Columbus, Ohio USA
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Bicycle Built for Tunes
Always on the move,
the Piano Peddler provides the soundtrack for city life
by Dennis Fiely
June 2009 Issue
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Eugene Beer grew up playing serious music, but now he just wants to go out there, have fun, and play boogie-woogie.
©Photo/ William Bullock
Musician Eugene Beer doesn’t have to fight for time on one of the highly coveted stages at ComFest this month. Beer always is on stage wherever he goes, lugging his electronic keyboard strapped to the handlebars of his mountain bicycle.
Known as the Piano Peddler, Beer regales crowds at festivals, fundraisers and other community events with his unusual brand of mobile musicianship, tickling his ivories and pounding his pedals, often at the same time.
“Before we met, I’d see him on the bike path and think, ‘Wow, that is so neat.’
I wondered how he stayed balanced and whether he was safe. I was so intrigued,” said Beer’s Clintonville roommate Brandy Zink.
Zink’s reaction has been shared by tens of thousands since Beer introduced his act more than a decade ago. “It is so unique that it stops people in their tracks,” said big-band vocalist Mary Rose Molinaro, who sometimes sings with Beer. “He has his regular following, but the folks who haven’t seen him before are flabbergasted. He gives this city a lot of character.”
Beer launched his one-man traveling virtuoso machine in 1997 when his brother, on a seven-day ride in Iowa, told him about a rider with a stereo system on his bicycle. The rider inspired Beer to mount his two-wheeler with an electronic keyboard and sound system.
He immediately put the contraption to the test, seeking to impress a Venezuelan dance student on whom he had a crush.
It worked, sort of. “I thought if I rode up to her playing salsa music she might agree to give me some dance lessons,” he recalled. “She smiled and we got through about five minutes of dancing together until my battery ran out of power. The music stopped, and I thought, ‘I am going to go home and redesign this better.’ ”
With that, the Piano Peddler was born. He gained area-wide exposure a short time later when a Columbus television station – seeking a story on U2’s setup for its 1997 Memorial Day weekend concert at Ohio Stadium – found Beer on his bike. “That was my first piece of publicity,” Beer said. “I was outside the stadium the day before the concert and, with nothing else going on, Channel 4 did a story on me.”
In the ensuing years, Beer has become a familiar figure at ComFest, the Doo Dah Parade, Race for the Cure, the Columbus Arts Festival, Gallery Hop, North Market, the Columbus Marathon, OSU tailgates and myriad ballgames, fundraisers, parties, nursing homes and children’s events – anyplace where people gather.
His local fame spread regionally with appearances at events in Washington, DC, Boston, Tampa, New York City and Chicago, where he once fled a police officer while playing his own galloping chase music from the William Tell Overture – duh-duh-dum, duh-duh-dum, duh-duh-dum-dum-dum!
The Piano Peddler entertains bibliophiles at a recent OhioAna Book Festival.
Beer, a regular on the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure, is especially welcome on long-distance runs and weeklong rides where he can snake his way through the crowds to provide music that motivates contestants to conquer steep hills and overcome fatigue.
Sometimes, Beer plays simply for fun, passing the hat for donations like any street performer. Other times, he’s booked professionally for a fee.
His portability allows Beer to play the soundtrack for city life. He frequently tailors his selections for specific situations, usually with humorous effect. For example, he drummed up interest in a safe sex promotion on the OSU campus when he materialized unannounced to accompany the sex game Twister with his rendition of The Stripper.
He shows up at baseball diamonds to play Take Me Out to the Ballgame, giving youth games the big-league ambience of having a professional organist on hand. He has appeared impromptu at presidential campaign rallies to greet the arrivals of candidates such as John Kerry, Ralph Nader, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich with Hail to the Chief. “Kucinich reacted with a big smile, came over and shook my hand,” Beer said.
When Kerry arrived in Upper Arlington with a celebrity supporter in tow, Beer surprised singer-songwriter Carole King by tapping out one of her hits, I Feel the Earth Move. King was so impressed that she joined him for a brief duet, pictured on his web site, www.pianopeddler.com.
One of his favorite haunts is the OSU Oval where co-eds frequently are the targets of his serenades. When he found one lovely young lady fingering the strings – unplugged – on her electric guitar, he rode up to her with an offer too good to refuse: “Hey, baby, wanna’ plug into my amp?” The activity that transpired summarized the essence of Beer’s act.
“I plugged her in and we started jammin’,” Beer said. “A drummer joined us and pretty soon a crowd of people started dancing. We had this whole scene going on.
I never know what is going to happen when I show up and that is truly the beauty of what I do. I like it best when something develops out of nothing, when a crowd gathers ‘round to dance, clap and bang sticks together for percussion.”
A retired engineer, Beer, 57, invested “a lot of hours with a soldering iron” to build a sophisticated portable music performance system that equips his bike with a CD player, a keyboard with a music sequencer, a 200-watt amplifier, an advanced battery unit and a lighting system for nighttime riding. With an onboard wireless microphone and horn-loaded full-range speaker, his bike also serves as a public address system.
Beer amputated part of a conventionally sized keyboard and rewired its circuitry to make it fit on his bike.
