Tomislaw Sztern’s father sent him to America with the advice that every human relationship from employment to love survives on exploitation. Sztern, now Tommy Sternlight, had been in vaudeville since arriving in New York in 1904, when thanks to a string of shrewd social maneuvers he landed a job in Albany sweeping up after performances at The Strand. Monday nights, when the theater was closed, he would usher young nobodies through a back door and “audition” them under the pretext that he was a professional talent scout with some legitimate sway; his father’s advice proved indispensable to recognizing, among the hopefuls with talent, those willing to work for peanuts. Children with inattentive parents, or no parents at all, required little compensation beyond the huge warmth of Sternlight’s hand on their shoulder, or his face beaming in their direction with munificence and pride. His first spectacular discovery—twin six-year-old blond girls who tap-danced as though they were on fire—won him some modest box-office percentages and, within a year, having delivered three equally sensational acts, Sternlight had his reputation as upstate New York’s premier eagle-eye for cheap talent.
Thirty-seven years later, his career had stalled. Attendance was dwindling at the dance studio where he cultivated his young talent, and his last big hit—Rosemarie Pezzula, who roller-skated to classical music—had long outgrown the act and moved to Boston to marry an electrical engineer. Even if retirement were affordable, Sternlight knew too many aging impresarios who’d gone that route and prematurely taken a slide—become full-time lamenters on half-baked issues, barflies as self-righteously incensed as they were inert. Already it was too easy to pull a stool up alongside them, too easy to bemoan the decline of live musical entertainment in this country, too easy to shrug and reach for a handful of pistachios when asked what he intended to do about it. He had nothing to show for these evenings of intemperance but a splitting headache and the lingering nausea of remorse.
Then the dance studio’s longtime accompanist had a stroke. She survived it but could no longer steady her hands to play, and implored Sternlight to give her son the job instead. He had just graduated from high school, she said, and played the piano beautifully. Sternlight took this for maternal hyperbole, but it turned out to be true. Little Luigi Palmieri played even the tuneless warm-up vamp as though it were Rhapsody in Blue and he were giving a concert for Gershwin; furthermore, unlike his predecessor, he didn’t need a metronome to keep time. The only problem was that he had a distracting habit: whenever he wasn’t playing, he closed his eyes and wiggled his hands in the air above the keyboard, as though only this could sustain his readiness to resume. “One would think,” Sternlight gently teased Luigi, at the end of his first week, “that piano would be hypnotized by now.” Luigi’s reply was to lower his hands to the keyboard where, still wiggling, they looked like two toy helicopters touching down and play:
You’ve got me hypnotized
I’m certainly mesmerized
I thought I was wise
Till I gazed in your beautiful eyes . . .
“Touché,” Sternlight said over the music.
The following afternoon, during Intermediate Tap, one of the girls asked Luigi if he knew “The Flat Foot Floogie.” He did.
And after class, while they changed their shoes:
“‘Slumming on Park Avenue’?”
“‘Leaning on a Lamp Post’?”
“‘When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano’?”
A few bars of each of these Luigi played easily.
“‘Hot Lips’?” said Sternlight.
The girls giggled. Luigi played.
“‘Minnie the Moocher’?”
The girls screamed. Luigi played.
“‘I’ma Jazz Vampire’?”
“‘I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)’?”
Luigi knew them all, and the inexhaustible thrill of testing his jukebox genius began to detain Sternlight and his clientele, mesmerized, well beyond the end of lessons each day. When the girls told their friends at school that Sternlight’s Dance Studio had hired “a human Pianola,” matriculation went up thirty percent and Sternlight raised Luigi’s salary from thirty cents an hour to forty-five. As he tried to thank Sternlight for this boon, Luigi was betrayed by a terrible stutter. Sternlight knew from the kid’s mother that years of humiliation owing to the handicap had conditioned Luigi to go out of his way to avoid all unnecessary social interaction. But “Stump Louie,” as Sternlight had begun to call the game, was different. Luigi’s infinite repertoire had transformed him into a boy Orpheus. No minefield of consonants to worry about: he didn’t have to speak. Even his appearance had begun to change. He straightened up at the piano, smiled more, and his eyes glinted bright green, as though lit by tiny bulbs within. After the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the 1941 World Series and radio listeners statewide began to suffer from baseball withdrawal, Sternlight rang up a friend of a friend—the head of commercial broadcasting for radio station WABY—to propose something so audacious and harebrained that the men agreed it was irresistible.
“Name a song, Albany! Name a song! Pick your key, sing five words for us, and little Louie Palmer here’ll play the rest! Not a page of sheet music in sight, folks. Nothing in the studio but Louie and a shiny new Marshall & Wendell baby grand. So come on, Albany! Tell Tommy what you want to hear! If Louie can’t play it, we’ll pack up and go home! You’ve got thirty minutes to pick up the phone and tump Louie!”
The prize for stumping Louie—for naming a song Luigi couldn’t play at least five bars of by heart—was an all-expenses-paid weekend trip for two to Niagara Falls. For a minute and a half, Sternlight, Luigi, a volunteer production crew, and a provisional studio audience of station janitors waited in silence. Someone coughed. Luigi sat wiggling on the bench of a battered old upright full of chipped keys. Finally, one of two telephones on a podium next to Sternlight rang, and through some trick of wiring an elderly female voice was audible both on the soundstage and over the air. “Hello, Tommy. ‘Blue Hawaii,’ please. It was my husband’s favorite.”
Sternlight smiled and rolled his eyes while Louie pressed a finger to one key, then another, waited for the volume to fade out before proceeding with the next, and at last allowed the song to unfurl. The lady on the line sniffed and laughed, blew her nose, and hummed along precariously at the chorus. She was still praising Luigi for his fluency when the second phone rang and a man asked to hear “Carolina Moon.” Luigi played, and the caller sang along in a vibrato-laden bass. Two more listeners called up in quick succession, and though they both named songs written at least ten years before Luigi was born, he played through each of them efficiently, as though he had somewhere to be, or soup cooling in the green room, and then sat back to wait, wiggling, for the next test. One more, mouthed Sternlight, tapping his watch, and while the last caller prefaced his request with a story about having heard “I Say It’s Spinach” for the first time on a date with a girl with a lisp, Sternlight’s eyes widened, imploring Luigi for some clue that “Spinach” rang a bell. Luigi nodded. Hurriedly, Sternlight fished a pen out of his jacket pocket and wrote something on his palm: WAIT. Squinting, bewildered, Luigi obeyed, wiggling his fingers soundlessly above the gap-toothed keyboard, while Sternlight let their inaugural audience hold its breath. At last, Sternlight cued Luigi with a grand, victorious flourish, and the boy sailed through “I Say It’s Spinach” as though it were “Happy Birthday” and he were playing it on the kazoo.