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North Bay Spirit Award winner boosts Petaluma with painted pianos and old-timey music

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Every small town has its characters, those individuals everyone knows on sight and by name. For years in Petaluma it was Bill Soberanes, the self-described “peopleologist” who constantly dreamed up gimmicks to draw attention to his town, from the World Wristwrestling Championships and the Houdini Seances to the annual Ugly Dog Contest.

John Maher didn’t have that kind of gig in mind when he landed in Petaluma years ago. But the first time he was compelled to roll an old piano onto downtown streets and start pounding the ivories, a new town character was born.

He dubbed his street persona Petaluma Pete and alternately wore a bowler or straw boater hat and sometimes a garter on the arm of his white shirt, looking like he’d slipped through a time warp from a smokey saloon in the old west. He’s a busker with a very big instrument who plays not for tips but to enliven the street scene in downtown Petaluma. His honky-tonk has become the new soundtrack for the old river town. On weekend evenings in summer you’re apt to see him on a corner along Petaluma Boulevard turning out old-timey tunes and crowd-pleasers.

He’s a showman and Petaluma’s ultimate fan boy, using his extensive experience in marketing for the musical instrument business to boost the town and bring people together in service to multiple causes. Santa Rosa has its Charlie Brown characters sprinkled throughout the city, but Petaluma has pianos, and lots of them, set up like little treasures around town for people to discover and play what they please, from “Chopsticks” or “Fur Elise” to “The Sting.” Maher’s decorated downtown pianos are now a familiar symbol of the city.

For his relentless free marketing of Petaluma, Maher, aka Petaluma Pete, was selected to receive the North Bay Spirit Award. A project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award honors volunteers who go all in for their communities in ways that are creative and innovative and demonstrate personal initiative and a special passion for their chosen cause.

David Isaza, who nominated Maher for the award, said Maher has been “a beacon for youth” to learn about music. Among other things, Maher organizes the Petaluma Honky-Tonk Competiton that draws experienced keyboardists and ambitious kids in an annual play-off at Brewsters Beer Garden.

Isaza, like others, was impressed that the piano impresario still made himself available a few years ago when his wife Brenda, often by his side helping him out, waged a battle with cancer.

“He has cared about our town. ... He is amazing and deserves it,” Isaza wrote.

Petaluma pride

Maher’s big mission is protecting, promoting and improving Petaluma’s downtown, with its original Victorian architecture and riverfront ripe for continued restoration. His painted street pianos and music have become a device to do that, while raising spirits and pride in the city.

The 70-year-old music man, who gets five stars on Yelp, was a key booster behind recent efforts to dredge the Petaluma River to remove 17 years of silt and debris build-up that had made the tidal waterway less appealing for recreation and tourism. The Army Corps of Engineers completed the long-awaited $9.8 project last October.

But Maher’s work is not done. He is now driving enthusiasm and support for restoring the crumbling old Water Street train trestle that flanks the riverfront along the downtown turning basin. Some might see it as a pile of rotting boards. But to Maher, just like the old pianos he rescues one step short of the landfill and repurposes for public entertainment, it has potential. He wants to raise funds to eventually restore and transform the timber bridge into a riverfront promenade, a place to stroll and hold events that highlight the attractions of the waterway that made Petaluma not just the “Chicken Capital” but “the river town.”

“This would make a great front porch for the entire downtown,” he declared on a recent Saturday afternoon, pointing out the remains just steps from the Balshaw pedestrian bridge that crosses over to the Golden Eagle Shopping Center.

He is teaming up with Chris Stevick of Petaluma’s Living History Railway Museum, who cares as passionately as he does about restoring the 500-foot trestle that hasn’t supported a rail car in more than 30 years. Stevick figures a restoration could add 12,000 to 20,000 square feet of public space to the historic riverfront.

By Stevick’s calculations, it would cost less to restore the nearly century-old trestle than to remove it, with pilings that go down to bedrock.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

True to his impresario nature, Maher has ideas to get the word out and drum up dollars. His latest venture is the “Pianos of Petaluma,” an exhibition at the Petaluma Arts Center of nearly 30 painted street pianos he has collected for free from Craigslist and over time commissioned artists to decorate. The pianos are playful and playable, and all are for sale and on exhibit through May 15. All the proceeds go toward his dream of a riverfront promenade.

“My job I’ve taken on is to keep people aware,” he said of his relentless pitching for Petaluma. “Too many times I’ve been told over the years, people forget about it. And they won’t forget about it as long as I’m here.”

