Day in the life: Dueling Pianos at the Shout House

A team of six pianists divides six nights a week of shows at the Shout House

Tom Luong receives a birthday serenade from pianist Terry Boullianne and audience members on Saturday night at The Shout House.

James Healy

Tom Luong receives a birthday serenade from pianist Terry Boullianne and audience members on Saturday night at The Shout House.

Jackie Renzetti

Two singing pianists face each other, interacting and cracking jokes with audience members, for the Shout House’s featured entertainment event — dueling pianos.

The 10-year-old Minneapolis establishment features dueling pianos every night except for Mondays. A mix of first-time and returning guests belted “Sweet Caroline” at the Shout House downtown on Saturday night.

Owner Joe Woods started the event after watching a dueling pianos show in South Carolina.

“I was blown away by the way that the musicians can bring the crowd together into a song,” Woods said. “Twenty-somethings and 60-somethings are equally enjoying what’s going on.”

As she waited for a table at the Shout House on Saturday night, first-time patron Marj French said she came with her extended family from Wisconsin so that she could cross it off her bucket list.

Nearby, patron Erin Rybicki sat on barstools next to her parents. She and her family came to celebrate her mom’s birthday, and they come to the Shout House a couple of times a year.

Pianists Nick Milleson, Steve Vaught and Kevin Rotty, three of the Shout House’s six pianists, have performed since the event’s beginning.

“We know each other so well,” Rotty said. “With everything else being so dynamic, it’s good to have [a connection], you know, that allows you to work as a team to make the experience for the audience the best it can be.”

General manager Joshua Moore said Shout House’s customers mostly visit to celebrate special occasions. Pianists often integrate people’s birthdays, wedding anniversaries and proposals into their shows.

For performances, each pianist sets up a tip jar for song requests. When someone adds a note that says they’re celebrating a specific person, the duo often calls that guest up to the stage.

Megan Franklin was among several birthday guests on Saturday night. The pianists told her to take a seat on top of the piano. Before serenading her with a poppy “Happy Birthday,” the performers managed to get the crowd to sing the Oscar Mayer “Bologna” song, which predictably led to a series of sexual innuendos from the pianists.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, but fine,” said Franklin, adding that it was her first time at the Shout House.

Moore said the event’s sometimes bawdy humor — which is a large component of the “dueling piano” genre — is a reason why the venue has a 21-plus age restriction.

 “[The show] certainly is for a certain type of people,” Moore said. “The first time I started hanging around there, I was fascinated by how amused people were by it. People really enjoy it; they like feeling like they can be themselves and sing along.”

Though most guests visit the Shout House occasionally for special events, Moore said he knows of some regulars.

Milleson said he met his future wife — a regular — after noticing her in the early days of his gig.

“There’s been many friendships over the years that have stemmed from people becoming regulars and extending the fun,” Rotty said. “It’s a fun gig because you get friendship, or associate connections, all over the place.”

Pianists said performing “dueling pianos” requires a specific skillset.

“It’s kind of a three-legged stool — you have to be able to sing, play the piano and entertain,” said Chris Winkels, who has played at the Shout House for six years.

Jon Li played at the Shout House while he took classes at the University of Minnesota, though his spot on the lineup was short-lived. He said the gig was his first exposure to performing the “dueling pianos” genre, which he continued to pursue on cruise ships and abroad.

He now runs his own agency titled, “Rock It Man Entertainment,” in which he brings dueling piano entertainment to parties or corporate events.

Li said while performing, it’s important to know the crowd’s makeup. He said dueling pianists learn to balance between catering to special guests and the entire crowd.

“You’re trying to cater to everyone all the time, which is impossible, but then you do the best you can,” he said. “It is really tricky; I think it’s one of the most difficult jobs to do well.”

Milleson said Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the pianists’ most popular request. And even though he performs it multiple times a week, he said, the song doesn’t get old.

“If I were sitting alone in the bar and had to pick a song, I wouldn’t pick ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’’ to play. But honestly, when the crowd’s into it, then I love it,” he said.

 

What: Dueling Pianos at the Shout House

Where: The Shout House, 110 N. Fifth St., Minneapolis

When: Sunday through Thursday 8 p.m. (no piano on Mondays); Friday and Saturday 6 p.m.