Forget the Sopranos; Here's the Pianos!
By 8 a.m., Bruce and Rick Rutsky are at their table in Rose's section at the Denny's on U.S. 441 just south of Hollywood Boulevard, clamoring for their bowls of oatmeal and bananas. The two huge, grizzled, and grimy men look like tractor-trailer drivers who just rolled off the turnpike, briefly injecting color into the usual bland crowd. But the Rutskys are regulars. Every day, for years, they've shown up and tucked into their gruel with meaty paws, trading barbs, offering bits from their lives to whoever flops down at the next table.
"I plan to take over the piano business in South Florida," Bruce declares to a nearby group of Denny's stalwarts. "That'll be the Piano King over there," he adds in his heavy New Jersey accent, pointing a fleshy hand at his brother. A glance at the two men is blinding. The amount of gold draped around their necks and wrists would shame Mr. T or Penthouse mag's Bob Guccione. Bruce is wearing two pinkie rings, forced onto scarred and dirt-creased fingers. Is this the South Florida version of The Sopranos? Who knew the world of pianos was so dicey?
"Oh no," the Rutskys holler in tandem. "It ain't like that." This is a story about two brothers who moved from Saddle Brook, New Jersey, to North Miami as teenagers some 30 years ago. They grew up there and on Miami Beach, fixed motorcycles, chased girls, got married to a couple of shrews, started a business together.... Now the two fix and sell pianos and refinish furniture, calling themselves the Pianos.
"Everywhere we go, people ask us if we're twins," Bruce confides. "I say, 'No, that's my sister!'" People can be forgiven for asking. On any given day, the pair can be found wearing nearly identical uniforms of baggy T-shirts, loose gym shorts, and sneakers with old white socks. They wear their ball caps backward to hide the identical half-moons of baldness that contrast with the unruly collar-brushing lengths at the backs of their necks. Besides a similar girth and heft to their bodies, both have thick salt-and-pepper beards. Each is missing a tooth from the front of his mouth -- Bruce from biting down too hard on an ice cube, Rick from a rock-hard popcorn kernel. A diamond stud winks from Rick's ear, whereas Bruce favors a small gold hoop. You get the feeling they picked them out together, though.
Blue-eyed Bruce, age 49, is the elder and taller brother by several inches. At 296 pounds (the oatmeal diet recently helped him drop 40), he also outweighs Rick by 3 or 4 pounds. "He says I look like Danny DeVito," complains the five-foot-six, 45-year-old Rick, brown eyes unblinking behind glasses with faux-tortoise frames. "But he's no Schwarzenegger." Rick is the talker, the wheeler-dealer. Bruce is the man with the piano-fixin' hands. The thing that really makes the Rutskys seem like twins, though, is their unselfconscious habit of finishing each other's thoughts. Rick starts the story of how a post-high school Bruce went into the Navy, got through basic training, and was saved at the last minute from being sent to Vietnam when doctors discovered he'd had a heart murmur as a child. "You were a young man then," Rick reminds his brother. "I was nineteen," Bruce rejoins. Then, in unison, the brothers lift their caps and bow their heads. "We had hair then!" they crow.
The life of the Pianos has been a life of good times (Marvin Gaye's piano, Versace's mansion, Billy the Kid's ghost, to name just a couple of high points). Also troubles (the crazy wife, the exploding fish tank, the cow in the backyard). "We've been through fire; we've been through storms," Bruce says. Rick adds, shrugging nonchalantly, "Yeah, you know, the usual stuff -- deaths, marriages, heart attacks, no money, and lotsa money."
So what's with all the precious metal? "We like gold because in hard times, if they come, you can always sell it," Rick figures.
B & R Refinishing and Piano Co., headquarters of the Rutsky piano empire, is located in a warehouse strip just north of the Miami-Dade/Broward County line on SW 60th Terrace in Miramar. Inside, the business looks about like they do: pleasantly disheveled and full of memories. Rick leads the way into the cramped office. Outdated manifests and many holidays' worth of photos are plastered to the walls. The plastic eyes and tail of a black-cat clock tick rhythmically next to last year's calendar. A stained old roll-top desk is stuffed with paperwork Rick hasn't bothered to file. He settles back mournfully, arms folded like old friends over his belly. "One of these days, I gotta do all the bookkeeping," he grieves. Before she died three years ago, their mother used to take care of it.
