Chick Piano Player by Mariana Williams
The Long Beach Pike was a rundown amusement park. It was gritty and crusty, nothing like Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. You know the kind, no entrance fee. You just walked down a wide midway filled with dangerous carnival rides. The best attraction was balanced on a telephone pole…a plastic box that held a live chicken. If you paid a quarter you could see a chicken peck out tunes on a toy piano with her beak. I say her because most working piano players in L.A. are female chicks. The telephone pole with the cage was just outside a trailer offering a glimpse of “Human Oddities” like the bearded lady, the mermaid girl, and Siamese twins.
The midway was noisy; you could hear the carnival barker call out, “Three balls for a quarter! Knock over the milk bottles!” But I wasn’t tempted…not even to throw ping pong balls in the goldfish bowl…no, my heart belonged to the stage show provided by the piano-playing poultry.
The Plexiglas box was about the size of a boot box. It was vertically attached to the pole, like I said, and it had a tiny velvet curtain on the inside so you couldn’t see in—until you dropped the coin in the slot. Then, the curtain goes up, a light bulb goes on, the chicken walks forward to the front of the clear plastic and pecks out random notes on a toy piano. This goes on for a moment, then chicken feed drops down a shoot, the chicken turns to the side, and she eats as the curtain goes down and the light bulb goes out. My face remained pressed against the window, peeking under the curtain. The show was over. But that didn’t mean she was gone. She was still inside waiting for the next gig! I hung back in the shadows as someone else paid for the next private performance then stood on tiptoe watching the second show from the back.
After riding the Tilt-a-wheel and running through the fun house, I felt a tad of guilt licking the paper cone of my cotton candy. Could I possibly get some corn on the cob backstage to the chicken’s dressing room? How could I abandon the talented chicken that might be hungry? After all, how much feed actually dropped down? I had a couple quarters left, so I went back for another concert, knowing if there weren’t enough people who saw the box wired onto the telephone pole, she would starve. My heart took a dip.
PETA would never allow it these days. Obviously trained to respond to the light bulb for her food, this chick did it faithfully without a squawk. It’s horrifying to think she couldn’t exercise at all. It could be said she was better off than the egg-laying crowd, however, all jammed up beak-to-tail-feather crammed into wire cages. Ah, the age-old dilemma: The life of an artist vs. egg-laying security. The biggest plus, she had her own place.
I wonder how the promoter found the star of the chicken coop, how he spotted the talent, the charisma necessary to keep carnival-goers coming back? Was it the shapely beak, something in her strut? Feathers are always an important element in costuming. The audition must have gone well; she didn’t squawk, just played the tune here at the pike. I left after the light went out and the curtain fell.
About twelve years later, I was playing solo piano at the Hilton. A customer asked me, “What made you want to be a piano player?” I don’t know if it was what made you think you could play piano, or just idle chit-chat, but for some reason the chicken at the pike came to mind.
I said, “I saw a chick playing piano once; when the lights went on, she entertained, and I was amazed.”
I realized then that I was playing for food, too. That my life was a delicate balance, of trying to survive as an artist, and, like the chicken, I was often left in the dark, waiting for my next gig.
And, like the chicken, I never exercised, and tried not to squawk. Best of all, like the chicken, because of the gig, I had my own place.