There are times when this ship seems rather sedate, probably due to the generally older age group aboard this transatlantic cruise (the average age is 67, according to the hotel manager.)
However, there are some times when the energy really buzzes.
One is when the shops have their outlet sales in the dining room (this is a genuine mob scene)…
The other is when Tom Franek starts playing the piano. Tom is the entertainer in the so-called piano bar. I say so-called because the term “piano” bar conjures up an intimate setting with stools around a grand piano and a pianist crooning familiar tunes to a select few.
Cut to the Crooners Lounge on the Emerald Princess. Here, this 27-year-old holds court every evening just after 9 to a lounge packed with roughly a hundred Franek fans (pronounced FRAH-nick). There he plays at the black baby grand and belts out tunes that have everyone foot-tapping or hand-holding, depending on the beat. Plus he throws in some Olie and Lena jokes and some lively dance moves.
So how did this young American entertainer work his way here? As he tells his audience almost every evening, he is from Minnesota (SOOOOO-ta), the city of Northfield. He has an older brother and sister. He graduated in 2006 from St. Olaf College in Northfield with a degree in piano performance, focusing primarily on classical and jazz.
“That summer I worked at the Valley Fair Amusement Park playing keyboards in the live band. Then I had to figure out what next.”
He went to one of his piano professors who he knew had played on cruise ships and he helped him get into a show band on a Princess ship. That contract was for five months and during it he was moved from one ship to another. He recalls that those days weren’t exactly easy, to be a young American playing with many veterans who were set in their ways. Plus, he acknowledged that crews are cliquish and there weren’t many Americans to hang with.
After that, he managed to land a gig at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge in Alaska. He thought he would probably accompany the dinner theater show, “but instead, they scheduled me for four hours a night in the Bistro lounge.”
In truth, he had never sung and played the piano at the same time except in high school. “There was a Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival show and I played Jerry Lee Lewis and played ‘Great Balls of Fire’ in a white tux. Otherwise, I had only sung in choirs or a cappella groups.
They said to me, ‘You’d be singing and playing, taking requests, etc, for four hours a night. Can you do that?’ And my response was ‘Okay, no problem’ but in truth I had nothing under my belt…I didn’t tell them a thing because they assumed I had already worked on ships as a piano singer, when really I was a show band pianist making my way.”
With only months to prepare, he learned new songs every day, beginning with “Piano Man” – “it seemed appropriate,” he recalls. “I kept wondering how I was going to sing and the play at the same time. It was really new to me, but now I’m used to it.”
“When I started there I had about 120 songs, and after my first night I had gone through two-thirds of them. I thought, oh my goodness, I have to learn some more.”
He now remembers that summer as going really well. Because there was dining in the Bistro, he learned to sometimes play background music and sometimes foreground. When he returned to Minnesota he filled in his time with smaller gigs – weddings, parties and such. He had his own mobile set-up and pretty much was able to take whatever came along. He also frequently worked with musicians at St. Olaf, too.
He returned to cruising in January 2008 where he played in the piano bar on the Caribbean Princess and he has played several contracts a year since.
When performing on the Emerald Princess, Tom’s show is a mix of comedy, serious tunes, medleys, rousting anthems, sing-alongs and a bit of dancing. “My role is very much to interface with the passengers.” Once each cruise, he performs in the larger Explorer’s Lounge with the show band.
As engaging and friendly as he is, he admits that his life on the ship is a bit isolating. “Because I am an independent contractor, I am not actually an employe of Princess – see, I don’t even have a name badge. I work alone so it turns out that the people I am closest to are the staff in the lounge…It is kind of strange. I guess I am a bit of an ‘outlier’.” He acknowledges that he can eat with the crew or with passengers. “Some of the most fruitful relationships I have are with passengers…and I miss them when they leave.”
When he goes home on breaks, he says his personal passion is swing dancing. “You know, Lindy Hop, Charleston or Blues dancing. I enjoy it so much that I arranged a quartet and performed for a Blues dance with maybe 50 people. Often I am dancing several days a week.”
He is also very much into composing his own music which he occasionally performs on the ship.
As for the future? “I see myself having something to offer which is greater. I want to be producing my own songs with greater messages. These past few months I have really been inspired to write my own songs…I want to cut a disc. That is long overdue. I made one very early in my career but I want to have one that represents the skills I have now.
Currently, he has three upcoming contracts with Princess and eventually he hopes to become a guest entertainer in the ship theaters. Beyond that he is thinking of moving to New York to possibly try cabaret or other musical possibilities. “There I would hope to develop what is missing in ship life, a community of friends and a more settled life.”
His upcoming gigs on Princess include:
Nov. 5-17: Crown Princess, Caribbean
Jan. 28-April 27, 2012: Island Princess, Panama Canal
Sept, 20-Dec, 16, 2012: Sea Princess, Hawaii/New Zealand/Australia
Here is a video clip of Tom in action:
His website: www.tomfranek.com
People we’ve met the past few days:
Bruce and Beth from Del Ray Beach, Fla.
Nat and Sonja from Satellite Beach, Fla.
Clara from Atlanta, Ga., with Mo from Fire Island, NY
Bonnie and Mel from Columbia, Mo.
George and Sue from Atlanta, Ga.
Pat and Peggy from Wisconsin
Paul and Sandra from Louisville, Ky
Max and Polly from Englewood, Fla.
Wendell and June from Albuquerque, NM
George and Carol from Phoenix, AZ
John and Joanne from Naples, Fla.
Jimmy and Rene from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Molly and Bert from British Columbia