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The City Different’s very own ‘Piano Man’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

You might say that Vanessie is the house that Doug built.

Doug Montgomery has been performing at Vanessie for 38 years, becoming a Santa Fe institution in the process. (Monica Roman Gagnier/Albuquerque Journal)

Musician Doug Montgomery was visiting a friend in Santa Fe in summer 1982 when he saw a crane putting up the beams of the nightclub on West San Francisco Street. He noticed a man observing the construction and introduced himself. That man turned out to be the club’s owner and he offered Montgomery a job on the spot.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Montgomery, an affable Midwesterner with movie-star looks, has been presiding over a 9-foot-long Baldwin piano ever since.

His schedule is subject to change because of out-of-town gigs, but you can generally find him playing Broadway show tunes, classical music and selections from the Great American Songbook Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m., and Sundays and Mondays from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

So, if you’re looking for a place to hear someone croon “My Funny Valentine” in the City Different on Valentine’s Day, you’re in luck: Montgomery will gladly oblige you.

The song was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their 1937 Broadway musical “Babes in Arms,” which was later made into a movie starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. But the tune didn’t become popular until years later when Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1953.

By today’s standards, the lyrics seem less than loving:

Your looks are laughable

Unphotographable

Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek?

Is your mouth a little weak?

When you open it to speak

Are you smart?

But despite its traces of misogyny, Montgomery delivered the tune with a sweet smile on a recent Friday night and his phrasing was enthusiastically received.

At Vanessie, Montgomery sits with his back to a giant mirror, which allows diners in the restaurant, or even at the bar, to watch his fancy fingerwork. He works the crowd, asking for requests in a breezy manner and greeting the regulars who have made him a Santa Fe institution.

His first question upon meeting a stranger is, “What’s your favorite song?” However, the musician declined to reveal his own favorite during a telephone interview, despite repeated prodding.

Although Montgomery won’t name his favorite song, he mentioned as a signature tune “New York, New York,” first recorded by Liza Minelli for the 1977 film of the same name. Sinatra released his version of the Fred Ebb-John Cander song two years after the movie came out, essentially making it his own.

“Memories” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats,” recently made into an underperforming movie, is another Montgomery favorite.

Unlike many Santa Fe musicians who have to harangue members of the audience to throw a dollar in the tip jar, Montgomery doesn’t need to beg for gratuities from Vanessie’s older, well-dressed and presumably well-heeled patrons. They willingly throw fives, tens and even twenties into the giant crystal top hat that sits on top of Montgomery’s piano.

Born in Niles, Illinois, Montgomery credits a fifth-grade teacher in his elementary school, Miss Rennen, for introducing him to music and getting him a scholarship for lessons “by making a phone call to someone.”

While no one can accuse Montgomery of being short on confidence (“I was brilliant,” he said of his early piano-playing days), he admits to not liking his voice. “I’m not a singer,” he said. “I’m a pianist.”

By high school, he was playing symphony parts. He went on to attend Northwestern University, where he majored in music theory. Later, while studying at the Julliard School in New York City, he started going to a popular Upper East Side piano bar called Brandy’s and learned the tricks of the trade.

The 1980s found Montgomery entertaining at Big Apple piano bars, but he decided to go home to Chicago, where his sister was working as a photographer. One day when he was accompanying her on rounds to show her portfolio in the pre-internet days, he was recruited as a model. Soon, he was a regular on advertising and catalog shoots for big department stores like Sears, Montgomery Ward and Marshall Field’s. On weekends, he would still play music.

It was that chance visit to Santa Fe in 1982 that changed his life, though.

Over the years, a lot of celebrities have come to Vanessie to watch Montgomery, including musical theater royalty Patrick Cassidy, whose parents were Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, and whose half-brother was the late pop star David Cassidy.

Of course, who at Vanessie could resist a Montgomery-Cassidy collaboration on “I Think I Love You”? For those who missed that pop-star minute, the song was a smash hit by The Partridge Family, the 1970s band and TV show about a musical family starring Jones and David Cassidy, among others.

Oddly enough, Montgomery’s songbook doesn’t include the lesser-known Partridge Family ditty, “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque,” given the Duke City’s proximity to Santa Fe.

What brought Patrick Cassidy to the City Different? “The family was driving from LA to Nashville, and they were staying at the Inn at Vanessie,” Montgomery said. The inn and the piano bar were merged in 2011.

“Everyone from Tony Bennett to Jack Jones has stopped by,” Montgomery said.

And it’s not just people with grey hair, he noted. “We’re seeing a lot more younger people who appreciate” the music of the 20th century.

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