LAVALLETTE, N.J. (AP) — He shuffled through the dining room at a grandfatherly pace, one arm leaning on a cane, the other carrying a pillow. The Friday lunch crowd at the Crab's Claw Inn began to buzz as he settled in at the upright Altenburg piano.
Frank Staknys got there just in time, 12:59 p.m.
The Korean War veteran is 89 now, and his feet move a good deal slower than they used to. But his hands? They're still full of magic.
For the next two hours and 10 minutes, "Frankie Fingers" filled the tavern with uninterrupted music, from patriotic tunes to jazz standards to Sinatra, Elvis and TV theme songs. When Bill McEntee, who drove down from Passaic County for this, requested something Italian, Frankie launched into "Come Back to Sorrento" and a couple more Dean Martin classics.
His only break was a two-minute breather to check his cellphone (a flip phone, for the record).
"Do I get tired? Yeah I get tired," he said afterward.
So how does he do it, at 89?
"I don't belong to a union," he quipped. "No union rules."
Frankie Fingers is a Jersey Shore treasure. He's been entertaining crowds for 50-plus years, including 31 and counting at the Crab's Claw. He used to play five afternoons a week, but now he's down to the encore — an occasional appearance.
"My love of music keeps me coming," he said.
It keeps his devoted fans coming, too.
Frank Staknys was born and raised in Lithuania. By age 5, he was playing the piano. In the early 1940s, amid geopolitical turmoil in the Baltic states, his family fled to America. Staknys served as a Navy medic in Korea and became a prominent member of American Legion Post 348 in Brick, rising to vice commander of the American Legion in New Jersey.
It was at the Brick legion hall, which contained a piano, that a fellow veteran nicknamed him "Frankie Fingers." His gig at the Crab's Claw began in the 1980s and he became synonymous with the iconic spot on Grand Central Avenue, just a block from the Atlantic Ocean. Among the regulars tapping along to the strains of Frankie's piano have been basketball coach John Calipari and the late actor James Gandolfini.
"Everybody just loves him," longtime general manager Aileen Gulino said. "People bring their kids in just to see Frankie. He'll call them up and play, 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.'"
Gulino said people ask "every day" when he's coming in next. There's no real schedule. It's open invitation, and last week Staknys told her a few days in advance he would be coming Friday (he drives in from Toms River, where he lives with one of his three children; his wife of 63 years, Evelyn, died in 2017). Word circulated enough to push the turnout beyond typical midwinter levels.
"People want to know why we haven't hired another piano player," Gulino said. "We don't want to bring just anybody right into his spot. We're feeling it out and interviewing some people. Frankie is hard to replace."
In 2012, superstorm Sandy flooded the dining room but spared the piano. Remarkably, it remained in tune. Folks knew the Crab's Claw was up and running again when Frankie Fingers returned to the bench.
Wearing his trademark Scottish cap and American-flag tie, Staknys' set always starts the same way: "America the Beautiful" first, then a medley of Armed Forces songs. On Friday, Frankie followed that up with a string of standards: "As Time Goes By," ''It Had to Be You," ''The Entertainer," ''All That Jazz" and "All of Me."
Then McEntee, who was there with wife Patricia and brother-in-law Nick Salerni, put in his Italian request. Before long they were all singing "Oh Marie" at the piano.
"He's absolutely great," said Bill McEntee, who owns a summer home in Lavallette. "It's the best thing going — for him and for us."
Staknys then pivoted to Elvis ("Can't Help Falling in Love"), Broadway ("Memory"), Sinatra ("My Way") and TV's "All in the Family" ("Those Were the Days").
After accepting a hug from Lavallette resident Jennifer Bradshaw ("he has a fantastic heart," she said), Frankie returned to the standards (among them "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "Sweet Georgia Brown") before wrapping up with an Armed Forces medley reprise and "God Bless America."
By the end, half the bar was singing along.
"I have tears in my eyes," said Edward Barrett, who lives in Lavallette. "He's a blessing."
Barrett sat bar-side with his wife Elizabeth and their son Patrick, a 33-year-old with an appreciation for the classics.
"He puts us all in a good mood," Patrick said. "There's nothing like Frankie Fingers. We've heard the routine hundreds of times, and it gets better every time."
Well-wishers lined up at the piano after the final song. The sight of a familiar face sparked an encore — an Irish medley featuring "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "My Wild Irish Rose."
All of this is from memory.
"If I've heard a song, it's up here," Frankie said, pointing to his head. "Can't read music. Never learned."
His back gets a little sore after two hours, but sitting on the pillow helps. So do the tunes.
"When I play the piano, I get carried away," he said.
His fans are grateful for it.
John and Pat Lavigne, of Toms River, have been coming to see him for decades. They never knew his age until Friday.
"We love everything you do," John told him. "Thank you for the music."
How long will Staknys continue performing?
"As long as my hands hold out," he said with a chuckle. "That's the only thing that works."
Frankie Fingers took a long look at the hands that have entertained so many people over the years.
"I had a gift," he said.
Still has it.