A Beloved Neighbor Leaves the Building


There’s a void in my Upper West Side co-op.

There’s no piano playing coming from the apartment directly above my ground-floor unit. No deep, reassuring bass-baritone.

I miss that voice. It belonged to Charles Dunn, a singer, voice teacher, former co-op president and good friend who died this month at 99.

Charles — a strapping Illinois farm boy who graduated from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1942, served in the Coast Guard during World War II and later came to New York to follow his passion — made the city a richer place.

One great thing about Manhattan is that the density of humanity increases the chances of encountering people who bring something special to the table. Charles brought an extra serving.

As he pursued a singing career in New York, one of his first jobs was working as a waiter at a Schrafft’s on the Upper West Side. Among those he told me worked there at the time: a future Oscar winner named Rod Steiger.

Though Charles himself never became famous, his talent was such that he was able to make a living doing what he loved, singing — even if the war did set him back a bit. “It was almost like starting over,” he told a Millikin University alumni publication in 1995, noting that he signed up for refresher voice lessons upon leaving the military. “The war took a big hole out of my life. It delayed my start quite a bit.”

But it didn’t deter him.

In a note to our building this week, Daniel Shigo, the co-op’s current president and a singer who formerly worked with the New York City Opera, wrote that Charles “made his way as a concert artist and performer on Broadway” and elsewhere. Charles, he said, appeared “in many productions; including ‘Kean’ with Alfred Drake (who gave Charles a standing ovation at his audition), ‘Destry Rides Again,’ ‘High Button Shoes,’ ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ (with Mary Martin), ‘The Music Man’ (with Van Johnson), ‘Happy Hunting,’ and ‘Illya Darling.’”

Charles bought into the co-op in the mid-1950s with money that he had made singing at an auto show one summer, he told us. Back then, you could do that.

Through his work, he occasionally found himself at notable events that he would recount. Among them: the 1962 celebration at Madison Square Garden during which Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy.

For years, Charles lived on the fifth floor of our brick-and-brownstone walk-up, a factor that his doctor told him had contributed to his longevity. His kindness was such that he inherited the top-floor unit next to his from a man whom Charles had cared for during a long illness. That apartment, which Charles rented out for years, provided a pension of sorts for him.

At about age 14, Daniel noted, Charles assumed farming duties from his father after his death. Many decades later, Charles still bore scars on his arms from an attack by a sow that nearly killed him. (His two dogs saved him.)

Charles’s Midwestern sensibility and practicality served him well — both in the city and in our co-op, where he had a calming effect during stressful times. And when he gave you a cantaloupe or a honeydew melon, you knew it would be perfect. “He could pick them out because he grew up knowing when to pick something,” said Sally Ann Swarm, a longtime friend and student of Charles’s.

About a dozen years ago, Charles sold his two top-floor apartments. He moved down to a unit on the second floor that he rented from another co-op member.

He may have slowed down some, but Charles kept an active schedule, teaching singers, attending concerts, taking walks and visiting the Muffins Cafe on Columbus Avenue.

His wanderlust led him around the world. He traveled well into his 90s, visiting places like Egypt, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

And he kept following his passion.

“I accompanied Charles six months ago in his apartment,” Daniel wrote, “he singing French and German art songs — his voice full and resonant from low F to high F. Charles was still practicing scales and exercises every morning up until eight weeks ago; a man of great vigor and stature, his 6-foot-2 frame lent him the air of a leading man.”

Though frail, Charles managed to attend a production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” at the Metropolitan Opera in December.

On the morning that Charles died, a young couple, by coincidence, began moving in to our co-op to rent a top-floor apartment — the one that Charles had inherited years ago from the person he helped care for. The couple will make their own history in our co-op.

As for Charles, the large void he leaves matches his physical stature. And I really miss that bass-baritone.

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