Curtain Closes March 18th For SF’s Beloved Venue, PianoFight

Updated: Mar 19, 2023 19:11
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PianoFight, the tenderloin theater that hosted 6,800 performances, sold $198,000 worth of tickets, and served as a refuge for comics, musicians, and a who’s who of local dilettantes is closing March 18th.  Since its grand opening in 2014, PianoFight has seen thousands of memorable nights –and one early morning when someone had to rescue a stowaway guest who got lodged between a locked door and the security fence. A lot went right at this venue, but executive producer Dan Williams’ favorite memory is the night everything went wrong.

Dan Williams at the One Year Dark event held by NIVA (National Independent Venue Association). Courtesy

Picture it: The glittering black bar area is packed with local politicians, friends and family, and locals checking out this fledgling business. But the ticket-taking software is glitching. And the taps are broken. One toilet is gurgling steaming hot water with every flush. Glasses shatter as rookie bartenders fumble the influx of orders. At one point Williams’ uncle hops over the bar and starts making his own margaritas. 

It’s chaos. PianoFight’s founders, Dan Williams, Kevin Fink, Rob Ready, and Duncan Wold are sweating bullets through their thrift store tuxedos. Williams describes this scene as one of the best nights of his life.

“That night just speaks to the vibe,” he chuckles almost a decade later “We built the plane as we were flying it!”

via the PianoFight press release

Financial Director Kevin Fink calls PianoFight “an exercise in saying yes.” They said yes to over 10,000 artists. There was the honky tonk band that played for Wold’s 30th birthday months after the venue opened. There were sketch shows involving therapy, Hitchcock, and one memorable performance with a giant felt phallus swing dancing with a felt vulva. There was even one group that constantly pushed the venue’s limits. “You wouldn’t think you’d need a line in the contract about not peeing in buckets onstage,” Artistic Director Ready laughs “but turns out we did!”

I was there, too. In the basement before the official opening, zip zap zopping with my improv troupe amidst (inexplicably) a giant prop bottom made of exercise balls. My best friend and I hosted myriad stand-up shows in the side theater, some involving costume changes and onstage manicures. Sketches I wrote with the smartest, funniest, most depraved people premiered on the main stage (though I can’t take credit for the one with the vulva).

“We gave countless people the support to get on stage and express themselves…all of them doing something that was weird and creative and vulnerable,” says Ready. “And even if it went fucking terribly you could get offstage and someone, frequently me, would go ‘that sucked, but here’s a beer on the house’.”

I took A LOT of those sympathy beers. Triumphant beers too, like the one I drank after helping my friend propose to her husband(who she met on the main stage years prior). I even drank there the night before lockdown hit. I remember getting happily sauced when suddenly someone screamed “TOM HANKS HAS COVID!” There was a momentary hush…then we all returned to our drinks, this time as if they were our last. 

Memories like that are why Williams is half considering breaking off a chunk of the bar for a memento. For Fink’s part, he has a scrapbook full of polaroids. The first dollar they ever made. A snap of Ready’s dad staining and sanding the floor. Fink even took a picture to commemorate PianoFight’s inaugural vomit. When pressed to name the puker Fink demures “I don’t want to put anyone on blast.” “Oh, it was definitely me!” Williams says proudly. “Our lack of pretension was a big part of the magic,” Wold reminisces.

photo from the PianoFight website

But the magic at Piano Fight is ending.

There’s many reasons why. Many of them outlined in this press release but the TLDR is: It’s expensive to run a theater space in the Tenderloin, and to pay people a living wage to work there, and on top of all that people are venturing out less and less. The pandemic hit an already struggling neighborhood hard, and the troubles didn’t stop post-lockdown. “We kept hearing it would be like the roaring 20s…but the muscle memory for socializing was not there.” Wold says. Essentially, the only businesses that can stay alive are huge entities that can withstand a few lean years while the culture resets. Ready in particular feels the sting. “What the haves Have done to the Have-Nots in this country over the last 60 years really sucks.” Over Zoom I can see him sitting at PianoFight’s empty bar, laughing ruefully into a beer “if we’d done this same thing in the 70’s we’d all have houses and a normal life.”

