The Hostess is on Fire


I change clothes in the wellness area of the five-star hotel where I currently perform—trading my basic-black stretchy sweat-pants for a basic-black stretchy evening-gown, and my Nikes for a pair of golden sandals that have been accompanying me on piano gigs for several decades. They are as uncomfortable now as they were the day I bought them, but the bling at my toes reminds me, in a good way, of years I’ll never recapture and songs I’ve long forgotten. Besides, I’ll spend most of the evening sitting on a padded piano bench. If I need to make a fast get-away, I can always kick off the sandals and run.

But why would I run? Playing background piano music at an upscale private party offers me a chance to cross into the Piano Girl Zone, a tranquil place where the secure borders between who I am and what I do vanish. I don’t always gain entrance to the Piano Girl Zone—technical challenges and Voice of Doom often mess with my head—but I try. On evenings when I remain outside the PGZ, watching the clock and feeling unappreciated, time creeps backwards as I play choruses of songs that never seem to end.

How is it still 8:10? It was 8:10 twenty minutes ago.

I hope to get into the PGZ tonight. I am playing for a group of Americans traveling through Germany. Because they’re connected to the television and radio business, they know about my NPR radio shows and my family links to PBS. About sixty guests will enjoy a four course fancy dinner while I provide pleasant dinner music. Nice.

I check the Steinway situated in the far corner of the dining room, standing next to a wrought iron, tree shaped candelabra. Each branch of the tree holds a small votive candle. The effect is stunning—twinkling candlelight in the high-ceilinged, dusky dining room, throwing dancing shards of silver light on the polished ebony piano. Wow. This is really pretty. I count my blessings, flex my aching toes, and wait for the guests to arrive.

Because I’ve been doing this for forty years, I know exactly how this evening will unfold. The guests will greet me, applaud politely, have some wine, start chatting, and completely ignore me for the rest of the evening. With the help of the human din and the flickering candlelight I will enter the PGZ and float through four hours of doing something I love. I will note each food course as it is served, wonder if I’ll get something to eat before I faint at the keyboard, and time my music to accompany the flow of the dinner. Right after the main course (medallions of something with asparagus) and directly before dessert (a study in mango), things will wind down. At the end of the evening a few well-meaning, lubricated guests will compliment my music and I will be grateful that someone was listening. My back will protest but I will play another set for a handful of people lingering over espresso and pralines.

This is how it always goes.

Until it doesn’t.

The hostess of the party, a vivacious, curvy woman named Pat Allen, with a lush, Colorado-ish head of hair, sweeps into the dining room ahead of her guests. She runs a company called Premiere Tours, and specializes in planning luxury travel for American companies seeking to reward loyal clients with European elegance. The Excelsior Hotel Ernst is a good match for her high standards.

“Robin!” she says, balancing a glass of champagne in one hand and a handbag in the other. “I am so happy to meet you! I am a huge fan of Marian McPartland and Mister Rogers and can’t believe you knew them! We can’t wait to hear you play.”

American enthusiasm.  How I miss it.

Pat is a fast-talker, but she’s hoarse after shuffling her tour group through various European cities. She sounds a little like Demi Moore on speed. Still, I’m delighted to talk to one of my tribe—there’s something about a straight-ahead American accent that warms my heart.

“Thank you for inviting me to play,” I say. “It’s an honor.”

“I’m sorry about my voice,” she croaks. “I have been wrangling this bunch for a few days and I have the worst case of laryngitis. I love that your father was on Mister Rogers for all those years. How cool is that?”

Pat’s voice is so far gone that I can only hear every other word. She really needs to stop talking and rest her voice, but she won’t take a break.

“Yes,” I say. “Who knows what will happen to all those PBS and NPR shows now that Trump has threatened to cut the entire NEA budget.”

“Oh don’t get me started on Trump,” she says.

This particular group of American tourists hails from Louisiana, which leads me to believe they could be Trump supporters. But I am unsure where Pat sits on the spiked political fence. Because of her allegiance to public television and radio, and her exuberance for all things European, I’m guessing she’s batting for my team, but who knows? I am here to play the piano, not give speeches about racism, sexism, and fascism. In fact, I should avoid mentioning any of the “isms” and just sit down at the damn piano and play “Skylark” or something. But Voiceless Pat wants to talk.

She offers me a glass of champagne. Do I say no? Of course not. Never, ever turn down free champagne. As I sip, she says: “Trump, Trump, Trump. It’s all anyone can talk about. All the Europeans want to know how we could have elected him. Not my fault, I tell them.”

As Voiceless Pat grows more agitated with the Trump topic—and who can blame her, really—she steps back toward the candle tree.

