“Frankie Fingers” Dies at 90; piano playing installation at Crab’s Claw Inn
In the 1980s, when Becky Christensen first met “Frankie Fingers”, she mentioned how much she loved the song “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music”.
“I told her once,” she said.
For the next 30 years, whenever he saw Chistensen at Crab’s Claw Inn in Lavallette, the boiling pianist played Edelweiss on the restaurant’s upright piano.
“We all had songs that when he saw us he played them,” Christensen said. “He knew what everyone liked.”
For five decades, from the 1960s to 2019, “Frankie Fingers” Staknys entertained guests at establishments and private parties along the Jersey Shore. The Toms River resident died of natural causes at the age of 90 on Wednesday, leaving a legacy of good looks and good times.
The story continues after the photo gallery below.
“He never saw a piano he didn’t like playing – hotel lobbies, American Legion rooms, if there was any he would go play it,” son Anthony Staknis said. (there is a slight variation in the last name of the family). “People would come to me all the time to tell me how much they loved him and how much they loved his music.”
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Born and raised in Lithuania, Staknys started playing the piano at the age of 5. After immigrating to America, he served as a naval medic during the Korean War. He then lived in Hillside and Woodbridge before moving his family of five to The Brick.
“He taught himself to play the piano,” said Anthony Staknis. “He’s never had a lesson in his life. He had the perfect height, which meant that if he heard a song, he could play it. I seriously doubt he can read sheet music. Everything he played was by ear.
In The Brick, Frankie became a prominent member of the American Legion Post 348. It was in the Hall of the Brick Legion, which contained a piano, that a veteran colleague nicknamed him “Frankie Fingers.” The nickname stuck.
“Until he started at Crab Claw, it was a moonlight thing for him,” Anthony said. “He was a construction estimator – it was his regular job. He played the piano on the weekends to earn extra money to help feed his family.
His midday concert at Crab’s Claw, five days a week, began in the 1980s and it has become synonymous with the place. Regulars to his performances included college basketball coach John Calipari (who owns a home in Lavallette) and the late actor James Gandolfini.
“This is one of the main reasons the Crab Claw has been successful all these years, especially those early years,” said owner Sam Hammer, who opened the now iconic beach resort in 1979. “Right after (the storm) Sandy, we had more people calling here asking questions about Frankie than we had asked when we were going to open. He was so popular. I can’t say enough how important he was to our identity.
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‘Not the same without him’
Frankie Fingers’ repertoire was the Great American Songbook, and more. He easily evolved between patriotic music, jazz standards, Sinatra, Elvis, TV theme songs and even Italian favorites. He took the requests and, just as often, went into them preemptively.
“He saw a regular customer come in and right away he would start playing their song,” Hammer said.
“We had older clients who were in the military, and he played their (branch of service) song out of respect,” said Christensen, a longtime director of Crab’s Claw. “We had clients who would come to the piano and sing with him, play the saxophone with him, even play in a basin.”
Frankie Fingers never took a break. Once installed on the piano bench, the music was sure to flow with the tides.
“Am I tired? Yeah I’m tired, ”he told The Asbury Park Press with a smile during a 2019 concert that lasted over two hours. “I don’t belong to any union. No union rules. “
One of her favorite songs, her son Anthony said, was “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca. It was a fitting figure for an ageless artist. Even after the death of his 63-year-old wife, Evelyn, in 2017, he continued to fill the crab’s claw with music. Father Time finally caught up with him in the fall of 2019.
“He gave 30 days ‘notice and I said,’ Frankie, why? Hammer recalls. “He said, ‘I just don’t trust my driving.’ I went out to look at his car, and the only place he didn’t have any dents was on the roof.
Suffice it to say: Frankie Fingers has left his mark.
“It’s not the same without him,” Christensen said. “Over the years other guys have played the piano, but it was never the same as Frankie. They were all talented, but he had that look around him.
Frank Staknys is survived by his sons Anthony and Dean Staknis and daughter Irene Papanikolaou, five grandchildren and 27 nieces and nephews. The viewing will take place on May 7, 5 to 8 p.m., at the Silverton Memorial Funeral Home in Toms River. The funeral will be on May 8 at 10 a.m. at Ocean County Memorial Park in Waretown.
Jerry Carino is a community columnist for Asbury Park Press, focusing on interesting people from the Jersey Shore, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]