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Pianist was a fixture at Columbia for decades

Genuine, methodical Henry Tudela died Aug. 11. ''He was a really, really great piano player,'' Columbia manager says.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002


Henry Tudela
1916-2002

YBOR CITY -- For six decades, the ritual barely changed.

Six nights a week, Henry Tudela would enter the Columbia Restaurant on Seventh Avenue about an hour before showtime, nattily clad in a black tuxedo. He'd saunter through the restaurant to the cafe and order coffee. If no one was around, he ducked into the kitchen to make it himself.

He'd slide into a booth and read the newspaper, dragging on a Kent cigarette. Depending on the time of day, he'd order a meal -- on the house, of course.

Then he'd position himself behind the piano for the rest of the night.

Mr. Tudela was as much a part of the Columbia Restaurant as its Spanish tile, playing piano for its patrons since 1936. He died Aug. 11 at age 86 after a long bout with cancer, leaving behind decades of memories and music at the historic restaurant.

"As far as I'm concerned, he was like part of the fixtures here at the restaurant," said Columbia general manager George Guito.

"He was a really, really great piano player. I would hear comments all the time from people, and people that worked with him, about how good he played."

Mr. Tudela first tickled the ivories at age 6, when his parents signed him up for lessons. He became an acute, devoted student, watching closely at live piano concerts to study the methods of legends such as Duke Ellington.

At 16, he had his first gig, playing at the Club Avalon, long since closed. Four years later, he landed the last job he'd ever need: pianist at the Columbia.

It was the gig of a lifetime, both literally and figuratively. Mr. Tudela played for the next 60-plus years, save for a few years in combat during World War II.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he toured with Tampa violinist Cesar Gonzmart and Gonzmart's band, the Continental Society Orchestra, playing clubs all over the country. Gonzmart would later take over the Columbia with his wife, Adela, daughter of its founder.

Mr. Tudela played for countless celebrities, including Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli, and Liberace. He played for the latter so often that people around the Columbia actually started calling him Liberace.

Still, he never took on airs of a celebrity entertainer. "You saw him dressed up, and you knew he was going somewhere special, but you really wouldn't peg him to be an entertainer," said Columbia co-owner Casey Gonzmart. "He was just a piano player."

Guito said Mr. Tudela made many friends at the Columbia. "Anybody that met Henry automatically liked Henry, because he was an easy guy to get along with, and the nicest guy going."

For the Gonzmart family, he remained a link to the past. Whenever Adela would enter the room, Mr. Tudela would play her favorite song. He played at the weddings of Gonzmart sons Casey and Richard.

"I think he helped maintain the aura of days gone by," Casey Gonzmart said. "I think that that was part of my link with my childhood, knowing that the piano player was still there playing your favorite songs."

Mr. Tudela was diagnosed with lung cancer more than 20 years ago, but he rarely missed a night at the piano. He was private and modest, preferring to speak about the restaurant and not his troubles.

"After he had whatever treatment was being done, he immediately came back to work," Gonzmart said. "You couldn't tell with Henry. You couldn't tell from one day to the next if he had good news or bad news. He was methodical. Very steady in what he did, and very professional."

There is still live music and flamenco dancing at the Columbia, but Gonzmart says there will never be another piano player like Mr. Tudela.

"No one could replace Henry," he said.

Mr. Tudela was preceded in death by his wife of more than 30 years, Lucille (Toby) Marrs Tudela. Survivors include his sister, Carmen Cone, of Albany, Ga., two nieces, a nephew and a cousin.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to LifePath Hospice in Mr. Tudela's memory.

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