Friday, March 21, 2008

The less-than-harsh world of a pianist

Express Staff Writer

Larry Harshbarger at work in The Ram. Photo by David N. Seelig

Larry Harshbarger is a collector. Among his 200 personal collections there are pinball machines, jukeboxes, crank phonographs, antique radios and pianos. Pianos are not an easy thing to collect, but Harshbarger has a certain fondness for the instrument. It is how he makes his living, and he is determined to have one in every room of his house.

For 28 years Harshbarger has commuted 82 miles round trip at night from his home in Carey to his gig playing the piano in The Ram Restaurant in Sun Valley.

During the two high seasons of summer and winter, Harshbarger can be found at The Ram, seven days a week. He smiles and chats with customers and loves when people sing along even when they sing badly. When people arrive and he knows their favorite song, and even if he doesn't like it, he will play it.

Among the other things he collects are songs. He knows "in the neighborhood of a couple of thousand," he said, and rarely uses sheet music.

"I was forced to take piano at 5 years old in Driggs," he said. "I bought my first piano when I was 16. Still have it."

Harshbarger, 66, is an Idaho native. His parents were born in Idaho, as were his wife of nearly 42 years, Bernita, and her parents. His maternal grandmother and her family were converted to Mormonism in Switzerland and then immigrated to Utah. From there they were sent to Idaho to "colonize eastern Idaho," he said. "My father's father moved here in 1905 from Kansas. My mother was the 15th child of 16. She and her brother had a dance band. She was also a teacher. They had an interesting history."

Harshbarger is the second of five children, and he and Bernita have four adopted grown children and are in the process of adopting an 8-year-old who is their grandchild.

"I was born in St. Anthony, went to high school in Burley and when I was on a mission to Peru, my parents moved to Howe. It was when Bernita and I were moving back to Howe, from Boise, 35 years ago that we drove through Carey and saw an old Mormon church being auctioned off. We made a bid, and got it."

His house with its numerous collections is as eccentric—in a good way—as Harshbarger himself. He attended college in Rexburg, where he worked in a restaurant washing dishes. After hearing him play the piano, the manager promoted him to the house piano player.

"I went from the lowest-paid employee to the highest in one day," he said. He'd never considered playing piano for a living but was hooked into it pretty soon. In Boise after he and Bernita were married, he further added to his repertoire when he played in a pizza parlor.

When the Harshbargers moved into their old Mormon church, he worked at a service station and then drove a gasoline tanker for a few years. Someone suggested he apply to Sun Valley, and shortly afterward he found himself returning to a less stressful line of work, as the house pianist at The Ram.

He plays standards and pop, and he said he tries to learn songs that people might request that he doesn't know, to increase his song list.

"I don't play any song I don't like unless someone requests it," Harshbarger said. "I decided to learn more after something happened."

When asked what that was, the normally effusive Harshberger hesitated.

"A man came into the Ram, oh, maybe 20 years ago, and asked if I knew 'Days of Wine and Roses.' So I played it. He said, 'That's pretty good but it's not the way I wrote it.' It was Henry Mancini. There was no place to hide."

Okay, so after all these years he may use some sheet music now and then. He deserves to. He's seen a lot of changes around Sun Valley, he said, most notably the upgrading of the hotels and improvements around the village. For him, life in Sun Valley still revolves around those 88 black-and-white keys.

But in Carey, in the wacky house, with a young child and wife of many years, it's different.

"I was always around when the kids came home from school. I work on the house and the collections. People used to wonder if I worked because they saw me during the day. Actually I don't work, I play. When it becomes a job to play, I'll quit."

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