Richard Baldwin, Piano Heir & Prodigy, Hid Out in Great Falls, Montana
"Do You Know That Man?"
The bald man in a rumpled brown suit lunged for the next parking meter on Central Avenue, struggling to remain upright.
It was a bright spring day in the late 1960's or early 1970's, a little past lunchtime. The door to the Margaret Apartments wasn't far from the Pennant Bar--if you were sober.
A parked car pulled away, opening the pedestrian's drunken trek to a fellow who'd been trying on a tuxedo across the street, near the front window of Kaufman's Menswear.
"It can't be..." the customer whitened. "Do you know that man?"
"Sure," the salesman, Dick Millard, said. "That's Richard Baldwin."
A Baritone, Bowled Over
"My God," the man took off the tux jacket and sat down. "May I have a glass of water, please?"
The customer was Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill. The drunk was piano prodigy and an heir to the Baldwin piano family name, Richard Baldwin. The salesman was a friend of mine, Dick Millard.
All three of these men have passed away, and anyone who knew Dick would confirm (among other things...) that Dick had a flair for the dramatic. That's why, a couple of years ago, I talked to four or five other people who knew Baldwin personally, to confirm the basic facts of this story.
Dick's boss, Ike Kaufman, whose family still runs the nicest menswear store in north central Montana, remembered Merrill. He knew Richard Baldwin, too.
A Lost Tuxedo
Robert Merrill was a "house baritone" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He'd made it all the way to a performance, scheduled for that night, in Great Falls, Montana.
His luggage had not.
The ladies from The Great Falls Symphony Guild apologized profusely for something that was not their fault, and, en masse, escorted Merrill to Kaufman’s to be fitted for suitable attire.
Dick Millard circled the women back to the front door, encouraging them to enjoy a sherry at Schell's Townhouse. He assured them a tux would be waiting in the star's dressing room in plenty of time for the performance.
Merrill relaxed and let Dick do his job, until he recognized Richard Baldwin.
Merrill Fills in the Blanks
Merrill got his glass of water and Dick Millard got an earful.
Once Merrill filled in some very important blanks in Baldwin's local biography, some of Baldwin's more bizarre behaviors made a little more sense.
The baritone had struck up a friendship with the concert pianist in Europe, before World War II. Richard Baldwin had confided in Robert Merrill. Perhaps out of sheer shock, Merrill talked to Dick Millard about his old friend.
Despite the fact that D.H. Baldwin, the founder of the company, left most of his fortune to missionaries, Richard Baldwin was proud of the family name. (In 2008, Baldwin, once the largest manufacturer of keyboard instruments in the nation, ceased manufacturing in the USA; the company is now owned by the Gibson Guitar Corporation, and their keyboards are made in China).
As a child, Richard Baldwin's incredible talent was showcased on tours of America and Europe. Sadly, Baldwin's parents died in an accident, leaving the young musician at loose ends as the nation braced for WWII.
Playing Piano for Uncle Sam
In the 1940's Baldwin enlisted in the armed forces, as a musician. With a small cadre of talented peers, he traveled, playing popular standards, from military base to military base, until he got to the Army Air Corps installation on Gore Hill (now the home of Montana's Air National Guard), just outside Great Falls, Montana.
The musical group moved on. By choice or default--or perhaps the end of his military committment, Baldwin decided to stay.
"I'd seen him fall, more than once."
Ike Kaufman told me, when I talked to him a couple of years ago, he worried that Baldwin might trip on the steep staircase that led up to his efficiency apartment, on his twice daily pilgrimages to the Pennant Bar, a couple of blocks away.
"I'd seen him fall," Kaufman cringed, "more than once."
Kaufman was aware that Baldwin lived on a small stipend, but no one knew where the money came from. That's one thing about Great Falls, Montana: there's an admirable streak of western independence and a healthy emphasis on the "let live" part of the old saying.
Baldwin kept to himself and stayed out of the limelight, Millard told Robert Merrill.
