Is there a Ping-Pong player with more pluck than Dickie Fleisher?
On the table he is Florida's reigning singles champ. In the
concert hall he's one of the state's premier harpists. ``Playing
tournament table tennis is a lot easier than playing concert
harp,'' says the 39-year-old Fleisher, a veteran of both the U.S.
Open and the Miami City Ballet. ``You can win a Ping-Pong match
21-19. But miss 19 notes in a recital, and you'll be looking for
Tonight, seated onstage with the Naples (Fla.) Philharmonic,
Fleisher looks formidable but not overpowering, fit but not
athletic. He has an open face, more vertical than most, a distinct
V. His manner is reserved but imbued with a gentle friendliness.
In his small, gracefully tapered hands, the harp is a quiet and
mesmerizing instrument. Its sound draws the listener in.
Which is the opposite of his table tennis game. Fleisher's serve
is a sweeping arpeggio that dips, flutters and knuckles over the
net. ``Aggressive slime,'' he calls it. His unorthodox paddle --
long rubber pips on one side, smooth sponge on the other -- allows
him to flummox opponents with a flick of the wrist. ``If Dickie
practiced more, he could be national champ,'' says his pal Laszlo
Bellak, a three-time runner-up for the world title. ``He beats me
easily now. Of course, I'm 83 and lucky that I can move at all.''
Fleisher came by the harp honestly enough. His grandmother Nettie
Druzinski, a principal harpist for the St. Louis Symphony in the
1950s, used to travel with fan dancer Sally Rand and accompany her
in The Dance of the Seven Veils. His uncle Edward Druzinski
performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Fleisher's two
sisters also play professionally, as does his wife, Kayo Ishimaru.
Yet the harp wasn't young Dickie's instrument of choice. He took
up the violin at five, but his grandfather Louis Druzinski, a
concert violinist, made him quit at six. ``My granddad thought I
was torturing the violin,'' Dickie says. When Dickie hit 10, his
mom, Dot, issued an ultimatum: Either learn to play the harp or
become a paper boy. So Dickie started delivering The Miami Herald.
On Day 2 he got caught in a downpour. ``I realized the harp
couldn't be all that bad,'' he says.
Table tennis he got into by default too. After jamming his fingers
in a junior high school basketball game and getting blindsided in
youth-league football, Dickie switched to table tennis -- a sport,
he insists, that is fiercer than either basketball or football:
``It's got no gloves, no mats, no body armor, no teammates to bail
you out on an off night, and you only get one serve per point.''
He has persevered with the same paddle for 12 years. But the
collection of harps in his Miami home runs to 16. Fleisher bought
one of the instruments -- a carved maple Lyon & Healy gilded in
24-karat gold -- sight unseen in 1985 for $10,000. By tracing the
serial number he determined that its original owner was Harpo
Marx, who plucked it in such films as A Night at the Opera.
Fleisher's own nights at the opera -- he plays his harp about 130
times a year with the Naples Philharmonic -- limit him to about
five table tennis tournaments a year. But last August he found
time to compete in the Florida State Closed Championships, in
Orlando, where he won five straight best-of- five matches and the
open singles title.
The two pursuits complement each other, Fleisher maintains. ``The
hand-eye coordination required to reach for vibrating strings has
helped my Ping- Pong,'' he says. The main difference is that one
is played while standing, the other while sitting.
Fleisher begins tuning his harp a half hour before a program.
``Harpists spend half their time tuning and the other half playing
out of tune,'' says Fleisher, who prefers Wagnerian operas and
Spanish malaguenas to New Age frills. ``I'm not into the sissy
stuff. I like to get down in the trenches and work up a sweat.''
To keep in fighting trim, Fleisher keeps to a rigorous daily
regimen of push-ups, sit-ups and calisthenics. ``It can get pretty
rough out there,'' he says. ``I've seen guys break their fingers,
separate their shoulders, twist knees. . . .''
He pauses for effect.
``And then there's table tennis.''
COLOR PHOTO:RONALD C. MODRAHarpo Marx once owned Fleisher's prized instrument, but not even he thought to play it with a paddle. [Dickie Fleisher playing a harp with a Ping-Pong paddle]