The boys are more concerned with growing the business. They want to move to a place where they can have a showroom of finished pianos to entice new customers, although they say a lot of them kind of like poking around the dusty workshop crammed with recuperating keyboards. "We aren't one of these big companies that just sell pianos," Bruce intones. "We care about every piano and the customer." Rick and his son do the stripping, sanding, and gluing. Bruce does the finish work, mixing the colors and applying the lacquer.
The problem is, the brothers work on a small scale and have a hard time competing with the larger stores and mass marketers. A new Yamaha or other brand name starts at $15,000, the brothers say, although off-brands can be had for less. Prices are a quarter of that for most used pianos that aren't fancy or antique. "We try to keep prices affordable -- $2800 to $4000 is the usual range," Rick says. "'Cause there's that kid out there that wants to take piano lessons."
Bruce is suddenly inspired. "There's enough war out there right now; we'd like to see a little bit more music in the world," he puffs. Rick gasps in mock admiration: "Oh my! That sounds like something out of a movie." Bruce looks pleased. "Eh, am I good? Or should I be like in Deuce Bigalow?" he asks, then puts on his best gigolo voice. "I got the money for this racket from man-whoooring." The idea of pouring his weighty frame into a tiny Speedo to romance women for money delights Bruce, but Rick just snorts.
"Did you see the way that fish tank exploded [in the movie]?" Bruce resumes. "I once had a beautiful fish tank, like a picture window on the inside and outside of our house. One night, it's 4 o'clock in the morning, and the wife says, 'Somebody broke in the house.' And I say, 'Go see who it is.' And she says, 'No! You go.'" Bruce dutifully tromped into the hall. "All of a sudden, I hear a boom! and I see water. I think it must be pipes busted in the bathroom, one of them turlet things -- I call it a 'turlet' 'cause I'm from near New York. I turn around, and I see fish. It looked like Hurricane Andrew all over again [coming] through my living room! Everything was destroyed." They never found out what caused the tank to break, but Bruce says it took months to convince the insurance company he hadn't done it himself. He looks forlorn. "So I'm not allowed to have a fish tank no more."
Walking into the workshop, Bruce lightly runs a finger across the natural wood finish of a 1923 Chickering baby grand. It's an updated version of a player piano, using a special CD player instead of a paper music roll. Almost reverently, he slips in a Billy Joel greatest-hits album. The keys of the piano depress themselves in perfect time, as if the Piano Man himself were playing "She's Always a Woman" to Bruce's beatific smile.
Rick pulls out a photo album of old piano jobs they've done. There's a white piano they fixed up for the Pan American Hotel on Miami Beach; a circa 1852 black one for the Best Western on 41st Street in Miami; a gold piano they sold to a designer who told them he had worked for Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. The DiLido Hotel on Lincoln Road bought a gorgeous baby black from the Rutskys and then gave them its old one, which they fixed up and sold to a cop from Coral Springs. "We restring the pianos, put in new dampers, check the whole thing out," Bruce explains.
"We enjoy doing pianos," Rick reveals. "It's like a part of history. You never know where a piano's been. As you open it up, you can see the age. You look at some of the stuff they made in the 1800s and you wonder how they did it without [today's] technology." This sets Bruce off on one of his favorite rants: "Nowadays, everything is mass-produced," he says deploringly. "You don't have the craftsmanship of the old days. When Chickering made pianos, they used old-world craftsmen, people that put heart and soul into it. And they lasted a hundred years. Modern pianos are mostly made of pressboard and plastic finishes." He shakes his head in disgust. "In our own world, me and my brother are dinosaurs," Rick adds. "People want everything that's new, high-gloss." "It's not what's on top that counts but what's underneath," Bruce pontificates. "Oh, that sounds kinda dirty," Rick cracks. "That's like letting a refinisher in your [dresser] drawers."
