Play me a memory: Last call for Sorry Charlie's piano man

By the time the clock hits 10, the silver-and-gold-anniversary couples with fashions right off the set of "The Love Boat" are conceding the joint to a younger, hipper Queen Anne crowd.

One thing stays the same: The guy behind the piano. Night after night, Howard Bulson has been the heart of Sorry Charlie's, one of the last classic piano bars in Seattle whose end is closer than its regulars want to believe.

Bulson, 69, is the dapper-suited elder statesman of piano-bar masters, and as the old song goes, he knows a fine way to treat a Steinway. For 16 years, he's backed up a nightly array of singers ranging from genteel gals in fur purring pre-World War II melodies to hair-dyed twentysomethings crooning "Honeysuckle Rose" or bawdy Irish ballads.

The spotlight awaits a voice. Bulson takes a swig of coffee. Puffs a $12-a-carton cigarette. "Where we goin', Carol?" he says.

From the audience, Carol Roberts warmly responds: "Wherever."

Bulson plays a few notes, leading the way, and Roberts wades to the singer's bar stool and belts out the tune he's started, husky and rhapsodic, swinging for the rafters with each line.

Don't mind Bulson — he's only the piano player. He melts with quiet grace into the background, looking up only to see who else has come in. Backed by his deferential flourishes and effortless magic carpets of notes, each singer is a star. Each new voice brings new tunes to embellish: "Rocky Top." "Moon River." "All That Jazz."

Along with the Camlin Hotel's venerable Cloud Room, Sorry Charlie's will soon call it quits after 29 years in business at 529 Queen Anne Ave. N., barring some last-minute miracle. That makes for an uncertain future for legend Howard Bulson, whose career behind Seattle keyboards has spanned four decades.

"He's like (baseball stalwart) Cal Ripken," says fellow piano man Jim Washburn, who's played at Daniel's Broiler in Bellevue for 13 years. "He's always there."

A true cocktail lounge

In a city whose last decade saw the cresting of grunge rock and a rash of coffeehouses and Internet startups, Sorry Charlie's was among a shrinking handful of quintessential nightspots notable for time-tested campiness. The Doghouse. Ernie Steele's. The Cloud Room. And the Pink Door, which by summer's end will be the lone survivor.

It's the kind of place that inspires first-time experiences so unique that some don't come back for fear they'll spoil the memory.

"This is a cocktail lounge, from the cocktail era," admires local musician Hugh Sutton.

When Teri Mumme first walked into Sorry Charlie's 12 years ago, the scene was something out of a David Lynch movie — from the funeral-director-like guy behind the piano to the dwarf waitress to the lady with soup-can curls dealing cards with a rickety octogenarian. "I felt like I'd stepped into the kind of place that had disappeared off the face of the planet," she says.

One by one, she says, characters rose to sing tunes impossibly suited for themselves, from an Irish codger doing "Danny Boy" to a mascara-dripping woman's tearful rendition of "Send In the Clowns."

In the place's heyday, you couldn't wade through the crowd without tripping over someone's mink coat, even on weekdays. Street people would wander through and no one seemed to mind.

Seattle Opera chorus singers came by to stretch their lungs, and in recent years the dimly lighted room has been raided by the casts of Teatro Zinzanni and downtown stage productions.

There have been trumpet players, a guy who played two violins at once, and a memorable night of kazoos.

A perfect fit

When Betty Henderson bought the place three decades ago, there were just a handful of restaurants in the area. Two of them, Ozzie's and the Mecca Cafe, still sputter along.

It was a different time, and hardcore drinkers were as much fixtures of the place then as its wood paneling and dainty musical wallpaper.

In those days, she had three waitresses serving up lamb shank and pot roast to customers she mostly knew by name. She catered to folks on a fixed income.

"This is my family, my second home," she says.

She landed Bulson almost by accident. When a friend told her a Lake Union piano bar was closing and that its popular pianist would be loosed, Henderson went there with a sign saying that if Bulson wanted a job, he should stop on by her cocktail lounge.

