by Risa Nye
If I’d known they were going to ring the “virgin bell” after my first time, I may not have been so quick to grab the microphone and sing. But after a couple of visits to The Alley on Oakland’s Grand Avenue, I finally got the courage to take the plunge at the piano bar. And yes, once I confessed that “I’ve never done this before,” I left myself open for that damn bell.
The night of my debut, I was seated next to a gentleman who’s been singing at the Alley for several decades. After a few moments of friendly chit chat, he began giving me his recent dating history. The young woman sitting to his left interrupted by saying, “You’re not telling her about the Russian, are you?” Well, yes he was. “No one wants to hear about her,” the young woman said. My new confidante shrugged and went back to sipping his drink. Now I’ll never know what the deal was with the Russian. But the mic was getting closer by then, so I had to flip through the binder and figure out what I was going to sing. I thought I had it—“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”—until one of the other singers told me that a guy had just done it half an hour ago. No repeats. There are a few Alley rules, which the others were kind enough to point out. Rock ‘n’ roll is a no go, for example.
The Alley encourages first-timers and old timers alike to belly up to the piano bar and sing to the accompaniment of maestro Rod Dibble. Ten or twelve singers can squeeze in the circle, awaiting their turn at the mic. You’ll find Rod perched at the piano (underneath a giant poster of Sinatra), surrounded by songbirds, three nights a week. He takes a turn singing too, with a voice that manages to be gravelly and smooth at the same time. Large black binders containing the lyrics to hundreds of standards get passed around as the singers prepare to belt, croon, or warble their selections. The lyrics, filed in alphabetical order by title, are neatly typed; each sheet of paper is encased in a well-thumbed plastic sleeve. A sampling of one evening’s choices: “Blue Moon,” “Tomorrow,” “Smile,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “The Girl from Ipanema.” We also heard earnest renditions of “Autumn in New York,” “Crazy,” and “Cocktails for Two.” I only saw Rod shake off a request once, for “Moondance,” which I gather is not part of the repertoire. He’s got the seniority for a veto: Rod’s had the gig since 1960.
In an interview published in the Piedmont Post a couple of years ago, Rod revealed that he started playing the piano when he was six years old. During his more than 50 years tickling the ivories at the Alley, he has personally worn out several pianos. He and some of the Alley regulars are the subject of a documentary, The Alley Cats (2012), directed by Cary Virtue.
On nights when there isn’t trivia or karaoke going on at the Alley, eager performers position themselves on stools that circle the piano bar, with Rod poised and ready in the center. As the mic gets passed from performer to performer, Rod rests his hands on the keyboard, listens to the request, and then begins to play. Most of the singers picked up their cues from Rod and started singing at the right moment. This novice missed her first chance to jump in, but Rod graciously began again—and made a more forceful nod when it was time to join in with the lyrics. Note to self: follow his lead. Another note: hold the mic closer than you think you need to. The supportive crowd really does want to hear you.
The Alley, for the uninitiated, is an Oakland icon. With its black and brown wooden exterior and cockeyed windows and shutters hanging at odd angles, it sits between a veterinary hospital and Charlie Hallowell’s newest venture, Penrose. There is an actual alley—or, more accurately, a driveway, next to the Alley, but the name refers to the interior’s motif, if you can call it that. The distinctive sign out front features two black cats, one with an arched back, and another with a mildly curious expression. A third cat, a white one looking for some action, is painted on the wall next to the veterinary hospital. The Alley has staying power—it’s outlasted all the other piano bars that used to be in the neighborhood years ago.
Once inside the Alley, a newcomer may well wonder how old the place actually is. Founded in 1933, the year of Joe DiMaggio’s 61-game hitting streak in the Pacific Coast League, the Alley is the third oldest bar in Oakland. Some of the stuff on the walls really looks like it dates back to the era following prohibition. The ceiling, the tables and the benches—essentially, all the flat surfaces in the place—are stapled over with yellowing business cards, playbills from decades-old performances, menus, postcards, and notes with phone numbers or faded messages scrawled on them. Also posted are the Best of the Bay awards the Alley has garnered over the years.
The mood is high, but the lights are low. A structure that looks like a tiki hut with a thatched roof (composed mostly of business cards) serves as a walk-up bar for the thirsty crowds who pack the joint. Pours are generous and the prices won’t break the budget. The structure looks like it would blow over in a stiff breeze. Food (limited to steaks, burgers, fried chicken and generous sides) comes out of a tiny but efficient kitchen in the back. Our group of four sampled the menu, and were impressed with the perfectly prepared steaks, the juicy and flavorful burgers, and the cooked just right veggies. Prices ranged from $8.75 for the burger and rough-cut fries to $12.50 for a full steak dinner. Hard to beat those prices. You can sit in a wooden booth (resting against the initials carved in the wood), at the long communal tables, or at the bar in the hut. Young, old and in- between gather together to enjoy the Alley’s unique ambiance, and to cheer on those brave souls who stride or slink up to the piano and take their places at the bar. The place grows on you, which explains why folks have been coming to the Alley for decades, and why newcomers want to keep coming back. People are friendly and encouraging, and sing along during the chorus to support a wobbly first-time performer.
If you’re looking to sing along with Rod, come to the Alley between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.
So what was my selection? I performed, in the loosest possible sense, the 1944 Oscar® winner for Best Original Song, composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Burke. The big finish goes something like this:
And all the monkeys aren’t in the zoo
Everyday you’ll meet quite a few
So you see it’s all up to you
You can be better than you are
You could be swingin’ on a star
The Alley, located at 3325 Grand Ave, Oakland. Open Sun.-Mon. 6 p.m.-1 a.m.; Tue.-Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Cash only, but there’s an ATM on the premises.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.