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Petaluma Pete sets sights on saving downtown train trestle

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PLANNING TO GO?

What: Petaluma Piano Festival and Competition

When: Saturday, Sept. 15, 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Where: The Block, 20 Grey St.

Admission: $10 online, $12 at the door.

Information: Go to Eventbrite.com, and search Petaluma Piano Festival.

“So, this is one of ’em,” says John Maher, better known as Petaluma Pete, reaching out to pat the weathered stand-up piano currently parked at the river- most edge of the Incavo Wine tasting room’s outdoor patio. “I know it’s not the greatest piano in the world,” he says, plunking out a happy tune on its well-used keys, “but I do like the way it sounds. It’s got a strong personality. Kind of like me.”

Anyone who’s encountered Maher on the street, where he spends his weekends playing tunes for tips around town — dressed in his signature bowler hat and old-time garb, bantering and taking requests from passersby — knows that as Petaluma Pete, Maher has personality to spare. And as one of the more outspoken advocates for keeping Petaluma vibrant and interesting, it’s no surprise that he’s been using that personality — and his love of old-time piano music — to raise money for the hoped-for refurbishing of the old, dilapidated Turning Basin train trestle just a few steps away from where he’s standing now.

This weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 15 — designated as Petaluma Pete Day by the City Council — Maher will be emceeing the inaugural Petaluma Piano Festival and Competition, at the Block (20 Grey St.). The show will begin with an array of young players, competing tune-to-tune beginning at 3 p.m., followed by an adult competition, featuring some of the best players in Sonoma County, at 5 p.m.

To call attention to the event, Maher has stationed 12 stand-up pianos at various locations around the downtown area — in storefront windows, outside shops, tucked into corners here and there — each one painted, decorated, and otherwise adorned by a different Petaluma artist. The plan is for the pianos to be auctioned off at the Saturday event.

“Each piano is a work of art,” Maher says. “And as an added bonus, each one makes music, too.”

The instrument currently stationed at Incavo, Maher explains, was painted by artist Pete Maloney, who employed images of Petaluma’s historic past.

“Even if no one loves it as a piano, maybe someone will want to buy it for the beautiful front panel, with all of these old Petaluma icons,” Maher says, pointing them out as he ticks off the names of long-gone local landmarks. “The Music Coop, Carithers, Lombardi’s Bakery, Joe’s A-1 Bakery. It’s pretty cool. The idea was to get twelve of these out around town, to grab people’s attention, and spread the word about the fundraiser, and our goal of someday transforming the turning basin into a place people will flock to with friends and family.”

With that, Maher gives the piano one last affectionate pat, and steps over toward the river, where the unsightly trestle stands just beyond a fenced barrier. Attached to the fence is one of several framed posters for the upcoming fundraiser, with an artist’s rendering of what the Turning Basin might one day look like.

“We have a lot of tourists come to town,” says Maher, “and when they see the condition of the trestle, there’s a moment of shock that we’d allow such a thing to happen. But I think these signs up and down the fence let them know that there are people who care about it, and are trying to do something.”

PLANNING TO GO?

What: Petaluma Piano Festival and Competition

When: Saturday, Sept. 15, 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Where: The Block, 20 Grey St.

Admission: $10 online, $12 at the door.

Information: Go to Eventbrite.com, and search Petaluma Piano Festival.

As he leads the way toward the Old Petaluma Mill — where there is an especially attractive piano painted by Wendy Brayton with henhouse imagery, and adorned with Papier Mache chickens — Maher praises the many local businesses who’ve agreed to sponsor a piano.

“Some of the businesses love their piano so much they plan to buy it and keep it,” he says. “But it’s all about the piano festival, where we hope to raise a lot of money through ticket sales and the auction.”

That said, Maher wouldn’t be Petaluma Pete if he wasn’t also just looking forward to having a good time showcasing the talents of some amazing piano players.

“It doesn’t matter what you are going through or what’s happening around you,” he says. “There’s just something about a good old piano melody that cheers you up, helps make you believe anything is possible. And I do believe it. That’s what this is all about.”