Hometown horror

To understand Maher’s level of passion, you have to understand the Rust Belt town he came from.

Maher hails from East St. Louis, Illinois, a once-thriving industrial city across the Mississippi from St. Louis, home of Missiouri’s famed Gateway Arch. His father worked for the railroad. But the eventual loss of railroad and factory jobs propelled the city into a freefall. Now it suffers from urban blight.

“In East St. Louis, if you tried to take the initiative and have anything fixed, it’s way too late. It’s generations too late,” he lamented. “There’s nothing left of that town. It’s just a big wasteland. It’s nothing but flattened buildings with trees growing up through it and fields of garbage. And every once in a while you can see church spires.”

To scolds who put down Petaluma, he is quick with a comeback. “What I say when I hear people complaining about Petaluma is, ‘All you gotta do is spend a night in the town I was born in. If you get out alive, come on back, kiss the ground, stop complaining and start volunteering.’”

He was reminded of his hometown when he first arrived in Petaluma from Southern California 13 years ago to meet with a potential client. He had just struck out on his own after years of marketing for musical equipment companies and trade associations, work that had him bouncing around the country from Mississippi to Texas to the East Coast to Southern California. He was ready to set roots.

“When I got to downtown Petaluma I thought, ‘Where the hell am I?’ This is not L.A. This is not Orange County. This is not even California. I fell in love with the town. At the the time, we were in transition and all our belongings were in a warehouse. So I just said to my wife Brenda, ‘I want to live here.’”

The couple bought a house on the west side and Maher began making street music on a whim.

“I thought this town is so cool and so quaint that my style of music would really fit well. So I went and got a piano and put PETALUMA on it, thinking maybe they’ll leave me alone. And the name Petaluma Pete just seemed to make sense.”

Before long, Petaluma’s mystery piano man was recruited by then-Mayor Pam Torliatt as a guest for her public access TV show. Then the Downtown Association approached him to make a promotional video called “The Pianos of Petaluma” about the old keyboards that had found their way into shops and businesses.

Petaluma Pete quickly became a fixture.

With his marketing skills, he makes videos for nonprofits including the Committee on the Shelterless and Petaluma People Services Center and for his pet project, the promenade. He’s always working angles, figuring out how to connect groups and get the most promotion for the most people from each effort. For his current piano exhibit, artists who contributed by painting the pianos are also invited to display for sale some of their regular work.

“He’s always thinking of how we can do things better,” said Elice Hempel, executive director for Petaluma People Services Center, which serves low-income families, seniors and others. “As somebody who has the community in his heart and soul, he’s always looking at how nonprofits can collaborate. We often get in our silos.”

In December, to help the Salvation Army, which could not send out its bell ringers to man donation kettles due to COVID-19, Maher cooked up the “Give $5 Get $5” food drive. Teaming up with his last remaining professional client, Petaluma’s Grocery Outlet, he launched a donation drive that rewarded shoppers who gave $5 with a $5 credit the next time they shopped. Proceeds went to Petaluma People Services Center, which runs the local Meals on Wheels for homebound seniors, and The Salvation Army. He and store manager Benny Tiapon are a team, with Tiapon one of the co-sponsors of the Pianos of Petaluma exhibit.

Self-taught

Maher is a musician and took lessons as a kid, but most of what he knows he learned by ear and by instinct. He doesn’t read music. But he has style and showmanship and a love for the hard, brassy honky-tonk that originated in dive bars and night clubs and evolved in part as an adaptation to the neglected pianos musicians had to play. That fits with Petaluma Pete, whose pianos are all over the hill, displaced by more portable digital keyboards. Maher knows his pianos well, can discern between the good and bad models and appreciates the differences in sound from each instrument. He pours love back into them.

And his promotions are, simply, what he does and what he’s always done.

“All my life I did what I’m doing now,” said Maher, who is mostly retired. “So I already know what to do. It’s not that I’m better or worse than anybody else. It’s just gotten to be a habit.”

Grateful Petalumans would beg to differ.

Hempel said when she thinks of Maher, she imagines him huffing and puffing down the street, pushing his piano to the next public event. He embodies, she said, “hometown goodness.

“It always makes me happy when I see videos from people who are visiting Petaluma and they’re dancing in the street because Petaluma Pete is playing music,” she said. “There is just something about the kookiness of it all that really resonates with people. God love him. He took that idea of the painted pianos and turned it into something that will live on in Petaluma.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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