"Doesn't he play the piano anywhere around here?" Merrill asked.
There's No Talent at Schell's Townhouse
Merrill's question brought a smile to Dick Millard's face. Now, it made sense: Baldwin's extraordinary talent could, at times, not be contained. Though he preferred The Pennant on the corner of Third Street and First Avenue North, when he was in a certain mood, he'd show up at the piano bar at Schell's Townhouse.
If the pianist at Schell's had talent, Baldwin would sit and drink himself into his usual stupor. If he didn't, Baldwin was known, at a certain point of inebriation, to toss the piano player off the stool and show him "how it's done."
"Usually," Millard told Merrill, "if Richard Baldwin was in the room, the pianist didn't have talent."
Baldwin Plays...a Baldwin
Though he distinguished himself by always wearing a white shirt, suit and narrow necktie, most of the time Richard Baldwin just wanted to be left alone. Bud Nicholls, a musician of great local repute, remembers Baldwin in more polite moments, coming into the family music store and asking his father if it would be an imposition to play one of the grands.
“He was a fine pianist,” Nicholls reminisces. “My father always let him play.”
What was Richard Baldwin thinking, tinkling at the ivories Nicholls Music on Central Avenue, playing Chopin etudes and Strauss waltzes on a grand piano that bore his family name?
"He was such a polite fellow--when he was sober."
Before coming out west, Richard Baldwin performed on a New York City radio program, doing impromptu arrangements of the classics. In rare nostalgic moments, Baldwin told fellow Great Falls musicians of favorable reviews he’d been given in the New York press. He’d even recite, from memory, phone calls from impressed fans of the show.
Richard Baldwin never gave a scheduled performance in Great Falls. He didn’t have any students. According to local piano teacher Mary Richards he loathed performing, but he loved to play. Years ago, Mary and her husband Gordon gave piano lessons outside Great Falls on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They made a house key for their fellow musician, who would walk from 4th Street to 50th Street for a chance to play one of the two baby grands alone, in their empty house.
In all the years of using their home, Mary heard her guest play only once, an improvised arrangement of The Blue Danube. Mary claims she never heard a piano played quite that well here in Great Falls. She was so impressed that, from that time until he died, she agreed to iron Baldwin’s white dress shirts.
Musician and piano tuner Bill Dolena also opened his home to Baldwin, and on at least one occasion he regretted it. Baldwin must not have liked the aesthetics or the acoustics of Bill’s living room, because when Bill returned after Richard had played his piano, he found a floor to ceiling room divider demolished.
Baldwin never explained.
“He was such a polite fellow when he was sober,” Bill laughed.
Pathos, in Paths Not Crossed
Opera plots can be convoluted, full of ridiculous coincidence. Watching fate write tragic endings at the Met may have given Robert Merrill the courage to slip from his box seat behind the front window at Kaufman’s without crossing the street to greet his old friend.
Maybe Merrill didn’t want to embarrass him. Perhaps he was afraid Baldwin would hit him up for money, or that the old piano prodigy would show up at the Civic Center in less-than-sober shape, and insist on taking the stage to accompany his one-time colleague.
Richard Baldwin managed to keep his footing on the stairs at the Margaret for a few more years. He died when fell off his favorite stool at the Pennant Bar, back in February, 1974.
Dick Millard had a way with words, so I did interview all the people mentioned in this story to help confirm the accuracy of this information. If anyone has more about Richard Baldwin that enhances (or contradicts!) this work of creative nonfiction, please add it as a comment, below.
I wish I had a picture of Richard. Let me know if you have one, and I'll add it to the story--Claire
Robert Merrill Sings Verdi
- 100 Greatest Singers: ROBERT MERRILL - YouTube
THIS PROJECT IS RESERVED ONLY FOR THE GREATEST! Do you agree with me choosing Merrill? Please comment! Robert Merrill, Baritone (1919-2004) Giuseppe Verdi - ...