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 another job."
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 lingers in a junior high school basketball game and getting blind-sided 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."