. T starter kit," Bruce adds. So of course nothing will do but for young Mike to come out and show off his collection of gold necklaces, including a gold coin set as a medallion on a chain and several other loops with Jewish religious symbols.

Michael's latest scheme is to try to get celebrities to sign pianos, which the Rutskys would then sell and donate part of the proceeds to charity. One of the hot prospects is Burt Bacharach. "Who'd you speak to?" Rick asks his son, regarding a phone call Mikey made recently to Bacharach's house.

"His maid," a voice sounds from the workshop.

"He got as far as the maid," Rick exults.

"Yeah, I got Ray Charles's number too," Michael continues, unruffled.

"But you'd have to tell him where to sign," Bruce can't resist saying, then confides wistfully: "We'd love to get Billy Joel, but no luck."

The brothers look at each other. It's a good life, all in all. They've survived wives and kids, the ups and downs of business, and the steady deterioration of their aging bodies. What keeps them going is each other. Bruce had a heart attack a couple of years ago and bypass surgery when he was 47, the same age their father had been when he passed. He started eating oatmeal and salads after that and cajoled Rick into joining him. Doing it together makes it easier. "We're kind of scared, so we're dieting," Rick says. "We don't smoke. We don't drink. We don't even chase women no more."

Doesn't mean they don't look now and then. Recently Rick started feeling some soreness in his right breast. So he went to the doctor, who told him to get a mammogram. "Men can get breast cancer too, you know," Rick sniffs. "Anyway, so here I am in the waiting room with all these women, and they don't like me being there."

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