He’s known as the Music Man of Bonnie Blink. It’s an apt title for Gilbert Schuler, a professional musician who, at 92, weekly entertains residents of the Maryland Masonic Homes’ facility in Hunt Valley, where he lives.
For decades, Schuler led a 10-piece orchestra that played at more weddings, celebrations and conventions in Baltimore than he can count. He gave lessons and owned a music store in Overlea. His stage name was Gil Monroe, as in the Gil Monroe Orchestra and the Gil Monroe Music Store.
“I enjoy making people happy,” said Schuler who once led the most requested orchestra at Overlea Caterers and Martin’s West, and played at venues from the Baltimore Convention Center to the World Trade Center in Baltimore and all the local hotels in between.
On a wintry day last week, sitting in his cozy room at Bonnie Blink, a continuing care retirement community, he pulls out two CDs and inserts them in the elaborate sound system that occupies most of one wall. He recorded them in his home in Overlea when he was 88.
His baritone voice is pleasantly mellow. What astounds, though, is his saxophone playing, both alto and tenor. He also plays the clarinet. He’s got the rhythm but then, he says by way of explanation, “I’ve always loved music.”
He took his first sax lessons, he adds, on Sept. 5, 1935, at 13.
It’s a very precise date. But Schuler is full of dates, and places as well, a remarkable feat of memory. Except for hearing loss in one ear and the use of a walker, he appears in good health, and certainly good spirits, for a man his age.
“I never smoked. I didn’t drink,” said Schuler, who worked in his share of smoke-filled, alcohol-available rooms. “I told everyone around me to do the same. The ones who didn’t listen were dead at 50.
Those who did are still living.”
Schuler was born in Highlandtown in 1922 to William and Ethel Schuler. A midwife delivered him at the couple’s home. He had two older brothers, both now deceased. One brother, Albert, was a professional drummer for Bing Crosby’s band in Hollywood, Schuler recalls.
Schuler attended what is today called Towson University for two years. He studied sax under Hank Levy, a Towson professor, and keyboard under Eddie Long, a private teacher. Schuler taught at McDonogh School for a decade, and then worked with disabled children at a Baltimore City recreation and parks department-run school.
In his store, high school students learned not only music but also rudimentary business skills like operating a cash register and making phone calls to expedite deliveries.
“It was a good experience for them,” said Schuler, who is divorced, and has no children. A member of the Knights Templar for 65 years, his rank is equivalent to a 32nd-degree Mason.
On Jan. 31, 2014, he moved into Bonnie Blink, and quickly made his presence known.
Every Friday from 3 to 4 p.m., he performs at Bonnie Blink’s Happy Hour, held in a lounge when the weather’s cold and outdoors on a patio when it’s nice. There’s punch and a frosted cake that says “Happy Hour.” Usually, he plays the sax and takes requests from the audience, fellow Bonnie Blink residents.
Favorites are “Over the Rainbow,” “Slow Boat to China,” “Stardust” and Broadway show tunes, songs that are familiar to the 30 or so people who regularly attend the event. Often, they sing along.
“I don’t have trouble remembering the songs. I’ve been playing them my whole life,” Schuler said.
He said among career highs, he ran a string band for the Boumi Temple, was once named Man of the Year by the Baltimore Yacht Club and, in 1965, played tenor sax in the band that played for singer Stevie Wonder in Baltimore.
“The residents love it,” Nicolle Hahn, life enrichment assistant at the approximately 300-resident Bonnie Blink, said of Schuler’s Happy Hour performances. “They tell me, ‘It’s so nice of him to play for us.’ He plays songs they can relate to.”
Bonnie Blink resident Elinor Causey met Schuler at a Happy Hour. She asked him if he knew the song “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”
Yes, he knew it.
“Good,” she told him, “because every pub I’ve been in plays that and ‘Danny Boy.’ “
“We hit it off,” said Causey, 87, a retired school teacher, widow, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who moved from Westminster to Bonnie Blink five years ago.
Causey said every Saturday, Bonnie Blink brings in a local musician to entertain residents.
“A lot of them he’s taught,” she said about Schuler. She said he also makes CDs for residents with songs by Perry Como, Bing Crosby or whoever their favorite singers happen to be.
“He’s got a fan club,” Causey said.
Kathleen and Bob Smith are regulars at the Happy Hour. The former Glen Burnie residents moved into Bonnie Blink in 2013.
“We like meeting people,” said Bob, a retired computer operator. “We like the snacks and drinks,” Kathleen, a retired state agency employee, said.
But mostly, they both added, “We love the music.”
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