“We all miss it; the live audiences, the fun, and the laughter.” said Tom Franek in a conversation with me regarding his cruise ship entertainment career that, due to the pandemic, has been put on hold. People have been speculating how the pandemic is going to impact the future of the live entertainment industry, and one aspect of the this industry that has been greatly affected, but perhaps overlooked, is cruise ship entertainment.
Franek last spoke with The Current back in 2014, and since then, he has gone through quite a pivotal time in his career. After cutting his teeth in the cruise ship entertainment industry by playing in the piano bars, he has since writing and performing his own headliner shows. His performances are known for his piano medleys and acrobatic talents, including playing the piano with his feet while he is on his head, playing on his back, and other contortionistic things. Moving into those headlining slots involved moving from a more residential gig schedule to booking performances that were on a fly in, fly out basis. The increased flexibility in his schedule has allowed him to bring his show to seven different cruise lines, including Disney, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and more.
Additionally, Franek has found various ways to document his music and live performance. In 2018, he put out an instrumental album called Piano Unlimited in 2018, and also did a couple televised performances, one Romanian TV show called iUmor, and the other for ABC.
“They reached out to me because in my live stage performances I do some acrobatic style stuff that sets me apart and makes me a little unusual as a piano player.” said Franek. “They wanted me to do a routine for their program, so that was really cool.”
Franek was also the recipient of the Entertainer of the Year award for Princess Cruises. He and four others were selected from a pool of 500-600 cruise ship entertainers, including hypnotists, jugglers, comedians, musicians, and more to compete for this title on a week long cruise in front of a live audience. The process of this competition was featured in Esquire.
After a busy past few years, momentum in Franek’s career has shifted due to to the global pandemic. He first anticipated that his performance schedule might start slowing down when he heard news that the coronavirus was causing trouble for the Diamond Princess cruise ship. His own career started to be impacted while he was performing on the P&O Ventura Cruises out of Barbados, which was scheduled to be a transatlantic cross. On March 13, Franek was supposed to disembark at the Azura Islands in Portugal, but due to the growing threat of the coronavirus, the ship was not allowed to dock. It was then sent to South Hampton, England, where he arrived on March 17 to get a flight back to Minneapolis.
“When I hit the airport in Minneapolis, they obviously went through the whole coronavirus screening. They put a thermometer to your head, and everything. There was a process, and then they advise you to self quarantine for 14 days, and ever since then, I’ve been home.” said Franek.
While Franek has quarantining at home, he, like many other artists, has been spending a lot of time in his home studio to work on audio and video projects that he had previously been too busy to record. He also noted that he’s been indulging domestically as well, and finally got a chance to fully unpack his luggage, clean and organize his home, and do a some gardening.
“I haven’t decided if I’m going the edible route or the flower route or a combination of both” said Franek when discussing his gardening plans. “It’s [been] a chance to reconnect with the land a little bit while I’m at home.”
While taking time away from boats and large bodies of water to re-familiarize himself with the land, Franek has also taken the time to reflect and virtually connect with loved ones. He has been reaching to people who have been supportive of him throughout his career and life, to catch up and let them know how thankful he is for them. He noted that despite being in isolation, it’s important to continue to stay in touch with other people.
“Even though we’re physically distant, we can still be emotionally connected. It’s important to reach out and call each other and tell each other we appreciate each other.” said Franek.
Franek has been enjoying his time at home, and notes that this disruption to his performance schedule has had its silver lining, but he looks forward to getting back to work when he safely can.
“I guess there are a lot of uncertainties in the air. Will it look the same? Will there be a lot of changes of how things have to operate? It’s really hard to say at this point as it remains to be determined. The cruise ships are being CDC compliant, and whatever guidelines are put forth they will follow. Safety is their highest priority. Entertainers prefer a packed house, but perhaps crowd capacity will be thinned in the interest of social distancing. I prefer to shake hands when greeting people, especially after a performance, but hand to hand contact will likely be limited for a time.” he noted. “I have intentions of just falling into the rhythm of what’s possible and going back out and performing.”