They say he never plays the same song twice. And yet, every Wednesday night at the Castle Theater, and every year for the FirstLight Film Festival, pianist Bruce Guerin warms up the theater audience with selections thematically befitting the upcoming movie.
“If it’s a French film,” he says, “I play French music. If it’s a film from Berlin… well, I play French music—I don’t know any German songs. No, I didn’t mean to say that!”
Born in 1919 in Hollywood, California, Guerin grew up in show business. His mom was a vaudeville dancer, his father a technical director for Republic Studios—then, a home-base movie studio for big names like John Wayne, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields.
“I grew up seeing five movies a week,” Guerin says. “Every week!”
He still loves watching movies. Some of his favorites include Birdcage, most all of the classics (“Gone With the Wind wasn’t too bad”), In Harm’s Way (“a good war movie”)—but really, there are too many to mention.
When he was five, Guerin began taking piano lessons and continued on through high school. He attended music school at UCLA, and began getting gigs. But the jobs weren’t always piano related.
“Being in Hollywood,” says Guerin, “whether you like it or not, you find yourself in show business.”
Guerin’s made 13 movies—most from the early to mid 1920’s—including Parasite, The Salvation Hunters, Lover’s Lane, The Country Kid, Drifting, The Bachelor Daddy and Kindred of the Dust.
During World War II, Guerin played all the big USO shows with Bob Hope, Betty Hutton and others. After the war, he went back to Hollywood, then took to the road with a “funny hat band”—a trio combining comedic shtick and serious musicianship.
He’s worked with string ensembles, quartets and accomplished singers. He even worked in Las Vegas for a couple of years, and became close friends with Liberace, a man Guerin says was “a good piano player and a great guy.”
By 1969, Guerin was in the best piano trio of Hollywood. But he decided to let it go and move to Honolulu. “I had to eat!” he says.
He worked for the Sheraton and eventually played the entire hotel circuit. He also worked 12 years at the Hyatt Regency in Ka’anapali.
“The other piano guy at the Hyatt, when guests used to ask him a song he didn’t recognize,” says Guerin, “he would tell them, ‘Come back tomorrow—Bruce will know.”
Years later, Guerin’s wife Lucille was volunteering at the MACC when she heard that Maui Film Festival co-director Barry Rivers was looking for a piano player. She immediately told her husband and he’s been the Cultural Center’s pianist now for four years.
“Besides that, he’s a real good dancer,” says Lucille, smiling.
When asked how many songs he thinks are in his repertoire, Guerin is unapologetically dismissive.
“I wouldn’t have a clue,” he says. “I have the capacity to remember a song I haven’t played in 30 years. Of course, I also open the icebox and can’t remember why all the time!” MTW