Park your pride outside
Shrinking violets had best steer clear of Wallbangers Dueling Pianos Ñ or have a plan for loosening up
Wallbangers Dueling Pianos is the new name of the spot on Southwest Second Avenue where Boogie Woogies used to sit. But 'Dueling Pianos' is a slight misnomer: More often the two pianists on stage duet with each other and duel with the audience.
For instance, on a recent Friday evening around 9, with the place a third full, the singing of 'Sweet Caroline' was halted. Using a powerful, battery-operated spotlight, a pianist singled out two guys in the audience, who cowered behind their drinks, blinking. The first chap was commended for singing every word ('Sweeeet Ca-roline, na-na-na,' etc.). The other was castigated for thinking he was too cool to join in. The pianists then improvised a song about what a stud the first guy was and how useless in the sack was the second.
Welcome to the jungle.
Ritual humiliation is part of the attraction at Wallbangers, and as the evening wore on, people started actually queuing up for it. A birthday girl named Misty took her place on the piano stool, downed her test-tube cocktail in one gulp ('She swallows!') and grinned along with a song about her supposed flatulence. Two guys who could not dance were dragged up to shuffle on the spot to James Brown's 'I Got You (I Feel Good).'
Kristin the bachelorette sat through a special rendition of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling,' and a 26-year-old birthday boy called Mark spent so long sitting on the piano, legs a-dangling, that he had time to finish his pint.
The place took a bit of warming up. Early on, Dana Aronson, wearing a Harley-Davidson bandanna, his helmet at his feet, sat all by himself.
'I like that people come and share the experience, the singing,' said the 42-year-old Pacific Power computer technician. 'Most other places in town have this facade about not relaxing and partying.'
Compulsory fun has its compelling side, especially after a few drinks. At various times in the evening, upon a given signal, employees climb up on the bar and dance to certain songs, such as 'Time Warp' from the 'Rocky Horror Picture Show.' It's like chicken-dance time at a wedding, and on Fridays and Saturdays you pay $5 for it.
Wallbangers' owners, husband-and-wife team Van and Cristina Walraven, are hands-on, always taking their turn at the keyboards. She's from Caracas, Venezuela, and sometimes plays drums. They bang out tunes such as 'Summer Nights' and keep the banter going with the audience.
The Walravens mastered their trade on the Disney Cruise circuit and until last year played together at the New York-New York Casino on the Las Vegas strip. Both are places of megawatt smiles and fiercely protected copyrights. (The Wallbangers Web site instructs, 'To comply with our licensing agreement, we ask that the name WALLBANGERS be expressed in all capital letters, please.')
Van Walraven loves his job. Having played here regularly at the Red Lion in the 1980s, he chose Portland over Seattle and Honolulu, returning with his wife and baby last year.
Everybody join in
It takes all sorts. A 30-year-old ordnance tech with the U.S. Marine Corps who gave her name as Taylor was out on the tiles with a few ship buddies from San Diego.
'I read about this place in a travel guide,' she said. 'I like that it gets you involved.'
On the other hand, Southeast Portlanders Brooke Anderson, 22, and her sister-in-law Mariza Anderson, 29, had just ducked in for a drink after a wedding at the nearby World Trade Center. They sat at the back, unimpressed. 'I'm tired of the patriotic songs,' Brooke Anderson said. 'They don't need to play them in a bar mixed in with Elton John and the Rolling Stones.'
Van Walraven sees diversity in the crowd. 'We get one guy coming in who's 96, he sings all the songs,' he said.
But how do 25-year-olds know the words to songs such as 'American Pie'? Did they absorb them in Mom's minivan on Lite FM? 'They're part of the public consciousness,' he said.
The right stuff
The Walravens know what they are doing. Songs are played tight and fast. The pianists hold the attention, and the large gray eyes of the TVs behind the bar are blank, turned off. Food is simple Ñ saucily named wieners, wings, burgers, salads. Wait staff tout Jell-O shots and wear flashing blue lights.
'Blister in The Sun' by the Violent Femmes and even Nena's '99 Red Balloons' sounded wonderful, dorm room flashbacks regardless of whether you went to college or not. The house was brought to its feet with the U.S.A.'s real national anthem, Bon Jovi's 'Living on a Prayer.' Crop-haired jocks and unsteady girls punched the sky ecstatically. By the time they did 'Lean On Me,' everyone was.
Wallbangers peaked around midnight. By 1:30 a.m. when they played a Coldplay tune, the magic, like the people, had gone.