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The Sandy spoon man

by: Lisa K. ANDERSON

When Michael LaRizza was 22, he walked into a Long Beach bar called The White Hats and noticed a man playing the spoons by the jukebox.

'I don't know what that guy is doing but I gotta do it,' LaRizza said to himself.

On the spot, he asked Ruddy the spoon player for lessons. Rudy turned him down and laughed, saying he didn't teach anyone, but LaRizza wasn't deterred.

'Then I'm gonna come in the bar, I'm gonna sit by you, I'm gonna teach myself and I'm gonna do it better than you,' LaRizza replied.

How he would do that, LaRizza had no idea, but week after week, he followed Rudy to the bar and practiced.

At the time, LaRizza was an auto assembler on Ford Motor Company's trim line and had just bought himself a 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 for $3,700.

First, people at the bar told LaRizza he was almost as good as Rudy. Then they told him he played as good as Rudy. Finally, people told him he was better than Rudy.

He must have overheard this comment because Rudy didn't show up the next day or the day after. In fact, LaRizza never saw him again, and thus inherited the 'Spoon Man' title - both for the bar and at his family's future pizza house.

That was 1959.

Becoming the Sandy Spoon Man

Last July, LaRizza, 75, relocated to Sandy to live with his daughter, son-and-law and granddaughter after closing LaRizza's Pizza House of Long Beach, Calif. that he and his family operated for 52 years.

Almost every day, LaRizza hops in his white minivan with the red 'No. 1 Spoon Player' decal. He heads to the Sandy Fred Meyer, Goodwill, Walgreens or Starbucks parking lots where he plays the spoons in the opened trunk of his van to the beat of music on the radio. He takes requests, but his go-to stations are often oldies and top 40 hits.

Accompanying him these days is his granddaughter, Arin Van Wieringen, 12, a seventh-grade student at Cedar Ridge Middle School who learned to play the spoons at age 9 when her grandpa was visiting.

'I tell people she's better than me,' LaRizza says. 'She'll jump up and down and dance while playing the spoons on her knees.'

Some days LaRizza and Arin will stay out an hour, some days they'll stay out four. Some days a passerby will drop a $10 or $20 in LaRizza's blue plastic tip bin, and sometimes the weather will be too cold and rainy to attract even a small crowd.

Through these appearances, LaRizza gets acquainted with a variety of community members, whether they're afternoon shoppers, students passing through on their way home from school, event coordinators seeking the next great act or musicians interested in jamming.

In the last few months, LaRizza has made his foray at the Sandy Saturday market and plays with the Sandy Senior Center band, The Silvertones, Mondays and Wednesdays during the lunch hour.

'He's quite talented,' says Carol Cohen, recreation manager with the city of Sandy. 'Usually I don't have music (at Saturday Market) but it's nice to have something like that.

"He's very approachable and involved in the community. I'm grateful he sets up the van and starts playing,' she added.

Iris White, the food service manager from the senior center, first saw LaRizza playing at Walgreens and marveled that he could play the spoons.

'He's fabulous,' she says. 'He really adds a lot of rhythm to (The Silvertones) and he also started helping in the kitchen here.'

LaRizza's Pizza

In 1960, Mama Ann and Papa Nick LaRizza opened their pizza house on Seventh and Gardenia in Long Beach, where their son Michael, his four brothers and his two sisters worked.

Through the years, the pizza house staff saw Elvis Presley, Julia Roberts, David Hasslehoff, Bill Crosby and John Foresythe. When LaRizza moved up to Sandy last summer, he brought a framed photo of Mama LaRizza and Elvis with a small plaque posted below.

For years LaRizza played the spoons at local hot spots to attract business for LaRizza's Pizza House.

One time when he played 'Happy Birthday' without thinking too much of it, the birthday group looked over and started cheering for him. He'd often receive requests to deliver pizzas and bring his spoons to play a rendition of 'Happy Birthday' or other songs.

LaRizza's opened when it was one of two pizza joints along Seventh Street for an almost six-mile stretch. But over the course of 50 years, a smattering of franchise pizza places - Pizza Hut, Papa John's and Dominos - popped up, and drove up the competition.

Business became a struggle in the last 15 years and ultimately, LaRizza had to bid adieu to the beloved family business as it was no longer profitable, and no longer enjoyable.

For the love of spoons

After closing the pizza house last year, LaRizza is focused on moving forward in Sandy - on playing spoons, spending time with his family, finding his next job and getting to know the community.

Through the years, he's had a variety of nicknames, from "bird man" for the many times he fed the birds near Rally's Burgers in Long Beach, to "pizza guy" for his many years of managing LaRizza's, to the "Tommy Lasorda look-alike" for his resemblance to the former Major League Baseball manager.

The one that has stuck in the last eight months is "Spoon Man."

'I hope he makes a million,' says Iris White from the senior center. 'He's very much an asset to Sandy.'