Petaluma Pete’s project: public pianos for Petaluma

You’re walking the streets of downtown Petaluma and you hear music. Piano music. There’s a kid banging out “The Maple Leaf Rag” on a street piano. Several blocks away, two laughing older women pick out “Heart and Soul” on another street piano. A serious young man plays a Chopin nocturne on a third street piano. The more you walk, the more pianos you see, some waiting to be played, others with musicians doing what they do best.

This is the dream of Petaluma Pete, officially known as John Maher.

A lifelong musician, Maher, 67, is retired from a career in the music marketing fields. For the past decade, Petaluma Pete, dapper in gloves, vest and derby, has been a downtown highlight, frequently seen - and heard - playing his wheeled piano, honky-tonking it up at events or busking on street corners.

The concept of street pianos isn’t unique to Petaluma. Ivories have been tickled in Pasadena, Boston and Minneapolis. Corvallis, Oregon hosted a street piano event in 2014.

Visitors to will learn about the “Play Me, I’m Yours” concept by British artist Luke Jerram. More than 1,500 pianos have been installed in 50 cities from Singapore to Stockholm to Santiago, Chile. Street pianos even have their own Wikipedia listing.

Maher’s taken it a step further, asking local artists to paint the pianos, which he gets for free - often on Craigslist - now that “digital electronics have taken over.” He wants the designs to be Petaluma-centric, whatever that means to the creator.

“Petaluma’s such a supportive community,” said one of the artists, native Petaluman Evelyn Dolowitz Nitzberg, “and there’s so much art and music.”

When she heard about the project, she contacted Maher and asked if she could contribute by painting one of the pianos.

It sat in her garage about a week before she had an idea. The body of the instrument is painted mostly with a weathered brick motif in homage to early buildings like The Mill and the Burdell Building. She’s still working on the front panel, “defining the river a little more, and the feed mill.”

Maher’s using the pianos for a specific purpose.

“Downtown needs to take advantage of the Turning Basin,” he said. Few businesses face it, but he wants it turned into an asset. “I have this vision … raise money to build a promenade around the Turning Basin … something to help bring the community together.” He sees it as a 10-year project.

Last year he experimented placing pianos downtown.

“No matter where I went in town,” he said, “I heard pianos playing: some cute little kid, music student, a homeless guy using minor chords in an interesting way, seniors with families. I’d walk by, capture it on video and put it on my Facebook page. “That’s when I thought, next year let’s see if I can turn it into something that benefits downtown.”

The pianos - he hopes as many as 19, depending on merchant participation - will be indoors and out.

One proprietor, Maher said, requested one so she, along with her customers, could play. Although some pianos are damaged by vandals, mostly they’re left alone. Maher combines walking his dogs with daily piano patrol. He emphasized he wants this project to be fun for everyone. If a local businessperson is bothered by having a piano nearby, he’ll move it immediately.

The local Chamber of Commerce is behind the project, along with many business owners, Maher said. The pianos will begin appearing April 1. Each will have a sign, explaining what it’s doing there and who its sponsor is.

This year’s sponsorship fee is $500, but he hopes to increase that each year.

“Next year,” he said, “I’m hoping we can start generating money. If you can do 20 pianos and each one brings $2,500, that ain’t hay. And after that, more and more until we start getting money together, people take it seriously and say, ‘What can we do to make this happen?’”

This year’s program ends Sept. 15, with an inaugural honky-tonk piano competition in the DeCarli Trolley Barn on Copeland Street. The date was chosen, Maher said, because last year Mayor David Glass proclaimed it Petaluma Pete Day.

In addition to raising money to make the Turning Basin more pedestrian- and boat-friendly, the piano project “keeps arts and live music alive. It’s joy happening right there on the concrete,” Maher said.

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