True story but it sounds like a joke: Two 18-year olds on a senior graduation trip sneak into a dueling piano bar in Vegas …
But there’s no punchline. Just an insane surprise ending.
“I set out with the intention of being the guy who could just play a song or two at a house party,” says George Hasenohrl. “I didn’t set out to make a career of it.”
Hasenohrl had been singing in high school musicals for years and loved the idea of the keyboard bar. “I thought ‘Aw! That looks fun! I need to pick up the piano.’” So he started dabbling. A few years later when a similar club opened up in his town he jumped on stage and played the one song he knew.
“The owner comes flying across the room and says, ‘You start Thursday.’ and I said ‘Really? But I only know five songs!’ He said, ‘Bring your books. Do what you gotta do. You’re on stage next week.’”
Today Hasenohrl owns Keys on Main dueling piano bars in Salt Lake City, Seattle, Tacoma and the new one that recently opened in Costa Mesa.
Once he found his dream job he hung onto that piano tighter than Leo DiCaprio in “Titanic.” Hasenohrl played for five years in a dueling piano bar in Salt Lake City, which was a big success but too small and too busy. “By year two the owners had disappeared. It had become a cash cow.”
That’s when the trouble began. Fights were breaking out and Hasennohrl wanted to stop the downhill slide into a dive. “I wanted to invest in it because this is what I wanted to do for a living,” he said. “I had some ideas.” He also had wealthy grandparents and some seed money.
He was about 25 when he offered to buy out the owners but they turned him down.
“I said, ‘Just so you know, I think it should be bigger and better and I’ll go start another one.’ And they said, ‘Sure. Yeah. Big talk.’”
But that summer he found a lease on Main Street in Salt Lake City and opened up his first Keys on Main in 2008. The concept is still going strong and now with his fourth location in Costa Mesa he’s added business partner Aaron Buckner, a musician he met when he took over the two piano bars in Washington, converting them to Keys on Main.
The two became fast friends and when talk turned to a California location, neither Hasenohrl who lives in Salt Lake City nor Buckner, who’s still in Seattle, wanted to relocate so they decided to split the duties, taking turns flying out here.
It’s too bad they can’t be cloned to play every single show because they’re an ideal duet, loaded with more counterpoint than a Bach partita. Hasenohrl gives off a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll vibe. Buckner has the face of a choir boy. Hasenohrl was a late bloomer, Buckner was a child prodigy who started lessons at 4 and earned a classical music degree from the University of Washington. He’s played in churches, sight reads like a champ and has technique to burn: just wait until you hear his double octave passages in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The two bonded over ’90s music but they can play anything from rap to country.
“Everybody loves George,” says Buckner. “His voice and what he’s able to do with it. Impersonating little things of other people from Neil Diamond to Dr. Dre and Whitney Houston.”
“Whitney’s my specialty,” Hasenhohrl jokes, although Buckner is serious.
“He pulls the crowd in when they hear a song start with that little timbre in his voice that sounds like the original,” Buckner says. “It’s really easy for the crowd to participate because they feel like they’re singing in their car.”
And that’s what they want, for the audience to have as much fun as they do. “People are there to have a good time and we’re there to have a good time so some of the best moments,” Buckner starts to say as Hasenohrl finishes the thought, “Are when we’re cracking each other up.”
Keys on Main
Location: At The Triangle, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, 714-619-9850; Keysonmain.com
The Rules: On a recent Friday night, the fun started when Aaron Buckner called the audience to attention, explaining the run of the show like a sassy flight attendant. He held up a piece of paper with three songs written on it: “This is a suggestion,” he said. “Now this is a request,” he announced, holding up the same piece of paper with a $20 bill attached. “Get the difference? It’s called capitalism, people!” Musicians play requests with the largest tips first. Any audience member can kill a song by out-tipping the last requester and asking for a new song. On a recent night an Alicia Keys number got gonged fast and so did that Whitney Houston style cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Ouch!
Food: Sloppy, simple bar snacks but jeez, they’re the tastiest around. Loved the Buffalo Nachos ($15), a double mountain of chips buried in cheddar jack, buffalo chicken, and tangy blue cheese crumbles served with blue cheese dressing. Flatbreads ($12) in pepperoni, Buffalo Chicken, Meat Lovers, Ultimate Cheese, Veggie and Italian are savory and shareable. Wings are finger-lickin’-good in all flavors so get the sampler with a dozen for $15.
Drinks: Cocktails and shots named after pop stars and songs are part of the fun. Many of the drinks tend toward the sweet and yummy but if you prefer more citrusy cocktails go for the mojito. We liked the Britney (insert B-word here) with Skyy Blood Orange, Watermelon Pucker, Red Bull and grenadine. The Keysmopolitan, gimballed in a globe filled with ice, is a stunner. Most cocktails are $10. Of course there’s beer and wine, heavy on the California selections and bottle service too.
Vibe: The 8,500 square-foot space is comfy. VIP seating is the nicest with lounge furniture in its own space. This spot has the feeling of a nightclub with lights and a proper stage — not a funky old piano bar.
Tips on having a good time: Come ready to clap, cheer and sing along. If it’s your birthday, you’ll get dragged into the spotlight. Don’t be shy about bringing your tips on stage but please put them on the piano, not in the tip jar— that’s where they go after they’ve been played. Write three songs on your request sheet and lean toward hits. The musicians know a ton of songs but not likely the B-sides of every single. Tip generously but don’t tip in drinks. Keys on Main is a dry stage, meaning the musicians stay stone sober to make sure you get the best show possible.
How do they do it?: The players have no sheet music — only a computer screen to prompt them with lyrics and chord changes. But they rarely look down. They are improvising, cracking jokes, leading singalongs and keeping you entertained because they have complete recall of hundreds of hits. “If it’s on your iPod, it’s in my brain,” says Hasenohrl. “If it’s been on the radio in the past 60 years, even if we don’t know it, we’ll get close,” says Buckner. And they’re fearless about tackling any racy tune in this 21-and-over club, including a bunch of randy rap charts and that Cee Lo Green song whose title can’t be printed here.
Cover charge: Cover is $5 on Thursdays and $10 on Fridays and Saturdays. Music starts at 9 p.m. but guests must arrive by 8:30 p.m. Premium seats closer to the stage are an extra $10 per person. All seating must be reserved in advance. VIP packages with reserved lounge seating and bottle service starts at $300, no time restrictions apply.