Fly me to the Moon
"Leave your troubles outside and everything else, come in and be silly," said Ricky Hernandez about his bar, Howl at the Moon, at Universal Studios CityWalk in Universal City. Hernandez is one of many piano players that work at Howl at the Moon, but if you were to just read the first three lines of this article you wouldn't understand why this is significant.
Howl at the Moon is a dueling piano bar. If you don't know what that is, then you probably should pay this place a visit. The concept is easy to understand, two pianos, two piano players. Simple, right? Hardly. The intricacies and shenanigans of this magical place make it the phenomenon that it is, and the reason why people keep coming back.
As you walk into the bar, you realize that you probably should get there early. The large room has a lot of tables, but they fill up fast. The crowd really piles in at around 10 p.m., and you want to make sure you have a table directly under the crystal ball, right in front of the piano players.
There is a cover charge, but the $2 with a college ID that you fork over is worth every cent. It's $5 if you don't have a college ID; it's a small price to pay to have the time of your life. The drinks are cheap, and on Thursdays it's college night when they feature $1 Miller Lights and $3 vodka drinks. "Thursdays and Sundays are our busiest nights," said manager Shawn. "We got about six piano players on staff-- we usual have three or four a night, and they rotate every hour. This place is great, high energy, it's pretty fun to work here." The stars of Howl at the Moon are the piano players. Their energy, talent and enthusiasm create a fun environment. The skill of these players is something that is indescribable. They can play anything and everything from Mary Poppins to The Beatles. If they can't play it, then "we can probably figure it out," said Doug Marshall. "I've been doing this for 14 years, been with Howl at the Moon for five. It's incredibly fun. I love it." Marshall's comedic and musical abilities leave you with your jaw on the floor. His hands move so fast on the piano your eyes tell you he's playing with three hands, but your mind reminds you that's impossible.
Marshall's specialties are the birthday songs, and lyric changes. At Howl at the Moon, when it is your birthday, it's customary for your friends to throw you under the bus and have the piano players call you on stage to make fun of you.
The players get together to serenade you with random pieces of music involving lyrics that are not politically correct to mention. Marshall is a master wordsmith. While singing Mary Poppins' "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" he changes it to "you give me halitosis."
Whenever he sings, the crowd waits with anticipation for his next big one liner that will send everyone in an uproar of laughter. "Sometimes we'll play a song and play it normal, but then sometimes because of the crowd it just takes a left turn. People bring their friends here for bachelor and bachelorette parties, or just for the heck of it. They'll write someone's name down and say 'Hey embarrass so and so.' It's part of the deal, everything we do is in good fun, it's all just silly fun," said Hernandez jokingly.
"This is my first time coming here," said Nicole Delacruz, celebrating her birthday. "It was good. I had no idea what they were going to make me do."
Though the pianos' players are the stars, they are not the only attraction at Howl at the Moon. There are other musicians who join in sometimes and turn it into a full concert. Eric Hillmen, the guitar tech for the band 311, is the guitar player who jumps in bringing the rock and roll energy.
He could be the feature performer, but it's called a dueling piano bar, so he quietly listens to what the piano players want from him and adds that extra special layer to the music being played.
When the piano players change from Marshall and Hernandez to Dean Rod and Jason Hemmens, Marshall and Hernandez grab the bass and drums to jam with their fellow musicians adding to the energy, making it just that much more special to be a part of a wonderful night.
Cheap drinks, amazing music, funny one-liners and just plain fun are what Howl at the Moon is all about. You don't need to be into a certain "scene" to go there and have a fantastic time. Asked what he thought about Howl at the Moon, regular patron Richard Hammer said, "One word, freaking awesome. Oh no wait that's two. Whatever man this place rocks." Crowd interaction is the name of the game.
There is even a word of the day white board. You can write whatever you want on a piece of paper, give it to a musician and not only will he write it on the board, but every so often he'll yell it out at the crowd. Whenever a word or phrase is put up on the board, the price to replace it goes up by one dollar. So if you are sick of hearing "Go USC" as the word of the day, you can pay to have "Go UCLA" yelled out by the piano players instead.
Howl at the Moon is one of the best bars in a city full of places that won't let you in, trendy bars that charge you too much for drinks and insane $20 cover charges.
Go to Howl at the Moon and bring a smile and an open mind, you will have the time of your life. As Hernandez said, "It's just silly fun."