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Buddy Charles’ memory lives on in benefit

Buddy Charles (shown 1999) is remembered yearly benefit concert for his parish church. | SUn-times file photo

Buddy Charles (shown in 1999) is remembered yearly in a benefit concert for his parish church. | SUn-times file photo

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4th Annual Benefit in Honor of Buddy Charles

♦ 3 p.m. July 15

♦ St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church, 8149 W. Golf Road, Niles

♦ Ticket, $20

♦ For ticket information, call Delores Stanton, (847) 966-1180

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The expression “Chicago legend” gets tossed around a lot, but it truly fit pianist and singer Buddy Charles, a fixture at Chicago’s piano bars, like the Acorn, where he performed for nearly 20 years, and the Coq d’Or in the Drake Hotel. Charles passed away in 2008.

The Morton Grove resident was also a friend and inspiration to many of Chicago’s cabaret performers, including Scott Urban.

“I knew Buddy from about 1970 on,” Urban said. “I was entertaining around town. I went in to hear Buddy Charles one night and became immediately entranced, and we stayed friends until his death in 2008.

“I used to go in and sing with him sometimes three or four times a week. I could do anything with Buddy — he knew so many songs. He had a repertoire of somewhere around fifteen or twenty thousand songs. He didn’t just know the songs, he knew where they came from, who wrote them, who performed them. He was an encyclopedia.”

At Charles’ funeral, Urban came up with an idea to honor his late friend: He’d gather a bunch of cabaret professionals to perform at a benefit in memory of Charles. All the proceeds would go to St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church in Niles, where the devoutly religious Charles attended mass every day. The event became an annual affair.

This year’s concert takes place July 15 at the church. The theme is “An Afternoon at the Theater.” Performers include: Joel Barry, Anne Burnell, Mark Burnell, Steve Heliotes, Ernie Lane, Bob Moreen, Audrey Morris, Frank D’Rone, Jeanne Scherkenbach, Bob Solone and Urban, with a special performance by Charles’ widow, Pat Gries.

“Buddy Charles and I encountered each other not long after I started working in Chicago in the early ’70s,” said Moreen. “We didn’t see too much of each other professionally because we worked the same hours.”

When Moreen did see Charles, it was always an event. “Buddy was an extremely effusive man,” he said. “I very seldom walked into a place where he was performing where he didn’t somewhere along the line run up and hug me and always inquire as to what was going on with you. Buddy did not talk a heck of a lot about what was going on with him. He was extremely concerned about the well being of other people.”

Moreen has performed at all of the benefits. “It’s just a joy to celebrate what he did by doing what we do,” he said.

Pat Gries was a successful New York stage and television actress who gave up her career when she married Charles.

“It was a miracle that brought us together,” Gries said. “We had 54 years. He was a marvelous human being, provider and father, as well as husband. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Gries noted that her husband never acted like a celebrity — family always came first. He was also devoted to his church. “He taught Saturday morning classes for 20 or 25 years,” she said. “He would string two rosary beads every day.” He’d mail them, 100 at a time, to places where they were needed.

When Gries found out that the performers wanted to do an annual benefit at her church in honor of her husband, she was “amazed and stunned,” Gries said. “These guys come from all over to do this year after year. What a tribute to Buddy.”

Gries will perform “Adelaide’s Lament” from “Guys and Dolls” and “A Quiet Thing” from “Flora the Red Menace.”

So far, proceeds from the benefits have paid for a new piano and a new sound system for the church. The church was also able to refurbish the family room, where they put up a plaque in memory of Charles.

Urban said that the owner of Heavenly Pianos, where the church purchased the piano, sold it to them at cost because the owner had played with Charles and thought he was one of the most wonderful people he had ever met.

“He affected people that way,” Urban said. “He was probably the kindest, most generous man you will ever meet. Buddy always seemed to have time for everybody.”

Myrna Petlicki is a local free-lance writer.

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