The job they really like to talk about, though, is the time they were called in to fix the finish on the doors of Gianni Versace's former Ocean Drive mansion. "And then we got a tour of the building, which was absolutely beautiful," Bruce breathes. "The guy who owns it now [Peter Loftin] is a millionaire," Rick breaks in. "I heard he bought stocks in AT&T and BellSouth before it split up. He's got an upstairs room that's a dome, and you wheel the room around with this crank so you can look at the stars."
"The dining room is all done with stone," Bruce reports. "All the bathrooms are marble, and the faucets are fourteen-karat gold. We were told Versace brought his own people from Italy to do it." Rick shakes his head. "And I coulda bought that property for $50, $100 fifteen years ago," he laughs. "'Cause all that was down there were like bums and winos sittin' on the streets. Everything was decayed. And now it's like a million-dollar spot."
The journey that led the Pianos into the conservatories of South Florida's rich and famous was an unlikely one. Norman Rutsky, their father, was a marker and cutter for children's garments until the late 1960s, but those New Jersey winters were hard on his asthma. So when his mother died and left him some money, he packed up the wife and kids and brought them to North Miami. He bought Lee's Snack Shop on West Dixie Highway and 131st Street, just down from the Carvel ice-cream store owned by his cousins. Half the teenagers in North Miami would come around for softies, so the boys got to know everybody.
The Rutsky snack shop saved Rick's behind more than once. He knew all the older kids who came in, especially the guys on motorcycles. "One time, I had a little problem with a guy -- his girlfriend said I was foolin' around with her." He shrugs to indicate maybe he was, maybe not. "He came around with a bunch of friends, and before you knew it, all the bikers showed up on my parents' lawn! There were about 30 of them, and they protected me. I was like their little brother."
After high school, Bruce went through a number of jobs before he found what he was really good at. He spent a summer working security for the Palm Bay Club, a ritzy private hotel and leisure complex just east of Biscayne Boulevard and 69th Street that attracted the rich and famous in its heyday of the 1960s and '70s. (The place was known for its eccentric socialite owner, Connie Dinkler, and her famous clientele -- former Vice President Spiro Agnew, Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis, football great Joe Namath, actor George Hamilton, Prince Alexis Obolensky.) One time, Bruce recounts, a guy came in the door, and he asked him for his ID. The guy, incredulous, gasped: "You don't know me? I'm your Uncle Miltie!" "Well, I still need your ID," the oblivious young Bruce replied. He says now, "Then I find out the guy was Milton Berle!"
That gig didn't last long. So Bruce started working for Victor Piano on 54th Street and NW Third Avenue, then moved on to an apprenticeship at Furniture Doctor in North Miami. Meanwhile, Rick had become a motorcycle mechanic but later joined his big bro in his parents' driveway, refinishing furniture. Bruce had started what would eventually become B & R Refinishing and Piano Co., and the two took on odd refinishing jobs until they could pay for workshop space. Mostly, they got work by word of mouth and, when they had money, through advertising in the local penny saver. It was alfresco restoration.
In the early years, some of the jobs were a little strange. There was the time a funeral home called and asked if they would fix up an antique wooden embalming machine they had laying around. Not that they were planning on using the thing to pump blood out of dead bodies -- or put formaldehyde back in. "They just kind of liked it and wanted to preserve it," Rick recalls. "So we stripped and refinished it, good as new." But it was weird, just the same, thinking about all the life fluids that had passed through that machine generations ago, from people nobody even remembered anymore. "We were joking, saying, 'Here you work all these years and then your blood just goes down the drain.'" Rick chortles at the futility of man's fate.
"For a while there, we were repairing coffins," he continues. "Funeral homes would bring them in 'cause they had scratched the tops, or they wanted us to fix the trim." But finally, they had to get out of the stiffs business. It got too eerie looking at coffins late at night in the dim light of the workshop they were finally able to afford because of all the "corpse shells." "One time, we did a job with a body still in [the box]," Bruce remembers. The body turned out to be that of the bookkeeper for the old Wintter-Kirby Funeral Chapel in Hollywood, who had suddenly passed away. Naturally, his family got a deal on a nice box, but as he was being wheeled into a viewing room, some numbskull banged the coffin on the door frame, taking a chunk out of it. The Rutskys were called in for a quick fix because the bookkeeper's loved ones were coming in later that day. The whole thing made Bruce's skin crawl. "I made them cover the guy up, 'cause it gave me the creeps," he says with a theatrical shudder. Rick laughs. "I go out to the truck to get the tools, and I turn around, and he's right behind me!" He points his chin at his big brother disdainfully. "He says [mimicking a high voice], 'I don't want to be alone in there.' I says, 'You ain't alone. You got somebody with you!'"
