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Sing along with Bill & Rockin' Mitchy

Friday, May 16, 2003

For decades, patrons of the legendary New Orleans nightclub Pat O'Brien's have been singing along to Dixieland tunes played by two pianists while imbibing the potent cocktail called a Hurricane. Howl at the Moon, a nightclub chain that started in Cincinnati in 1990, has franchised the dueling pianos sing-along concept, building their show around TV theme songs and raunchy jokes. There are now 11 Howl at the Moon locations throughout the United States in addition to shows aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships.

The concept works so well that Elton John and Billy Joel are entertaining 10,000 people a night on their "Face 2 Face" concert tour.

Bill the Hitman and Rockin' Mitchy, who call themselves Blazing Pianos, will perform two shows tonight and Saturday night at Jeremiah's in Cape Girardeau, where the capacity is quite a bit smaller.

Bill and Michelle Whitman met on a cruise ship. He was playing the piano and she was a ship's nurse. They began entertaining people with dueling pianos when they moved to St. Louis in 1997.

Their musical repertoire is from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They tell some jokes, usually much less racy than the Howl at the Moon fare, and banter with each other and the audience. "It's extremely interactive," Bill said in a phone interview from St. Louis.

Rockin' Michelle is the straight woman in the comedy team. "I'm the kooky one," Bill says.

Michelle lacks her husband's quick wit in bantering with the audience, so they work that contrast into the show. "He can come up with a comeback immediately. It takes me a few seconds to get it," she says. "I question what he's talking about. Everybody thinks it's real funny."

A guitarist in college, she didn't start learning to play the piano until six years ago. She had fallen in love with Bill and with the dueling piano show he was then part of. She wanted to be part of the act.

Bill, who was leaving the country for two months, said, "Learn 60 rock 'n' roll songs by the time I get back and we'll talk."

Michelle is a quick study. "I think I scared him," she said.

She also gets to lead all the dances. Dueling pianos has been compared to a frat party for people who aren't necessarily still in college. Audience members can request dedications for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, divorces, anything worth singing about.

Michelle thinks the show is cathartic for the crowd. "Nobody ever told them to throw their head back and scream and go wild."

She has fun, too.

"It's a totally different atmosphere than this nursing job I have," she said.

The duo sit at faux baby grand pianos. Bill's other business, Always Grand, fabricates faux grand piano shells, which cost many thousands of dollars less than the real thing does. "Nobody uses real ones, not even Elton John and Billy Joel," Bill said.

Since drinking is an important ingredient in the dueling pianos formula, they do lots of toasting.

"Lately we've been toasting the French a lot," Bill said drily.

Grandmas are good targets, too. "This goes out to grandma," The Hitman will say, "who at age 92 still doesn't need glasses." (two, three, four).

"She still drinks from the bottle."

Bill the Hitman and Rockin' Michelle often perform at St. Louis hotels and for corporate events. They play at Jeremiah's once a month.

Bill also directs a similar show in Omaha, Neb. Michelle is a part-time nurse.

The duo could become a trio in the future. They recently adopted a baby from Guatemala. They named her Melody.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


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