What he says next makes me want to slam a beer (or 7) of my own. “In the Muppet Movie when the theater owes rent everyone gets together and they have a big show and it pays off all the debt!” The little kid in Ready believed in that idea well into adulthood, and now “the little kid in me definitely feels like he’s getting his ass kicked.” 

I’d argue that PianoFight is built on many Muppet Movie Moments. The first came in 2014 when the founders raised $130,000 on Kickstarter to break ground. They built it, and we came. Their second Muppet Movie Moment came in the middle of the pandemic when they raised $100,000 to keep their people employed through the year. And millions of times in between, the lovers, the dreamers (and often me) would gather to make small miracles of our own. 

There’s just some problems you can’t fix with a big show, or 5. It’s not easy needing green.

Back in 2014, I was 22 and working my dream job as a writer for a local blog. I interviewed Ready, Fink, and Williams prior to PianoFight’s opening. Ready described the theater as a spot to drink beer “before we all become adults.” I ask them now if they’ve grown up. Fink, Williams, and Wold all respond with a confident “yes!” Ready is strident “No! And I never will!” Still, he’s done very adult things since. He’s cofounder of Code Tenderloin, and works with the PianoFight’s other founders and staff to uplift the surrounding neighborhood daily. “I realized all it takes is giving a shit and finding like-minded people and then pointing our sharp sticks in the same direction.” Somewhere along the way, the young dudes who just wanted their own theater to drink in became a men who advocate for their community.

I’ve changed too. My best friend from those PianoFight shows hasn’t spoken to me in over a year. Rent prices, bad boyfriends, and new dreams led me out of SF and into LA (I know, I’m sorry!). Today I sit here, jobless, heartbroken, and aching for the warm embrace of my people and my bar. 

via Rob Ready and the PianoFight website.

For the founders of PianoFight, one dream job is ending and everyone is nervous about finding anything as fulfilling. Williams and Wold find a piece of that in their children, admitting that the hours they spent messing around in the theater makes them more playful dads. The Californicorns, Wold and Ready’s house band is headlining The Independent on August 5th. Ready says between now and then he’s debating becoming either a long haul trucker or a grocery store cashier actively trying to beat his personal record of 65 jokes per transaction. “I started this with my lifelong friends, and I have more lifelong friends on the other side of it,” Fink says, ignoring the tears on my half of the Zoom “to me, that’s the real mark of success.” 

“As much of an intensely frustrating bummer it is to lose this place, the compulsion to create will never go away,” says Williams. He continues, “I’m 100% certain that there’s going to be some stupid mess of kids in another year or two who say ‘where the fuck is all the theater? Let’s make some!’”

When these new folks come, I’m begging you to go see them. Give them money, give them your attention, give them a fighting chance. Because the things you love about your favorite city don’t come from giant skyscrapers, they come from weird corners, small streets, and local Muppets leaving it all on the stage. Your city needs you, and you need it more than you realize. Ready describes going to shows as “a piece of activism for your soul that has nothing to do with an impulse buy at a cash register or Amazon. It’s just normal ass shit, it’s people gathering around a piano and singing fucking songs like they did 300 years ago.” 

I’m grateful for everyone who made PianoFight what it is and I’m confident we’ll find new dreams and a new piano to sing around soon.

note: all images are from the PianoFight website unless otherwise noted

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1 Comment

  1. March 17, 2023 at 5:37 pm — Reply

    Molly fuckin’ Sanchez! (as reads the greatest Insta handle ever) As someone who watched and/or reviewed your magic on the PF stages (KML, the Game of Thrones screening, many more), it’s simultaneously heart-breaking and comforting to see you give it this send-off. 👍🏿

    PF was truly the place 🎵”where everybody knows your name”🎶 ( )

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