Bulson showed up three days later, and by all accounts, it was a perfect fit. "We've never had a fight," Henderson says.

Bulson, from Mexico, Mo., was barely in first grade when he asked to take piano lessons, and by the time he reached high school he was on the road, backing up an itinerant tent evangelist.

It was an office job with a music dealer that brought him to Seattle in the early 1960s.

The keyboard, though, was his first love, and by 1969 occasional nighttime gigs crescendoed into a career. He quit his day job to be the piano man at Gim Ling, in the International District, where he'd been playing part-time. Then came Simonetti's on Aurora, and Charlee's on Lake Union.

"I never planned my life," he says. "I just did whatever I needed to do when I needed to do it."

An amazing range

Bulson knows his regulars. When he sits, he sweeps aside the faux flowers, the fishbowl-sized tip jar, the accountant-style nameplate given to him by friends who meant well — "not my idea," he says — so that he can see who's in the room.

"I gotta see who's here or I won't know what to do," he says. "I rotate 'em."

And so it goes: You get three songs and then you sit down and let someone else take a turn. If he knows you're there, he'll do a little name-that-tune, a few notes of your signature song to let you know you're up. There's the woman who does "I Love A Piano," and the guy who loves "Some Enchanted Evening."

"He remembers people and what song they sang last time they were there," says Dana Harper of Roslyn, a longtime Bulson fan along with her husband, Bob. "He can play anything and everything."

How big is his repertoire? He's got closets at home full of sheet music, most of which has been committed to his head.

"If they do it well, I don't care what they do," he says. In other words, you want to get up and make a fool of yourself, do it somewhere else.

Sometimes, however, he will prod someone to sing in a different key. "I usually know more about their range than they do," he says.

Most people are amateurs, and they'll sometimes stray from key or rhythm like novice truck drivers weaving across the lines. Bulson saves them effortlessly.

"That's what a lot of players can't do well," says pianist Washburn. "It's harder sometimes than people know. If they drop a beat, he'll be right there with them."

'He is our icon'

The last year or so is when things really started going downhill. "Nobody was going in," says Roslyn fan Harper. "I'd say to Howard, 'Where is everybody?' He'd just say, 'I don't know.' He wouldn't talk. He just wanted me to get up and sing."

"Our customers are all kind of going by the wayside," Henderson says. "I know one little man who's been coming in ever since we opened. He all but cried when he told me he doesn't know where to go when we close."

With aging patrons falling away and local development raising rent and parking headaches, Henderson says it's too hard to keep up with the bills. With every other doorway in the neighborhood a place to eat, her customers don't spring for the pricey appetizers and $8 martinis keeping other piano lounges afloat. She finally decided it was time to sell. She isn't sure when the doors will close. It may be as soon as next Tuesday, or it could be a few more months. Hearing the news, supporters have been gracious. "Some are eating here twice a day," Henderson says.

Bulson says only that he was sorry to hear it, and in the meantime he just does what he does.

"He is our icon," Roberts says. "He's worked so hard all of his life."

"Can you imagine this?" Henderson says, her voice bittersweet. "Night after night, for 16 years?"

Oh, sighs Ruby Bishop, a longtime friend of Bulson and a former lounge singer, if she only had the money. You get the sense that she takes the decline of piano bars almost personally.

"Now it's that doggone karaoke," she says. "A cousin of mine has a barbecue place, and she called one day and says, 'You gotta come out here, we've got karaoke now.' And there was just silence on my end. She says, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'You just said a dirty word to me.' "

This is what a legend like Bulson is up against — a scene diminishing like the last sad notes of an aria. People who used to go see him are older and staying home, and the youngsters don't know who he is, don't see the trick in a man playing songs no one knows anymore.

"I hope he stays around a long time," Bishop says. "He's got to. I don't think there's anyone in the United States who can do what he does, with his repertoire, his knowledge of music, his perfect pitch. He's a musical genius."

As for the piano man himself, you get the sense that he's just playing it by ear. "Tomorrow's wide open," he says, with enough brio that you're tempted to believe him.

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or