- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

Super Bowl competitors earn a “player’s share” — a divvy of bonus cash among the football players.

Late afternoon, Saturday, Jan. 12, 1974, the day before Super Sunday: Suddenly Super Bowl VIII, pitting the Minnesota Vikings against the Miami Dolphins in the first Super Bowl played in Houston, was generating a piano player’s share.

The quick background: I was 22, a student at Rice University and living in a 90-buck-a-month apartment in a then-decayed nook of Houston’s now glitzy Montrose area. The phone rang. The man was instant brass: “Fine here. F-i-n-e. Mr. Fine.”

Anyone calling himself “Mr. Fine” is as dangerous as a redhead who introduces herself as “Vegas. Just Vegas.”

But I was broke, and Mr. Fine, the manipulative producer of the type Mel Brooks would parody, could smell it. “You the kid piano player? Need ya at a pep rally for the Vikes. Rice Hotel, tonight. Big deal. Lotta Vikes fans. Hal says you’re good. You fill ‘til he shows. A coupla hours.”

“Hal’s who you want, sir,” I said. “I really don’t do solo gigs like this.” A World War II vet who got wounded and then hooked on morphine in VA hospitals, Hal was the class act of Houston piano bars. He taught me how to play “As Time Goes By.” Well, he taught me the notes. When I played the “Casablanca” tune, people nodded. When Hal played it, people sighed.

“I getcha 25 bucks,” Mr. Fine said.

“Seventy-five is more appropriate. Hal would charge 200.”

“You greedy, kid? How’s 55? Double nickel? See ya in three hours.”

So we sealed this last-minute, suspect deal.

The Rice Hotel, 2004, is an upscale scene of boutiques and Chardonnay. In 1974, the hotel was a derelict joint, a wreck of bricks and memories best towed offshore and sunk as a manmade reef.

The pep rally ballroom had already taken two torpedoes. Its chandelier and ceiling fixtures shed more plaster than light. Zig-zag cracks scarred the mirror behind the bar.

As I walked up to the piano, I saw Mr. Fine waving a can of purple spray-paint above a shoddy “Go Vikes” poster. He yelled to his ticket taker, “Ten bucks to get in. That gets ‘em a first drink.”

I played slow standards, “Summertime” and “As Time Goes By.” The pep rally crowd filtered in — slower than the music. Though the ballroom could handle 400, after an hour perhaps 40 people had showed.

The angry fan wore a purple blazer and purple pants. “One drink. That’s it?” he snarled at Mr. Fine. “Hey, piano. You know the Vikes’ fight song? No? What the heck you doing here?”

“I don’t know, sir,” I told him.

“I’m for Miami,” the brunette knockout yelled. “Play the Miami fight song. It goes like this.” She stood on a table, long legs, high heels, and sang a capella ‘When you say Miami, you’re talking Super Bowl.’ ”

A Viking player arrived. “Alan Page,” Mr. Fine yelled. “Carl Eller,” the angry fan snapped.

“Play something fast,” Mr. Fine said to me. So I played a tune I had composed, a rock square dance. “That’s good,” the brunette cooed.

“Where’s the pep in this rally?” the angry fan shouted. There were 80 angry fans now. “Where’s the cheerleaders? The piano can’t play the Vikes’ song.” A clot of purple people had Mr. Fine backed up against the bar. “OK, OK,” Mr. Fine yelled. “Everybody gets in free.”

“Play our song,” the angry fan said as he stuck his big face in my face.

“Would you hum a bar, sir?” I asked.

The purple fan of 1974 growled, the kind of primal melody 2004 associates with Howard Dean. I tried a half-dozen notes. “No,” the fan squalled.

“Move over, Austin. I got it.” The Angel of Merciful Melody had arrived. It was Hal. He had a drummer and a bass player. “Thanks,” Hal said. “We had an early gig. Make sure this Fine jerk pays you.”

I had to weave through purple people to reach Mr. Fine. His round face paled as he handed me a roll of bills. 55 bucks. My super roll for Houston’s first Super Bowl.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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