Whoosh! The tips of her big hair catch one of the flickering votive candles, and, as quickly as you can say Covfefe, her hair goes up in flames.

Pat does not feel the heat—she has a lot of hair padding her scalp—and unaware that she’s on the verge of igniting the entire dining room, continues to rattle on about Trump, Trump, Trump. But with her grating voice it sounds more like Ump, Ump, Ump. The flames shoot from her skull. She looks like something out of a Harry Potter film. I might be slow in most of life’s crucial moments, but I am quick in emergency situations, so without missing a beat, I slap her, several times, on the back of her burning head.

“WHY ARE YOU HITTING ME?” Which sounds like: “YY R U ITTIG EEE?”

Voiceless Pat looks puzzled. Possibly she’s stunned that her pianist for the evening—who has yet to play a single note—is accosting her right in the middle of a European luxury hotel.

“You’re on fire!” I shout. Then I hit her some more.

She tries to say something, but her voice is completely gone, and it sounds like: “H——p—–f.”

Finally she smells the burned hair and realizes what has happened.

“Let’s blame this on Trump,” I say. Her guests, slack-jawed with disbelief and slightly horrified by the sight of their tour guide and party hostess torching herself while the amuse bouche is served, breathe a collective sigh of relief when Pat begins to laugh.

“I always knew I was hot,” she rasps. Either this woman has a really great sense of humor or she is the world’s best hostess—determined to make sure her guests have a good time even if she has to visit a burn unit before they dig into their foie gras terrine.

“Not bad enough I lost my voice,” she shouts, as best she can. “I have to lose my hair, too.”

She turns back to me. “How bad is it?” she squeaks.

“Not bad at all,” I say. “Here. Sit down on my piano bench. I have a brush in my handbag. I’ll patch up your hairdo, pronto.”

I brush a few charred chunks from the back of her head. She has a lot of hair. I can hardly see the damage. Lucky for her. If this had happened to me I’d look like Yul Brynner.

So much for the Piano Girl Zone. I am not sure of the protocol for a situation like this. I’ve seen some weird stuff over the years—a guest who peed in her chair, a dog who howled along to Phantom of the Opera tunes, a man with no arms who sat in on my gig and played the piano with his toes—but in my many decades of playing solo piano jobs I’ve never had to slap the hostess to extinguish flames shooting from her head. Hostess Flambé is new to me.

Perhaps I’m stuck in the middle of a Tom Waits song. The carpet needs a haircut. The hostess is on fire. The piano has been drinking. Not me.

I accept a second glass of champagne and begin my first set. I glance at my watch.

Ah. 8:10. I should have known.



Thanks to Pat Allen at Premiere Tours. A woman after my own heart—when life throws slapstick at you, go with it. Even if there are flames involved.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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  1. Carol Ann Habich-Traut says

    As always, it’s Robin to the rescue! The takeaway is a great story. Keep going, Miss Robin!

  2. John Horne says

    I play guitar for many restaurants around town and often overhear many conversations that are tense, awkward, hilarious, etc. Your stories always resonate with me – but fortunately no one has caught on fire at one of me gigs yet!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby says

      You know about this stuff, John. I’ve had an unusual number of medical emergencies occur around me while I’m playing, but this was the first Hostess Flambé. I did have a chimney catch on fire at the castle (in a fireplace next to the piano). This involved an evacuation and the arrival of firefighters with axes, but no one ignited in the process. Sometimes I think musicians should get hazard pay.

  3. Melissa Meyer Mash says

    Years ago I was in a club where they were playing Dixieland jazz. The table next to ours had a girl with very long hair and she was flirting non-stop with the guy opposite. There were tealight candles down the middle of the table. I watched in fear all night waiting for her hair to catch fire. She didn’t let me down – it finally ignited as she swished her locks and batted her eyelashes. She too was astonished when I started beating her head! She was grateful however that I put her hair out. Wonder if she and the guy ever got together??? Enjoyed your piece and it brought up this memory that I had long forgotten about! Cheers from England, Melissa

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby says

      Thanks, Melissa! Glad you rescued that young woman. Maybe we should start a fire brigade.

  4. How could we possibly ask for more, Robin? You’re writing is really hitting on all cylinders. I love your Tom Waits song. What a pleasure to read your stories. I feel like I’m always there.

  5. Gail Goldsby Reid says

    Quick thinking, 1st Responder!!! And you didn’t throw champagne onto Pat’s head, which turned out to be a good thing. I love the way you find the fun in every almost-dire situation.

    • Thanks, Gail. Never, ever waste perfectly good champagne on a fire emergency! It wasn’t funny when it happened, but lucky for all of us, Pat had a great sense of humor.