After a few years, when Norman Rutsky saw his boys were serious about the business, he became a sort of manager for them until he succumbed to a heart attack in the late 1970s. The name and address of the Rutskys' workshop has changed over the years, before settling into its current Miramar digs. The brothers bought homes in the Lake Forest subdivision a few miles away.
It was here the Pianos were born, equal parts show-biz aspiration and big appetite. Alas, they've had plenty of brushes with greatness, but nothing really stuck. Bruce claims their "destiny" really started when they were kids and their parents took them to New York's Catskill mountains on a vacation. They stayed in Esther Manor, one of the old hotels on Swan Lake. The boys immediately headed for the basement, where the pinball machines were kept. When they got down there, a young guy was playing a beat-up piano in a corner and singing "Calendar Girl." The Rutskys swear it was Neil Sedaka. (He had a huge hit with the song in 1961, and he did marry the daughter of the manor's owner in 1962, so why not?)
Later the show-biz world came calling again. In 1983, the brothers got a desperate request from Sunrise Musical Theatre to help them out with a pain-in-the-ass musician who had specific requirements for his instrument of choice. It was Marvin Gaye. "He was particular," Rick asserts. "He'd only play on a white baby-grand piano. Me and Bruce made a joke because the first night he came in, he passed out from exhaustion. So we say, because we made that piano so white and bright, he passed out. Unless it was the lacquer fumes!" (That or the bright, white cocaine Gaye was also playing with at the time, which led to his death.)
One of the worst days in the Rutsky brothers' lives was the day they lost their dad. The man was an inspiration to them and only 47 years old when he passed. At first, they worried about their mother, Elaine. But Elaine was a feisty old girl, they found out. She got a job repossessing cars for Barnett Bank and later did debt collections for Burdines, a funny career for a petite, five-foot-tall woman in her 40s to take up (but then, she had birthed the Pianos). One case they remember vividly was when she was trying for weeks to repossess a Mercedes from a black drag queen on Miami Beach. "It drove her crazy, 'cause they never knew where he was and if they were looking for a man or woman that day," Rick laughs, but "finally she got him."
"I'm not a happy fella these days, though," Rick laments, changing the subject to another woman who causes him heartache. "My wife's off the deep end." He explains that her mother was, in his opinion, a little unbalanced for years. "She finally started becoming sane in her 50s," he kvetches. "Then she went in the hospital [for complications from diabetes] and they did one of those shunts on her arm? She got an infection and wound up with a 108-degree fever and died." He shakes his head. It just figures. Rick doesn't say it outright, but through a series of shrugs and raised eyebrows, you get the idea he thinks mother and daughter share an unyielding temperament. "He can't even watch TV, like if there's a bathing suit edition on," Bruce reveals. "And being her age, she's 42, you'd think she'd be more mature than that!" Rick grouses.
"She's a war colonel!" Bruce pronounces, drawing out the words, like waahh kerrnal. "He always calls her 'The War Colonel,'" Rick admits. "And I call his wife 'The Football Player' because she has these tremendous shoulders." Bruce elaborates. "She works at Bagel Time and runs through that restaurant just like a football player," he says with a mixture of pride and awe.
Bruce calls his brother's wife the War Colonel because she's always fighting with Rick. "In fact, we're fighting this weekend," Rick reveals. "I made a silly comment. We went in this restaurant." Bruce shoots him a warning look. "I'm not gonna say what restaurant," Rick assures him. "OK, so the woman [who owns the place] had her breasts enlarged, but ridiculously. She's this thin [he makes a circle with thumb and forefinger], and she's got these big bumpers on the front." Rick pauses, because everyone knows what's coming next. "And I said to my wife: 'I don't know what's wrong with that girl. I can understand having them increased a little bit, but to have them made that big?'" Rick switches to a high and screechy woman's voice: "Oh, here you are! You're looking at that girl! You're screwing around! Aaahhh!" He sounds like a turkey vulture setting down on a dead rat.
