A quarter century of chords

When Robert “Tony” Klugel first started playing the piano at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, Gerald Ford was president and platform shoes were in.

During a quarter century, whole political systems have come and gone, not to mention several presidents. As for platform shoes, they’ve gone and come back and gone again. But Tony Klugel is still playing the piano at the Columbia Gorge Hotel.

“I get so many letters from people who ask, ‘Is that piano player still playing?’” says Klugel, who’s 74 and has been entertaining guests in Valentino’s Lounge at the hotel with his signature mix of piano tunes, singing and friendly conversation since 1975. Originally from New Jersey, Klugel first came to the Gorge from San Diego, Calif., when the Cascade Inn, a former hotel in Cascade Locks, hired him to perform there. But after a couple of months, he was lured away by the much grander Columbia Gorge Hotel and, aside from some short stints here and there over the years, he’s been at the hotel ever since.

During the busy summer months, Klugel plays in the lounge six or seven days a week — sitting down at his bench at 4:30 p.m. and staying until 11 or later. This time of year he’s nearly as busy, with holiday parties and the steady stream of guests who come to see the hotel’s extensive display of Christmas lights. But after next week Klugel will enter his slow season, working only one or two days a week until things pick up again in April.

Klugel grew up in the entertainment industry. His mother was a lounge singer and a member of the Screen Actors Guild, playing small parts on screen.

“I followed in her footsteps,” he says. “Her whole life was just like what I’m doing.”

In the 1950s, Klugel competed in amateur shows with Johnny Mathis.

“He was 14 years old and I was about 25,” Klugel says. “He’d win every time.” Klugel joined the Musician’s Union in 1954 and “from then on, that’s all I’ve done,” he says.

Klugel never took a piano lesson in his life, and still can’t sight read music. He plays by sound, and attributes his popularity to “the rapport” he has with people.

“What makes me popular is not being a great piano player,” he says. “I get out there and talk to people and make them feel like they’re in their own living room. It’s a gift to be able to do that.”

He plays a range of classic and contemporary songs, depending on who his audience happens to be on any given night. But he relies on old favorites from greats like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Klugel once played with Boy George and his band when they ended up without a piano player in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Klugel was in the midst of a month-long stint performing at an American hotel there. And he sees his share of celebrities who come to the Columbia Gorge Hotel and pass through the lounge. He gets autographs and his picture taken with them when he can.

“I keep my camera loaded,” he says, gesturing to the corner by the piano.

But entertaining for regular folks is what he likes best.

“I look forward to coming to work,” Klugel says. “I have so much fun with this job. God willing, if they’ll keep me here for another 25 years, I’ll stay.”

Tony Klugel will be accompanied by his big band in a special performance on New Year’s Eve in Valentino’s Lounge at the Columbia Gorge Hotel.

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