The piano man

Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

Richard Krauk has been playing piano at The Mills House Hotel in Charleston for 40 years but is going deaf as well as gradually losing his sight. Still, his play list remains in the hundreds of tunes.

Richard Krauk started playing piano in the lounge at Charleston's Mills House Hotel around the time the Beatles broke up.

Over the years, the country's tastes drifted through disco and punk, new wave and grunge, but Krauk kept plugging away with the same old sentimental staples, six nights a week, twice every Sunday.

Disco is long gone. Krauk plays on.

This summer marks Krauk's 40th year as the house piano player in one of Charleston's oldest hotels. He's easy to spot -- the frail gray-bearded man tucked behind the baby grand in the Barbados room, where Sinatra, Gershwin and Broadway flow freely from his 76-year-old fingers. It is music that, in the cruelest of ironies, comes from a man nearly completely deaf and on his way to going blind.

Charleston was a much different town when Krauk started playing at the newly reopened Mills House.

Born in Baltimore, he'd been around pianos since the age of 5, learning from his father. "We always had a piano in the house," he said.

After Krauk joined the Navy in 1953, his sea duty became an avenue to explore new clubs in steamy ports such as Havana, Port-au-Prince and Key West.

"I was playing in places you wouldn't go into without a gun," he said of his hauntings that began in Baltimore's honky tonks. There were nice places, too, like Miami's Fontainebleau Hotel.

Charleston became his permanent home after the Navy taught him sonar and radar for submarine duty. The assignment was easy since Krauk had always excelled in math. "Basically that is what the piano is all about," he said, "mathematics and, naturally, emotions."

In 1971, the Mills House Hotel on Meeting Street reopened after being razed and rebuilt. Always eager to play, Krauk walked in one day and auditioned for the general manager, hoping for a part-time gig. The hotel at the time was an epicenter to the Charleston social scene and helped spark the city's revitalization. Women dressed in jewels and their finest evening wear, while the men wore mandatory coats in the dining room.

After starting at $12 an hour, he's been there ever since.

In his prime, Krauk's repertoire included thousands of tunes, from complicated classical and Viennese waltzes to Roaring '20s staples and simpler rag-time riffs. Today, his playlist has declined into the hundreds. "When I went deaf, the struggle became too much," he said.

Krauk is suffering from Meniere's disease, an inner ear ailment that causes severe dizziness and a constant ringing. Over time it will destroy more and more of his hearing.

"My ears had to tell me where I was, and they no longer do," he said.

Now, he relies on memory, inspiration and feel. When he gets trapped or lost, he'll kick up a sudden improvisation to get him through. "If I lose my focus, I lose the song," he said.

Blindness is coming too. He can see fairly well in the wide panorama, but not as well when focusing on smaller things, like notes on a page of sheet music.

Even with his ailments (he also survived cancer of the esophagus), hotel manager John Edwards said Krauk can play as long as he likes.

"Over the years it's been a great fit, for him and us," Edwards said.

His appearances are limited to Fridays and Sundays, but Krauk still has a following. Fans include locals, returning tourists and a few Hollywood celebrities who have stuck their heads in the hotel bar or stopped to get acquainted. Then there are the presidents he serenaded: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush during visits to Charleston.

In his twilight, Krauk clings to his love of the old tunes, the piano and his 40 years at the Mills House.

"I've always loved it -- more than I could ever describe."