Rick continues. "So just a stupid comment like that and it's like I'm Richard Gere in American Gigolo or whatever. Like I'm everybody's dream. She doesn't understand...." Bruce finishes his brother's thought. "You're just a little fat Jewish guy," he offers helpfully. "And the only person that wants you is some guy who left your number in the bathroom." "Yeah, his name is Bubba, I know," Rick says, like he's delivering the punch line to an old and tired joke. "You're such a nice guy." He rolls his eyes heavenward.
"[But] she drives me nuts," he says sorrowfully. "Sometimes you just want to pack it in. But then, you been with somebody so long...." He trails off with a shrug. He's not going anywhere.
Still, 25 years of marriage has been good for something, producing Rick's four kids -- three daughters and a son. The three youngest still live at home. Rick can only dream of one day reclaiming the den and the fridge. His eldest girl lives down the street with her three-year-old daughter. "She's doing OK now," Rick says. "She lost her job working at lowestfare.com, a bargain airline-ticket company, after September 11. Came in one day, and they were practically cleaning the office out." She found another job working at a health insurer's office. But Rick wishes she'd get something on an airline, remembering the cheap vacations he used to get when she worked for Delta. "I used to travel all over for nothing," he sighs. "I'd like to go to Vegas again -- without the War Colonel!" He barks out a laugh.
This is a daughter -- Sheri -- who was going be the big Hollywood producer some day. In her teens and early 20s, she hung around with musicians and actors, such as Donnie Wahlberg, from the late-1980s boy-band New Kids on the Block. "Her girlfriend dated his bodyguard," Rick explains, adding, "My youngest daughter met Luke Perry once." One time, while on a trip to California, she also got to meet Steven Spielberg. "If she met Steven Seagal, I'd be impressed," Bruce quips, dismissing his brother's daughters as "professional groupies."
"Then she met some guy, and that screwed [the show-biz thing] up," Rick grumbles. "I wound up being a grandpa, and he ended up living in Miami and marrying some other girl because Sheri and him had a fight. The only thing that's good about it is the grandbaby. My children, hey, I can do with or without them. They could move to California." Bruce interrupts. "In other words, we like the grandbaby better than the kids." Bruce says he has a 17-year-old stepson with his second wife, Tina, plus three dogs and a small gaggle of geese.
Bruce was married to Gay, his first wife, for 17 years. A nice lady, the brothers say. So why the divorce? "Oh boy, here it comes," Rick mutters. Bruce shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "I was 40 years old. It was kind of a midlife crisis," he hedges. "What happened was a psychic told me I was going to meet someone new in Sawgrass Mills [Mall] and we would have a baby. And I did meet someone new." Rick rolls his eyes: "Yeah, so he divorces [Gay] and messes up his life even more." "No I didn't," Bruce complains. Rick keeps his mouth shut this time, but his eyes are rolling again.
Then there's 20-year-old Michael, Rick's youngest, who works with Bruce and Rick at the piano company. He's the one who's taken the brothers to the next level of hawking pianos, buying and selling them over the Internet. He's really good at it. "He's like me," Rick says. "He likes the kill." The only thing the brothers see holding Michael back is that he never earned his high school equivalency diploma, which is required if he's going to take the college business courses they think he needs. "Michael didn't graduate from high school, but he's got a mind like Trump," Bruce brags. "He only cares about making money and his car [a 1999 Cougar]."
The main trouble with Michael, as far as his father and uncle are concerned, is his shyness around women. "He has no interest in girls, which is not my genes," Rick assures. "I said to Michael, 'Michael, I'm getting older. I want a grandson.' He doesn't have no interest." They even offered a bribe. "I said, 'Look, we'll buy you a car; just give him a grandson!'" Bruce pleads.
