Dallas’ music scene benefits from three side men — local musicians who tickle the ivories in unique ways
RICH LOPEZ | Contributing Writer
Most musicians have a burning passion to share their talents with the world — a drive that never lets up. And while Carnegie Hall may not be an immediate option for everyone who tickles the ivories or steps up to a mike, expressing your talent manifests itself in a variety of ways.
Three local musicians, all from the LGBT community, have proven their skill at the piano, having touched Dallas onstage, at bars … even on Sunday mornings. This is only a short list of players who are pushing to be heard. These are gay Dallas’ Piano Men.
The Renaissance Man
Local theatergoers are likely familiar with the work of Mark Mullino — and not just his piano playing. The musician has directed and music-directed stage shows at WaterTower Theatre (he’s currently leading the band in that company’s production of Putting It Together), Uptown Players, Lyric Stage and more.
People may also know Mullino from his artwork — he has recent exhibitions at the Granville Arts Center in Garland, and displays at Cathedral of Hope.
But for the Dallas LGBT community, it may be his piano work playing at the shuttered Bill’s Hideaway, Alexandre’s and Phases (now Pekers).
“I’ve also been playing piano and singing with Amy Stevenson for many years at the long running Mama’s Party,” he adds.
He’s not playing around. Or rather, he is when it comes to his profession. Mullino has made his music his career — as a freelancer, and as a teacher at KD Studios and Collin County Community College. With all these under his belt, he cites his daily life as his greatest triumph.
“My biggest accomplishment since being here in Dallas is making a decent living out of nothing but my art. I love everything I do, “he says. “I never dread going to ‘work’ because I love it! Even when I am tired, I feel blessed to be able to do what I love with all my heart and people actually pay me to do it. Life is good.”
Not bad for the 46-year-old who started piano lessons at age 7. Involved with anything from choir to orchestra to the school musical, you would think his life was already planned out. But when college came around, his dilemma was deciding between majoring in music or art (his other creative outlet). His talents were apparent, but his future was not.
“When it came time to go to college, I had to choose which major I preferred, music or art,” Mullino says. “I went with music but did not paint again until I was 38. But everything I do now revolves around music and theater — even my painting. Every piece I paint has music in it. I will not paint without it anymore. I find as much pleasure in playing a beautiful score as I do in directing one, acting in one or painting it on canvas.”
A veteran of the Hideaway, Mullino is part of an elite Dallas team of musicians that have perpetuated familiar careers in town and beyond. Along with Gary Floyd, Liz Mikel, Denise Lee and others, Mullino is a nod to the legacy that the Hideaway created years ago. But if he had derailed into other career options, it would have been with, of all things, cattle. A self-described animal freak, the one other thing he goes on passionately about is his compassion for four-legged creatures.
“If I didn’t play piano or paint, I’d most certainly be doing something with animals. I even considered studying to be a veterinarian for a while” he says. “I’ve fostered many pets, volunteered at humane societies across the country while I was performing. I just cannot stay away from animals and I’d be happiest having a home out in the country with acreage where I could have all the cows, horses and chickens I wanted. My dream has always been to have a herd of longhorns.”
Sorry, Elsie, but Dallas is glad Mullino stuck with music.
For seven years, Sunday mornings at Cathedral of Hope have included Les Holben on the piano with the CoH Orchestra. Whether he came to that position by choice or by fate is something he’s not even sure of himself. When Holben got the gig, he wasn’t all that interested in it. He hadn’t given up on the piano — he just wasn’t in the mood to get back onstage again. After a stint in Austin as the music minister for that city’s MCC, he returned to Dallas ready to sit back a bit.
“My partner and I joined cathedral, but I was burned out and had no desire to participate,” he says. “I simply enjoyed listening to the music from the pews. [Then-director] Cathy [Brown] spoke with me a number of times about playing the trumpet, but I hadn’t played since college, feeling I had lost the ability to play well, so I always declined. She eventually convinced me to play synthesizer in the orchestra for special services. That continued for a couple of years until the pianist was diagnosed with cancer. I frequently filled in at the piano, eventually being selected as principal pianist.”
