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Are You Lonesome Tonight?

The Manor
2550 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 690-1771

"You don't know who you're talking to," says the tweedy drunk. "You're too young. You'll never know who you're talking to." I'm sitting at the piano in Glen's Back Room at the Manor interviewing Bob Pine--singer, organ player, musical-theater buff, and one of the last of the piano-bar maestros. But the drunk, a mossy regular who looks like a literature professor, doesn't think me worthy of the task.

"You can't know how many people he's made happy over the years," he says, then squints at my notepad. "Here, you can quote me on this: Bob's not a singer, he's a communicator. I always felt that Bob was singing right to me, and so did everybody else. People love him. I mean love. You can't understand it."

"Why, thank you, thank you very kindly," says Pine in his easy tenor. "I'll tell you what, it's not a bad life. I get all sorts of stroking like that, and I love it. Maybe the saloon business is done, but I'm not done." At that he launches into the song whose chorus might pass for his signature: "When the evening sun goes down, you'll find me hanging 'round/The night life may not be a good life, but it's my life." Bob has been playing in piano bars ever since he graduated from Macalester College with a degree in theater arts some 30 years ago. He's a dapper man with neat gray hair, a quick smile, and a ready supply of More cigarettes. "I have some people that literally met back in the '60s at my piano bar, then I played at their wedding for them," he says, launching into a few bars from "Hopelessly Devoted to You."

"Then they get divorced, and I played at their second wedding. I said, 'Don't you think I might be a jinx?' And they say, 'No, no, Bob, it isn't you.' I'm a lucky man. I've been so involved in people's fun over the years."

He segues effortlessly into the Sinatra classic: "When I was 17, it was a very good year/It was a very good year for small-town girls and soft summer nights..." By the time he gets to the last stanza--"And now I think of my life as vintage wine from the old kegs/From the brim to the dregs, it poured sweet and clear/It was a very good year!"--he's thundering at the ceiling as the crescendoing organ makes those vibrato waves you can feel in your bones.

Years ago the Twin Cities were a hotbed of piano-bar culture. "Minnesotans sing," says Pine. "It's part of the Lutheran culture." Amateur singers could spend the night on the saloon circuit, trying out their best songs in front of crowds and even competing for cash prizes at places like the Tin Cup and Tiffany's. Nowadays--blame it on a TV-fostered spectator culture--the crowds are thinner and less homogeneous. At the Manor, they run the gamut from septuagenarian Sinatra sound-alikes to rhinestone-bedecked Tammy Wynette fans and hipsters on birthday outings.

Really, there's hardly a more engaging birthday site around. You'll dance, eat, dance, sing, and then you might just dance again, spectator culture be damned. You'll dine in the vintage dining room--think classy Vegas supper club circa 1958: brass rails, big chairs, stadium-style booths so everyone can see the dance floor. You'll dance before Donna Dee, a big-band chanteuse who's been playing at the Manor with her husband, Howard Meline, and their four-piece ensemble for 14 years. Dee keeps the Love Boat-like room spinning with charming renditions of big-band classics such as "There's a Small Hotel" and "Moonlight Cocktail."

These are the sort of infectious, lively tunes that have you wolfing your prime rib to get out on the floor with all the absolutely un-self-conscious dancers. If you've been shy about dancing until now, here's the place to shed your inhibitions: Sure, there's the occasional Rita Moreno look-alike setting the floor afire. But some folks are using their canes, too.

By the way, that prime rib, a pillowy, moist cut, is $14.95 and it comes, like all entrées here, with a full banquet of side dishes: a basket of hot popovers, lackluster soup or a lettuce-and-crouton dinner salad, a little ramekin of veggies, and your choice of potato. The deep-fried shrimp dinner runs $13, as do the pork chops with apple sauce and the wildly overbroiled orange roughy fillet. If you're a vegan, the kitchen will put together an "Italian sauce and noodle" dinner for you.

