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At the Hotel Bel-Air, a pianist's elegance and ivory

For a dozen years, Antonio Castillo de la Gala has charmed patrons at the hotel's Champagne Bar. Tonight, the boy from Veracruz ends his run.

September 29, 2009|Martha Groves

The Champagne Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air is dark as a lair. Ice clinks as men and women on caramel-colored leather chairs and forest-green couches imbibe, converse and laugh. A roaring fire blasts light and warmth, which is welcome, despite the heat of a late-summer evening, because the air-conditioned room feels like an ice bucket.

Against a wall, under giant paintings of swans, Antonio Castillo de la Gala -- dapper in a dark suit, striped tie and crisp shirt -- surveys his domain from his perch at a Yamaha baby grand piano. As his hands caress the keys, his bespectacled eyes roam the dark-paneled bar and he nods at the many familiar faces.

Five nights a week for 12 1/2 years, Castillo de la Gala has entertained patrons with classic songs rendered in a style rich in embellishment and filigree.

Think "As Time Goes By," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "The Man I Love." Think Gershwin, Porter, Kern, tangos, Broadway, movies -- all elevated by masterly keyboard technique. This is music to fall in love by, and Castillo de la Gala did. (The hotel provided the swans and a gazebo, but that's getting ahead of the story.)

The lounges of top-tier hotels are a distinct musical niche, a rarefied, murmurous, dimly lit world in which Castillo de la Gala is a highly polished fixture, even a minor legend.

With a 2,000-song repertoire committed to memory, he has amassed a fan base of philanthropists, captains of industry, kings, queens, movie stars and fellow musicians.

Given the venue, it is no surprise that celebrities, musical and otherwise, are frequently in the audience. Castillo de la Gala recites their names with relish; a robust self-regard, tempered by droll self-deprecation, is part of his charm. He has played duets with Phyllis Diller and Billy Joel. Paul McCartney stopped by once and, the pianist reports, was wowed by his arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby."

When Robert Goulet showed up one night, Castillo de la Gala launched into "The Impossible Dream," and Goulet sang along. A few months before his death, the pianist said, Michael Jackson applauded quietly after every song.

"For a boy from Veracruz to come to this country and mingle with such people, it's an amazing life," Castillo de la Gala said.

Tonight, the boy from Veracruz ends his run at the Bel-Air, which is closing for a renovation expected to last two years. Along with about 220 other employees, Castillo de la Gala is losing his job.

No matter. He's expecting a crowd.

"It's going to be insane," he said. "Everybody and their mother will be coming. It's going to be a logistics problem for the hotel. Thank God it's not my problem!"


In 1946, the year Castillo de la Gala was born in Mexico, entrepreneur Joseph Drown opened the Hotel Bel-Air on a wooded site acquired from Alphonzo E. Bell's Bel-Air Estates.

The pink-stuccoed Mission-style landmark became a lush hideaway for the upper crust of Hollywood and politics. It was where Grace Kelly slumbered after winning the best actress Oscar for "The Country Girl" and where Marilyn Monroe posed sultrily by the diving board in a strapless bathing suit. Where Elizabeth Taylor briefly lived with husband No. 1, Nicky Hilton. Where Richard Nixon wrote his memoirs (in Room 138) and where Nancy Reagan still dines regularly on the terrace.

But at 63, the five-star Bel-Air, on 12 acres in a canyon north of Sunset Boulevard, is showing its wrinkles. The 91 rooms "are getting tired and do need refurbishing," said general manager Tim Lee. And there's that matter of technology; 99% of guests, Lee said, cannot use their cellphones at the hotel.

Castillo de la Gala had hoped that he and his fiancee, Kathryn Tran, would marry at the hotel next year, but now they must make other plans. Two years ago, Tran was in the audience and requested several classical pieces: Rachmaninoff, Pachelbel, Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro." On the way out, she asked for his business card. Not long after, he proposed to her in the gazebo next to the hotel's famed Swan Lake.


One evening in early September, Castillo de la Gala warms up with the theme from "Love Story" and "The Music of the Night" from "Phantom of the Opera." The pianist, who does his own arrangements, adorns each selection with arpeggios and scales and ends with a flourish, lifting his hands off the keys or running a thumb along the keyboard.

Castillo de la Gala enjoyed a brief career as a concert pianist in Mexico and the United States. His last performance as a soloist with an orchestra was in Tucson in the 1980s, when he performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

His website ( indulges in florid language about his place "as an heir to the Liszt legacy." That's a bit like a novelist comparing himself to Tolstoy. Castillo de la Gala said that particular passage was written by someone else and that he is "much more modest."

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