Pop superstar Billy Joel has the “Piano Man” handle pretty much to himself thanks to an enduring signature song.
But in South Florida, there was only one real “Piano Man” — Victor Tibaldeo, owner of the landmark family business, Victor Pianos & Organs.
Even Joel’s name pops up on a Victor’s ad that lists a slew of famous faces like Liberace, Tony Bennett and “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola who have passed through the doors at the venerable Miami piano store. Tibaldeo founded the company, which once had seven locations from Palm Beach to Cutler Ridge, after a visit to South Florida in 1958.
Tibaldeo died of heart failure on Wednesday at 93 but Victor Pianos carries on in the hands of his daughter, Lisa DiRaimondo. Like Frank Sinatra, a customer whom he played piano for in the grand hotels of Miami Beach in the 1960s, Tibaldeo did things his own way.
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“The man retired at 88 — like the notes on a piano. He said, ‘Lisa, I’m going.’ I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘That’s it. I’m going home. I’m not coming back.’ And he walked out the door,” DiRaimondo said.
But he left content. The only time his family ever saw him cry, his daughter and granddaughters say, was when he saw his great-grandson Hunter for the first time.
He was a world class man.
Granddaughter Jeanna DiRaimondo on Victor Tibaldeo.
Always a family business, from its roots in 1939 New Haven, Connecticut, when Tibaldeo’s musician father ran a music store, a Tibaldeo offspring had always manned the counter at Victor’s. Victor Jr. was a salesman. Daughter Camille, a Broadway actress, was Victor’s New York agent. Son Alan T. is now a popular DJ at Miami’s Club Space.
Now it’s DiRaimondo’s turn to run Victor’s and vows to keep the flagship store in Liberty City open.
Tibaldeo, born June 18, 1923, in New Haven, was, alongside President George H.W. Bush, a Class of 1948 Yale University graduate. He mastered the accordion, built by hand by his father from the wood in the kitchen table, and won contests playing in accordion bands with Horace Heidt. He played the instrument for the “Howdy Doody” children’s television show and for Miami’s Channel 10 in its early days.
In the 1940s, his parents bought him his first nine-foot Steinway at a Manhattan showroom for the aspiring concert pianist to practice.
“They didn’t have AC and when you’re playing Beethoven and Bach for 14 hours a day you will get complaints,” his daughter said. “His grandmother was a fabulous Italian cook. She bribed all the neighbors with her home cooked food and they let him go.”
Tibaldeo put those skills to good use years later when he backed Sinatra at the singer’s gigs at the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels on Collins Avenue. “He would close up shop at 5, go home and have dinner, and change into his gold lamé suit and go to the Fontainebleau and play to 3 in the morning with Frank and Sammy Davis Jr.,” DiRaimondo said.
Once, at closing time in the early 1970s, five young men and an older man, presumably their father, strolled through Victor’s door and approached Tibaldeo with a request. “We’re doing a show at the Deauville [Hotel on Miami Beach] and need a grand piano and a B3 organ delivered there. Can you do it?”
How could he say no to the Jackson 5 and lead singer Michael Jackson?
For the neighborhood kids, he was also known as the kind man who bought them ice cream and handed out dollar bills at the same time. In 1995, he helped a California piano tuner who wanted to donate pianos to Cuba. Many exiles — pop stars the Estefans, among them — had been customers at Victor’s. “When you talk to Miami Cubans, everybody’s grandmother is a piano teacher. I want to help the children who are learning now,” Tibaldeo told the Miami Herald in 1995.
Tibaldeo and Victor’s were one and the same — Miami institutions.
He lived life to the fullest. ‘You only live once and if you did it right the first time once is enough.’
Daughter Lisa DiRaimondo on Victor Tibaldeo’s favorite saying.
Tibaldeo opened Victor Pianos & Organs in Miami after one of his annual vacations. He popped into a piano store, run by an older gentleman who was ready to retire. When a customer came in looking for an organ, Tibaldeo demonstrated one of the instruments. A sale was made. The grateful owner asked Tibaldeo if he wanted to buy the store, too. For $75,000.
“Dad went to the bank, got a $75,000 cashier’s check, and told his wife, ‘We’re moving to Florida,’” DiRaimondo said. “He went into his first business getting lilies out of ponds with his rowboat and selling them to people with palms in their yards. He was always industrious.”
His granddaughters Jeanna and Christina proclaim Tibaldeo an “incredible businessman and generous man. ... He put music in everyone’s home including every big star there is,” they wrote in an email to the Miami Herald.
“I used to advertise that you could play the organ with one finger. Jackie Gleason came in one day to see what that was all about. I showed him. He bought a $10,000 organ right there on the spot. He would come in regularly. He’d park his pink limousine right out front and get one piano, 10 pianos, 20 pianos, all for his show,” Tibaldeo told The Miami Rail.
Said DiRaimondo: “He lived life to the fullest. He had his saying, ‘You only live once and if you do it right the first time once is enough.’ He used to tell me this all the time.”
Tibaldeo is also survived by his children Victor Jr., Alan, Eliot and Camille Tibaldeo, grandchildren Christina and Jeanna DiRaimondo and great-grandchild Hunter Bradley and ex wife Ann Tibaldeo. There will be a memorial at 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday at Victor Pianos & Organs, 310 NW 54th St., Miami.