Petaluma Pete, the Trestle-repair advocate, stages return with piano-packed event
What’s that you hear, wafting through the air as you venture downtown? Could it be piano music? Live piano music? No, you are not imagining it. After a year of sustained sidewalk silence, the white-gloved, bowler-hatted piano-playing busker known as Petaluma Pete is back.
And yes, he’s feeling fine.
“Petaluma Pete has had his second shot, he got a little feverish and his arm is sore, but now that he’s playing for people on the streets again, he couldn’t be better,” John Maher said.
Maher should know. After all, he is Petaluma Pete.
Until this last St. Patrick’s Day — when Maher finally returned to tickling the ivories on his favorite spot at the corner of Western Avenue and Petaluma Boulevard — the last time Petaluma Pete publicly played for passersby was St. Patrick’s Day in 2020.
"Now that Sonoma County has gone from purple to red, it should come as no surprise that our town’s official piano player has returned,“ Maher said on a recent Tuesday morning, balancing his phone while strapping a piano onto a truck for delivery to the Petaluma Arts Center. Describing the last year as a time of ”hibernation“ and ”mothballs,“ Maher admitted he’s more than a little excited to be out of the house and back on the streets, where he plans to resume his pre-COVID-19 schedule of playing from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. “Oh, yeah, I’m a happy camper,” he said.
But it’s not just performing for tips again that has Maher feeling so energized and optimistic.
Beginning on April 1 — “April Fools Day, naturally,” Maher notes — the Petaluma Arts Center will be hosting an exhibition of elaborately painted pianos, the fancy music-box makeovers all commissioned by Maher from an assortment of local artists. The six-week-long show will be cautiously launched with a small, pandemic-conscious gathering, will be open to the public for specific hours with limited capacity, and will (hopefully) include a big party on May 1. The exhibition, which will feature paintings and other works of art alongside the pianos, runs through May 15.
“Everything is ’COVID allowing,’ of course,” says Maher. “Plans could change, but for right now, those are the plans.”
The highlight of the anticipated May 1 event will be all 30 pianos being performed at once, by 30 different pianists of all styles, all led by Petaluma Pete himself.
“It’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be loud,” Maher said, “and it’s all to save the trestle and create the Petaluma River Promenade, which will be a real game-changer for the city.”
The trestle, of course, is the historic, but crumbling, train trestle that Maher and a group of local residents hope to one day see transformed into an attractive promenade. A true grassroots effort, the dreamed-of promenade would be an open-air space where downtown events could take place, and where visitors will be able to relax and enjoy the various attractions of the Petaluma River.
To aid the effort, during the lock-down, Maher created and launched a “Save the Trestle” video series, funded by the nonprofit Petaluma Trolley Museum association. Dubbed “Garage•Grand,” Maher describes the videos as “an online variety show,” shot in his own garage. Viewers never knew what they’d see, as when Petaluma Pete played Beatles tunes on a 140-year-old Steinway upright grand piano, while fellow trestle advocate Chris Stevick recited the facts and figures related to the costs and benefits of renovating the structure.
Another project Maher undertook during the last year was to remove the many painted pianos that, over the last 10 years, have been installed at various locations throughout the downtown area. The pianos have proven to be a popular sight, and many were the times that pedestrians, diners and shoppers would be serenaded by the sounds of some passing pianist, failing to resist the temptation to play a tune.
“But to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID,” Maher explained, "I removed all the instruments from around the city, storing them in a warehouse provided by the Small Craft Center Floathouse.“ At the same time, he was simultaneously delivering unpainted pianos to dozens of local artists who’d agreed to decorate them in anticipation of time when they, too, can be placed around the city for the visual and musical enjoyment of others. Many of those pianos will be on display during the exhibition at the Arts Center. Among the artists who’ve decorated a piano for the project is former Democratic U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, who teamed up with daughter Amy Critchett to decorate one instrument.
“We are committed to employing the joy of making music as the key communication tool to help keep the 'Save the Trestle’ effort alive and well,” said Maher. “So, yes, it feels good to finally get back out there with the people and pick up where we left off exactly one year ago.”