“His set-up is one of the most ingenious things I’ve ever seen,” said drummer Barbara “Wahru” Cleveland, who sometimes plugs her congas and bongos into Beer’s amp. “People wonder how we are able to make music, because there is no electricity – just a battery pack.”
Fifty pounds of gear triples the weight of his 25-pound bicycle that requires two kickstands to stay upright. Beer’s roommate Zink wouldn’t dare try to ride it. “I’d crash,” she said. “I’m too small to handle a bike that heavy. I don’t know how he rides it. I won’t even touch it.”
Stationed at Buttles and High during a Short North Gallery Hop a few years back, Eugene Beer
and Barbara “Wahru” Cleveland come across as something of an oddity to some folks.
Beer rides one of his other bikes 20 miles a day twice a week and swims nearly a mile every other day to stay in shape for his musical rides. “To play and ride at the same time requires incredible strength in my arms and legs to maintain my balance,” he said.
His Piano Peddler persona weds Beer’s scientific and artistic sides, usually strange bedfellows. “He has this very serious left-brain, right-brain thing going on,” said Molinaro. “He is so charismatic and what he does is brilliant. How many people can balance themselves on a bike while playing the piano?”
Beer grew up in an Upper Arlington household that valued science and the arts. His father Albert was a Battelle physicist and his mother Goldie sang in the Battelle choir. They filled their home with classical music, with their radio station permanently fixed on WOSU-FM, a classical music station. “I was in the fifth or sixth grade before I realized that radios had tuning knobs,” Beer said. “My parents loved classical music and they thought pop music was trash.”
At their parents’ insistence, all three Beer boys took piano lessons. “I always had to practice the first thing when I came home from school,” Eugene said. But he quickly fell in love with the instrument. “I remember crying when my first piano teacher said she was moving away,” he said.
Beer cut his ensemble-playing chops in the Upper Arlington High School Orchestra under the direction of Robert Ginther who made a special effort to find scores with piano parts. Under Ginther’s tutelage, Beer learned to play more rhythmically – the hard way. The director “placed the piano next to his podium and whenever I made a mistake with the rhythm, he whacked me over the head with his baton,’” Beer recalled.
Beer studied music and physics at Oberlin College and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Ohio State University. Although he pursued a successful career as an engineer, retiring after 22 years with Lucent Technologies, he remained involved with music.
He served as accompanist for the highly acclaimed Ohio State University Department of Dance from 1977-1980 and in 1984 worked with choreographer Sheldon Ossosky on a production of West Side Story in Mershon Auditorium. “That was just a beautiful job,” he said, “and one of the highlights of my musical career. Watching 20 beautiful male and female dancers moving to my music was a very powerful experience for me.”
Sometimes, Beer drops the persona of the Piano Peddler to work as an accompanist for local theater groups and occasionally joins other musicians for weddings and other gigs. He often parks his bike to perform with Trio de Pal-O, an ensemble of street musicians who specialize in Latin American music and demonstrate Latin-styled dances such as the cha-cha and merengue.
Politician Howard Dean with the Piano Peddler.
Beer without his bike, however, is like Zuckerman without his violin or Picasso without his brush. Cleveland recalled playing with Beer for a wedding in Victorian Village where the wedding party insisted that Beer wheel inside. “They wanted him on his bike,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland is an accomplished musician who has drummed with Columbus jazz legends such as Gene Walker and Hank Marr. Playing with Beer is something else. She described their tandem as the odd couple. “I am this older black woman wheeling my drums on a dolly and he is this white guy hauling his keyboard on his handlebars,” she said. “People look at us like we’re strange. They walk all around us to check us out. But it’s fun and silly and occasionally I get silly just watching people watch us.”
From his classical upbringing, Beer has expanded his repertoire over the years to include jazz, salsa and pop. But Cleveland relishes the rare moments when Beer returns to his roots. “I love it when he plays classical,” she said. “He grew up playing serious music and he has a feeling for it, but now he just wants to go out there and have fun and play boogie-woogie.”
It’s all part of making his music accessible. He is committed to giving the people what they want. Molinaro fondly recalled an appearance with Beer at a Jewish retirement home when Beer surprised and delighted the audience by arriving with a book of Yiddish songs. She said his showmanship and bicycle gimmick tend to overshadow his talent.
“He is an excellent musician and wonderful accompanist. He adapts to a vocalist like a lot of people can’t. I don’t have to follow him; he follows me. We have a rare chemistry.”
Beer never seriously considered making music a fulltime career because “I knew it would always be a financial struggle,” he said. But given the popularity of the Piano Peddler, “I’m sure now that I could make a living at it if I wanted to.”
His music is part of a progressive, civic-minded lifestyle from a man eager to share his diverse skills with the community. Beer teaches piano lessons, helps operate the Columbus community radio station WCRS-LP (102.1 and 98.3 FM) and maintains the computers at Clintonville Community Market.
Although the Piano Peddler is a sideline, Beer has found something that a lot of musicians spend their lives looking for. “He has a niche that no one else has and that is really important for a musician,” Cleveland said.
Beer described his bike as “the ultimate plaything” that allows him to surprise crowds large and small with a good time.
“I know I’m doing my job,” he said, “when the traffic cops start dancing.”
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