The Townhouse of New York is an East Side bar where gentlemen of a certain age rub elbows and occasionally more with other gentlemen of a certain or slightly younger age. Since its September 1989 opening night, smiling, mild-mannered Rick Unterberg has been performing at a piano tucked into the swanky parlor-floor back room. It’s anyone’s guess how many requests he’s filled. In his high baritone and with his wide eyes scanning the socializing area, he does something like 30 songs a set during a typical four-set, six-hour evening. That’s 120 ditties a night, four nights a week, 52 weeks a year, for 13 years. You do the math—he won’t.
What he will do during an afternoon downtime moment is give a tour of his midtown apartment, which he’s turned into an informal Doris Day museum. “Don’t make me sound like too much of a nut,” he says of his abundant movie posters of her foreign releases. He’s got a hand-colored Suave Como Visón (That Touch of Mink), Amami o Lasciami (Love Me or Leave Me), and Ne M’Envoyez Pas de Fleurs (Send Me No Flowers) decorating his walls along with other memorabilia, including a framed picture of him and his idol just above a note she sent thanking him for a strawberry-rhubarb pie he once bought her. A few feet from his bed, a gown Day wore in Jumbo is exhibited on a body form.
When Unterberg sits on the living-room sofa and quits his favorite subject, he takes up something almost as intriguing to him: his duties at the Townhouse, where he works his sly smile and easy style and keeps the devotion to Day so downplayed that only his most ardent admirers know about it. “I know somewhere between 1000 and 2000 songs,” he reports. He can segue from South Pacific to Julie Andrews’s oeuvre to the hit parade of 1978. He can also warble the Garland songbook but resents patrons who importune him with “Judy, Judy” in the middle of a song. It’s difficult for him to recall recent material he’s added to his repertoire because he considers most contemporary music “disposable,” and figures his audience—many of whom sing along or take turns soloing—aren’t Britney Spears-hungry. One item he’s dusted off is “Lady Marmalade,” popular again thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
Allowing that if anybody tips him big enough, he’ll “do anything,” Unterberg shies away from Joel and Noël. That’s to say he will sing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” only under duress and feels uncomfortable with Noël Coward—”I’m so Middle America.” He attempts never to render the same song twice in one night and keeps tabs on frequent and infrequent requests. He long ago memorized “My Heart Will Go On,” but it’s fallen from favor. He observes that as popular as Broadway scores are with his followers, “no one has asked for anything from The Producers.”
Happily occupying a big slot in a small spot, Unterberg, who was raised outside of Chicago and went to the New England Conservatory of Music, jokes, “I’m like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. ‘I won’t be ignored, Jack.’ “