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Published: Saturday, 6/24/2000

Local pianist still tickles the ivories

If you should be fortunate enough to hear Eugene Hunt, a retired professional pianist, playing Frank Sinatra's version of "One for My Baby," don't assume that he is winding up another big band program.

At one time the number was his well-known sign-off after completion of a New York City or Toledo nightclub show.

Now for the skilled 80-year-old pianist, who retired two years ago after more than a half century in the big band entertainment world, it more likely signifies that he is playing the song as a request, or perhaps reviving it in a nostalgic personal trip down memory lane.

The songs he plays now for friends are mostly those of the 1920s through the 1960s, the years when his own popularity was at its height.

At age 4 in Toledo, Mr. Hunt studied classical music but soon discovered he could improvise and play almost anything by ear.

"Even now, I need no music for at least 2,000 selections," he said. "I improvise and almost never need to practice."

Music remains a dominant part of the pianist's life, though he no longer accepts pay for entertaining others. Instead, he shares his talent with seniors, playing as a volunteer at The Vineyard in Catawba, O., where he has a home on Sand Road.

Mr. Hunt also maintains an apartment at the Commodore Perry senior complex in Toledo. In earlier days, he played with big bands at the former hotel and was a familiar musician at the Toledo Club, the Trianon ballroom, and Kin Wa Low's, where he played several years before moving on to New York City.

For 25 years. he and his wife, Jean, remained on the East Coast while he worked at various New York night clubs and with various bands.

On occasion, he worked on cruise ships and became an accompanist for various popular singers.

During this busy period, Mr. Hunt reversed the clock, working until early morning hours.

"It was our normal way of life, and even now I can't get used to different hours," the musician said. "I still sleep until 10 a.m. and rarely go to bed before 1 or 2 a.m."

Before retiring from part-time work, he and his wife lived a number of years in Florida, returned briefly to New York, then decided to make Ohio their final home. Mrs. Hunt died in 1998, shortly after they acquired property in Catawba.

Music remains very much Mr. Hunt's life, though the focus has changed. He maintains a Baldwin Grand at his home and uses an electric one when he travels. The big difference now is that he no longer fulfills engagements under pressure for pay, instead giving freely of his talents to a generation that continues to love the same music he helped to make popular.

A graduate of Devilbiss High School, Mr. Hunt recently attended the 60th reunion of his class, entertaining former classmates.

Kin Wa Low's, the Commodore Perry Hotel, and the Trianon no longer exist, but Mr. Hunt has one old Toledo haunt remaining.

Occasionally, he drops in at the Toledo Club, where he once played for gala affairs. If the mood strikes him, he visits the club's Red Room to refresh memories, or perhaps to play a few of the old-time, happy songs for friends.



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