He’s settled into the role with confidence over the years and calls his time at COH an amazing experience. Discovering that the caliber of musicians Brown led was high, he is both fulfilled and challenged on a weekly basis. But it’s not just about reading the music notes for Holben. While enjoying his role and colleagues, he doesn’t forget what his role is. A higher calling for this gig is not lost on the musician.
“Leading worship is my real role at CoH,” he says. “Taking the focus away from me as a soloist, my job is to support the ensemble so that our notes and words allow God’s spirit to work its magic. While serving as a musician at other churches wore me out, playing at COH feeds my soul. I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction knowing that I’m playing a small role in helping others experience hope and acceptance.”
Like many, Holben began his music early (age 6), but moved on to the trumpet in high school and college — an instrument he actually preferred to the piano. But Holben saw more in playing with a band or orchestra than he felt he could reach as a soloist.
“I was fascinated by the different musical textures that could be achieved by combining the different instruments,” he says. “There’s something about the energy from a large ensemble that can profoundly affect the performers and listeners.”
He discovered that by going back to church after college. That experience is what led him to become a minister in Austin.
“Controlling them using my computer nurtured my geeky side. By day I’m an electrical engineer,” he says. “I was asked to direct the youth choir and frequently created my own arrangements to accompany the choir. But that experience was invaluable to my time at MCC.”
Holben says his proudest moment while playing he owes to his mother who, ironically, he had a strained relationship with. More than 20 years had passed without her ever hearing Holben play. And then she made a request.
“About two years before she died, she wanted to attend a service at CoH. The choir and orchestra had just returned from the UCC general conference. The music director made the evening even more special by asking to play a difficult duet as the service postlude. I think it was the first time she realized that her kid turned out OK. It still brings tears to my eyes when I remember her sitting in the congregation, beaming from ear to ear. Playing at the national conference was great, but playing for mom at CoH one last time [and being asked to play for her funeral] were my most special performances.”
Gary Poe almost shrugs off his years of piano playing — and his talent in general. He doesn’t boast about his proudest moments; Poe’s playing is just for him. But it’s his sing-along audiences that relish his work Friday nights at Pekers. Bargoers select from a catalog of showtunes and standards that Poe has transformed into dirty ditties with alternative lyrics alongside his knack for naughty limericks.
He sneaks in a smile of pride at this mention.
“Well, I only do those when I get a few beers in me,” he says.
Poe comes off as quiet, drinking his light beer and smoking his cigarette almost to the point of invisibility. But he comes to life behind the keys. When in doubt, he leaves the emotional stuff to his ivories.
“The piano can say things you can’t touch,” he says. “It lets me put certain deep emotions out there. That’s what the instrument does for me.”
He reveres the magic of the instrument, but without overkill. And he sticks to what he knows best: Classics of the Great American Songbook. He proudly admits he’s not of the Lady Gaga generation — and that’s become his signature at Pekers and for 25 years at the Hideaway as their first piano player.
“I enjoy playing those because a larger group of people can enjoy that,” he says. “I have a lot of fun with honky-tonk and ragtime but that’s mostly for my enjoyment. But I won’t do anything new like ‘In-a Gadda-Da-Vida.’”
Those moments like that is where his wit sneaks in. Poe isn’t uncomfortable talking about himself, though he prefers to express himself at the keyboard. From his time as a teenager playing in gospel quartets with his parents to playing Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Nashville, Poe revels in a sorta dive bar career that led to Dallas in 1979.
With a degree in communications, he did some radio and newspaper work and then transitioned into a computer career, but when the economy took a nosedive in 2002, he adjusted with freelance gigs (creating websites) and even event photography alongside his night at Pekers and the occasional retirement center performance.
“I do these little parties a couple times a month and I really enjoy that,” he says. “They do too. I see them mouthing the words; that’s nice.”
At 62, Poe is at a certain peace with what he does. He dismays over the difficulty of working in this atmosphere, but when he’s at his piano on Friday night, the world’s in his hands — or at least the club is.
“I’ve enjoyed my time in many bars. The Hideaway, Pub Pegasus, Pekers … it really is a high when something gets going. When the magic happens, it’s noticeable,” he says.
“Playing piano is the most fun I have with my clothes on.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 25, 2013.