Part of this longing, naturally, is the desire to see the Rutsky legend carry on, one of the reasons for Bruce's dissatisfaction with his first, childless marriage. But part of it is the brothers' natural goofiness, which only they and little children can fully appreciate. The Rutskys say their wives are sort of jealous of their close relationship. "Bruce lives around the corner from me, and we work together," Rick says. "They feel we are up each other's backsides all the time." "Hey, we just enjoy each other's company," Bruce argues.
Here's an example of why the wives might get a little exasperated: One day years ago, the brothers got the bright idea of going to a farm in Davie and buying a calf. Rick brought it home to his very pregnant wife in the suburbs. "I come home with it, and my wife says, 'I don't want no more dawgs!' I says to her: 'But look!' And here's this cute little calf, touching its tongue to its big ears." "We called her Cow Patty," Bruce adds, remembering what it was like to walk her. "Here I am holding onto this cow on a leash, and it's like I'm a piece of paper floating through the air. She could run." Cow Patty stayed in Rick's back yard for about a year, until her mooing became a nuisance. So they sold her for breeding. "The wives never understood," Rick grouses. He exchanges pained looks with Bruce.
The 1923 Chickering has stopped playing, so Bruce walks back to restart Billy Joel. Rick leans over in his chair conspiratorially. "That's Bruce," he whispers. "If it's not that, he'll be putting the Christmas music on -- all year." Then Rick reaches into the dark interior of the desk and pulls out two flat pieces of cardboard. Sandwiched between them are fragile scraps of an old newspaper. "Billy the Kid in Custody: Locked up on a charge of defrauding boarding house," screams a headline from a November 18, 1882, edition of the Philadelphia Record. "We found it behind a mirror on an antique brass table a lady customer brought in," Rick says. "It was just cushioning the back of the mirror. I thought Billy the Kid was mostly out in Arizona, but here he is causing trouble in Philly. I got another newspaper sittin' up there somewhere from the World Series, 1950-something. I'd like to preserve it."
This leads to a discussion of all the strange things found in pianos over the years by the brothers and by Joe, a third-generation piano technician who works for them. "We find Indian-head pennies," Rick says. "You ever find any, Joe?"
Joe nods. "Yeah, I've got old nickels too," he affirms. "Little kids drop them in between the keys, like a little bank. Years later, you find the stuff." Joe adds that he found a diamond bracelet in a piano once.
"What about the guy whose teeth we found in a piano?" chimes in Bruce. "And he says, 'You know, I've been looking for those teeth for 20 years!" "All right," Rick demands. "Go back in there and put on different music." "You want me to put on some Christmas music?" Bruce asks. Rick shakes his head. "Did I tell you?"
The brothers look at each other. It's a good life, all in all. They've survived wives and kids, the ups and downs of business, and the steady deterioration of their aging bodies. What keeps them going is each other. Bruce had a heart attack a couple of years ago and bypass surgery when he was 47, the same age their father had been when he died. He started eating oatmeal and salads after that and cajoled Rick into joining him. Doing it together makes it easier. "We're kind of scared, so we're dieting," Rick says. "We don't smoke. We don't drink. We don't even chase women no more."
Doesn't mean they don't look now and then. Recently, Rick started feeling some soreness in his right breast. So he went to the doctor, who told him to get a mammogram. "Men can get breast cancer too, you know," Rick sniffs. "Anyway, so here I am in the waiting room with all these women, and they don't like me being there."
"They probably didn't like you havin' bigger tits than them," Bruce suggests.
After Rick was called in to the examining room, "I got this young blonde smearing cream on my chest," he reminisces fondly. "It wasn't bad." "He wants to go again," quips his brother, "but his wife won't let him." Rick found out later that the soreness was probably caused by his heart medicine.
And so, the future for the Pianos looks good. Although they, like most businesses, took a hit after the September 11 attacks, the Rutsky brothers think things will pick up. "We're hoping that Michael will take the Pianos into the next century," Bruce explains. "It'll be handed down to his children and their children."
"Was that a Kodak moment you just had?" Rick inquires.
"Yeah," says Bruce thoughtfully. "I think it was."
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