For my money the steaks are the best option: Try the 18-ounce porterhouse for $13.95. By the same token, there's something about the sirloin-and-king-crab-leg combo ($15)--an 8-ounce steak served with a bundle of split crab legs broiled and drippy with butter--that really makes you want to lean back, loosen your belt, and declare that life is good.

There are sandwiches, burgers, and steaks available in the piano bar, too, at prices ranging from $5.50 for a plain burger and fries to $10.95 for a steak, potato, vegetable, and garlic toast combination. I tried a BLT for $6.95 and a club sandwich for $7.95; both were gigantic, fresh, and tasty. The service is very accommodating, if not exactly polished; this is the sort of place where a waitress loaded up under 100 pounds of dishes will arch her eyebrows and ask, "Anything else, honey?" as she runs by--more diner than dining.

That doesn't much matter, though, because every server I had was right there with the drinks--which was, after all, their main function. Sure, you could order a little bowl of ice cream or sherbet ($2.50) after dinner. But would you, when you've got the option of fancy old-fashioned ice cream drinks, such as a cherry-tinged pink squirrel or a minty-green grasshopper?

Beware, though: It's hard to follow that law about not mixing drinks when the bartenders are this good. I didn't taste a badly crafted Manhattan, sidecar, or gimlet once. The temptation to order cocktails you've only read about--like B-52s, bittersweets, and beestingers, to start with the B's--is nearly irresistible. But maybe that's for the best: Extra cocktails might put you in the mood for a few sing-alongs, or merely help you appreciate someone else's rendition of "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

Bob Pine is a master of channeling whatever mood his crowd is in. On a quiet night he'll slide behind the organ and announce, "I'm Big Bob and here we are on the street of broken dreams. We're here every Tuesday to Saturday to help you get through whatever you've got to get through--sort of a musical therapy here." On those melancholy evenings, he'll start with "Set 'Em Up, Joe," "I Ain't Got Nobody," and the like. "You'd be surprised how many lonely, lonely people hang around saloons," says Pine.

On a more typical Saturday, however, he arrives to a room of fans already stacked at the glossy red bar that rings the organ, desperate to demonstrate their progress on "It Had to Be You" or "Sam's Song." "This isn't karaoke," says Pine. "I'm working with people on their phrasing and delivery. I'll change keys to find a key that you're comfortable in; if you don't know a part I'll feed you the lines." In fact, singing with Pine is far easier than karaoke. The organ works like a whole choir of backup singers to fill out any weakness in your voice, and if you're truly shy you can just look at the lyrics in one of the many fakebooks Pine provides. Unlike karaoke, the experience can be just as familial or as stagey as you like.

Unless, of course, it's one of those nights when the crowd feels like dancing: Then Pine will turn on the drum machine, which he calls his "thumper," and pick out half a dozen songs with the same tempo, as couples lindy away on the small dance floor, pausing only when it's their time to sing.

Of course you don't have to dance, sing, or even sit at the piano bar during your sojourn at the Manor. There are a number of more anonymous seats from which to view Bob and the singers at a distance. Sometimes if you're positioned just right in one of those back booths you can catch a glimpse of Bob looking as dreamy and mischievous as the little kid who grew up on Summit Avenue in awe of his gorgeous mom.

"When we were little my mom and dad would come back from dancing on a Sunday morning in a tux and evening gown," he reminisces. "She'd be so happy, she'd literally be singing." He plays a bit of "Springtime in the Rockies" to illustrate. "Dancing was the thing then. We used to literally roll back the rugs, throw corn meal on the floor so you get that nice slidey sound, and I'd sit up there on the big staircase peeking down on them."

Pine says he's probably memorized 20,000 songs, pop hits from the last 100 years, and he clearly knows enough to illustrate every mood. Thinking of his parents and that big staircase, he pours himself into a jouncy version of "Ain't Misbehaving": "No one to talk with, all by myself/ No one to walk with, but I'm happy on the shelf/Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you...

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The Manor Restaurant

2550 W. 7th St.
St. Paul, MN 55116

651-690-1771


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