Player piano holds the tune at Mount Vernon's Sing-Along-Bar

 

On any given night at Mount Vernon’s new Sing-A-Long Bar & Grill, visitors might find Mount Vernon Main Street and Marketing Director Joe Jennison holding court at a player piano, leading staff and diners alike in song.

The piano has been in his family for decades and now is the center of the new eatery, opened Aug. 18 by Jennison’s father, Sam Jennison. The senior Jennison bought the player piano about 60 years ago, and for many years it was a staple of get-togethers of friends and family, who gathered around it in their home’s basement. When Jennison and his wife, Mo, moved and downsized, the piano went to Joe.

Now, the Jennisons are sharing the player piano with the wider public, as the star of the show at the Sing-A-Long Bar. Sam Jennison, who also owns The Drake restaurant in Burlington, said he created the Mount Vernon pub primarily as a way to showcase the piano. Admittedly, the instrument, built in 1910, needed some care and repair before it was ready to take center stage.

“It was the love of his life, and so he asked me to rebuild it,” said piano technician Don Winchester, who owns Winchester’s Piano Tuning and Repair in Cedar Rapids.

 

A shelf in the restaurant holds piles of song rolls, each in their own labeled box, sorted into categories: show tunes, ’60s-’70s-’80s, ’30s-’40s-’50s, country, hymnals, and holiday. Patrons can request a song, and the staff will load the roll into the piano, which then plunks out the notes on its own.

Not many player pianos still operate this way, Sam Jennison said; most of them, these days, have been modified to interface with iPods or other electronic music devices. To get new songs for this century-old piano, the music has to be requested and ordered from one of the few factories that still makes the player piano song rolls, and they will make new songs only if they get a certain number of orders.

 

Joe Jennison transcribed the music in the restaurant’s collection into a song book, the better to encourage customers to chime in.

“It’s such joy, it’s infectious. There’s just something magical about it,” said Sing-A-Long Bar manager Kim Benesh.

She said she hopes even those who are reluctant to raise their voices will get caught up in the music and join the impromptu chorus.

“This is not ‘Kim and Joe sing,’ this is a singalong,” she said. “This is not a karaoke bar. You’re not coming to hear someone go down and sing a solo. This is an interactive experience.”

 

Sam Jennison said he thinks that idea holds power.

“The world needs more music, and smiles. We need a nation of people that can smile and snot be afraid, that can shake hands with each other ... music helps that along,” he said.

If music brings people together, he knows good food does, too, and the restaurant serves up classic comfort food like pot roast, baked ham and Reubens. Executive chef Nanette Rambo said she crafted the menu around the idea of home-cooked meals.

“This is the kind of food you learn to cook at home, and then we elevate it here,” she said.

She said the eatery focuses on local sourcing, with meat and produce from Iowa farmers when possible, and they aim for a “green kitchen,” composting scraps and re-cycling oil.

The local flavor are showcased in dishes such as the savory Italian tomato pie, featuring layers of tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella baked in a crust.

“I think it adds character to the concept of scratch cooking,” Rambo said.

Eventually, Benesh would like to add a late night menu and Sunday brunch to the current lunch and dinner offerings.

Sam Jennison has ambitions for the space; he also bought two buildings to the south of the restaurant, with the idea of expanding the dining room and offering additional parking. He said he knows the Mount Vernon business will rely on drawing in visitors from nearby Iowa City and Cedar Rapids to thrive.

“The idea is this will become a destination restaurant and a fun place,” he said. “I want people to come and sit around that old piano and sing their hearts out.”

 

If you go:

• What: Sing-A-Long Bar & Grill

• Where: 100 First St. SE, Mount Vernon

• Hours: Kitchen open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; bar open until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Hours may change.

• Details: (319) 895-9464, Singalongmv.com

• Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

 
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