He’s tickled the ivories and turned up smiles aplenty through the years, but “Doctor” Dave Messick didn’t play his piano just for the tips. He did it to share his love of music with the masses.
During his decades entertaining crowds at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and special engagements throughout Florida and beyond, Messick played everything from ragtime toe tappers to more contemporary chart toppers.
Born in Woodbury, New Jersey, in 1950, Messick was surrounded by music during his childhood. His father played clarinet in high school and his grandmother and a couple of aunts and uncles had pianos.
“Growing up, visiting relatives, there’d be a piano there, and it was like a magnet — I was attracted to it,” Messick said.
After his family moved to Portland, Oregon, a young Messick received daily piano lessons from a neighbor. He also enjoyed learning songs by ear, especially tunes that sounded more colorful than the Bach and Beethoven pieces he became accustomed to through lessons.
“My parents watched The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights, and almost every program featured a honky-tonk piano,” he said. “I was just amazed at this kind of piano because it wasn’t the kind I was being taught. And it sounded like fun!”
He collected records by the likes of ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox, honky-tonk icon Joe “Fingers” Carr and Del Wood, a pianist who became famous for her 1951 hit version of Down Yonder.
“I was listening to how different pianists played the same song, listening to their techniques,” Messick said. “I was borrowing stuff from this artist and that, but I was formulating my own style and did it by ear.”
His family moved to Tampa in 1966, and he began attending Plant High School at the age of 16. He’d play piano in the school’s music room on his lunch breaks and someone noticed during his senior year.
They suggested he work at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, a nationwide chain that had recently opened a restaurant near Plant High on S Dale Mabry Highway and featured ragtime pianists playing sing-alongs.
Messick auditioned and failed the first time. The banjo player there said he needed to beef up his repertoire. He went back and studied. When he tried again six months later, he was hired immediately. He started working at Shakey’s on April 22, 1968, two days after he turned 18. He made $10 one night a week, plus free pizza. After graduating from Plant High School a couple of months later, he was entertaining Shakey’s crowds three nights a week for $14 a gig and working in the kitchen, too. He eventually landed the piano job full time.
“I soon learned that if I sang along with my music, [diners] would join in,” Messick said. He memorized the lyrics to all 80 songs in the restaurant’s sing-along rotation.
Another Shakey’s Pizza Parlor opened on Florida Avenue in Sulphur Springs, and that’s where Messick spent his evenings off from work, listening to other pianists.
Dedicated to his craft, Messick began earning work beyond the pizzeria. There was a stint at Country Dinner Playhouse at Gateway Mall in St. Petersburg, followed by work at a Hyde Park restaurant and a Rexall drugstore diner in Ruskin, where he performed with a group known as Toots McCaine’s Ridiculous Ragtime Band.
His heart kept pulling him back to Shakey’s, where he continued performing off and on through the late 1970s. By then he had played at Tampa’s first gay piano bar, inside El Goya in Ybor City, entertained cocktail guests at a famous gay resort known as the Parliament House in Orlando and hit the road for extended gigs in Ohio and Alabama.
Around 1979, he adopted his stage name, Doctor Dave, while conversing with Dixieland jazz pianist Professor Steve Pistorius at a downtown Tampa restaurant known as the Levee. “I asked him how he got the name ‘Professor,’” Messick said. Pistorius explained lounge musicians playing in New Orleans bordellos at the turn of the century often helped educate the young women they worked alongside.
“His ‘Professor’ name was a throwback to that time,” Messick said. “I joked, ‘Steve, since I’m a bit older than you, if you’re a professor I’m at least a doctor. He said, ‘That’s it! Doctor Dave.’”
Messick said he was playing at Shakey’s one night in 1980 when Desmond Boone, the Busch Gardens music director, came in. “A couple days later I get a phone call from the Busch Gardens Entertainment Department.”
He was hired to perform seven to nine 20-minute shows daily near the Busch Gardens Hospitality House, which became famous for serving free samples of Anheuser-Busch beer when the company operated an adjacent brewery.
“I thought working at a theme park, I’d have a new audience every day,” Messick said. “Wrong! They sold season passes, and many passholders were seniors.”
He quickly attracted a loyal following of regulars who enjoyed their free beer and knew by heart many songs he played. “It got to the point where they knew my material so well, they’d be saying my lines ahead of me.”
Of the many guests he entertained, he fondly recalls a couple around the age of 80 who danced together in front of the bandstand. “We referred to them as Fred and Ginger,” Messick said, nodding to famous 1930s dance partners Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Rain or shine and throughout the summertime heat, the jaunty outdoor musical revues went on. After the cancellation of the Busch Gardens belly dancing show in 1984, Messick was joined on the Hospitality House Stage by bassist Andy Lalino and guitarist-banjoist Bill Norman to lead what became known as Doctor Dave’s Goodtime Trio.
He also performed as a Busch Gardens ambassador at functions, including some at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee and parties hosted by August Busch III and Lakeland Anheuser-Busch distributor Bernie Little.
There, Messick said he rubbed elbows with Hollywood elites, like actors Burt Reynolds, Loni Anderson, Ricardo Montalbán and Dom DeLuise. “Dom DeLuise thought we were wonderful. He just ate us up.”
Messick founded the Doctor Dave Goodtime Fan Club and was performing songs from the 1890s through the 1940s, working side gigs at local retirement communities and music festivals, including those in conjunction with the Suncoast Dixieland Jazz Society. He said he was “glorifying the American song.”
When the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center — now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts — opened in 1987, he was asked to play an event with a female barbershop quartet and a Dixieland band. “When I got off stage, I was just vibrating, it was such a high,” Messick said. “The place was packed, absolutely packed. I felt just like ‘this is show business!’”
He also performed on local television shows, and for a PBS promotion he interviewed nationally famous ragtime pianist Max Morath, whom he had admired for years. Messick said Morath saw him perform at Busch Gardens and complimented the show. “It was a high point,” he said.
Messick spent 30 years at Busch Gardens before his show ended in 2010. By then, the ragtime genre had evolved from being considered nostalgic to historic.
“There used to be Dixieland and ragtime festivals, but they have dwindled a lot in recent years because many young people don’t understand it,” Messick said.
He said the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is one of the last professional organizations still putting on ragtime concerts. There’s also a Facebook group called Our Kind of Jazz. There, he says, young people are still playing his kind of music.
Retired and living in Tampa with his partner of 21 years, Rob Seliskar, the Doctor doesn’t play the piano as much as he used to.
“But, every once in a while a song gets into my head and it just buzzes around,” he said. Messick pauses before breaking into a song made famous by actor-comedian Groucho Marx in the 1939 comedy At the Circus.
“Lydia, Oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia, Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady. She has eyes that folks adore so and a torso even more so…”
The music plays on.