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