Southeast Alaska is having an unprecedented summer with no cruise ships in port due to COVID-19. Many businesses that cater to tourists aren’t able to resume normal operations. And performers who entertain people on and off the ship are feeling that squeeze, too. But at least one musician is performing in a very different space in Juneau — bringing playful vacation vibes to an everyday task.
When you’re pushing a cart at the grocery store, it’s normally to the tune of some generic pop song. But lately at Foodland IGA in Juneau, the music has been coming from an actual keyboard player: 81-year-old Bobby Reynolds.
Reynolds wears a low-slung face mask as he glides his fingers across a keyboard set up near the entrance of the grocery store. A tip jar is positioned close by. He plays a wide variety of music, everything from Fats Domino and Frank Sinatra to the theme from the Flintstones.
Reynolds normally spends the off season at his home in Florida, but he’s been coming up to Juneau every summer since around 1997 to perform for cruise ship tourists. Despite the global pandemic, this summer was no exception.
“I thought, I got to get the heck out of Fort Lauderdale,” Reynolds said. “I called the general manager at the IGA store and he said, ‘Bobby listen, you’ve been in the business a long time. Why don’t you bring your piano and set it up over here. Maybe we’ll try something.'”
Reynolds says he’s played in some of the best rooms in the world and in front of large audiences. One time he performed at the Playboy Club.
“But I like playing tunes in the grocery store because I can talk to people as they go by,” Reynolds said. “Everybody talks to me.”
Reynolds normally takes up residence at the Red Dog Saloon in the summer. He speaks with a deep affection for the iconic Juneau restaurant and bar. It’s usually packed with tourists this time of year.
When Reynolds started playing at the Red Dog Saloon more than a decade ago, he was greeted by a longtime performer, “Tag” Eckles, who went by the stage name, Phineas Poon. That longtime performer helped bring him into the fold and even gave Reynolds a new stage name: The Great Baldini.
But The Great Baldini’s act at the Red Dog Saloon is a little more rowdy than his current grocery store gig. In a Youtube video of him playing at the Red Dog in 2014, he sings a silly parody of She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain that sounds like it’s about a flatulent grandma. Reynolds says he likes to make his audience laugh. And as a performer, he commands attention. You do not want to be caught on a cell phone in the middle of his show.
“I say things like, ‘you know what, I’ve been doing this for 60 years so I’d like you to put those [expletive] down for a little bit.” Reynolds said. “I swear a little bit. I don’t get dirty, vulgar because you should never have to do comedy like that. And I just yell at ’em and tell ’em, ‘Just pay attention. I might have something you like.'”
There are a number of people who like what The Great Baldini has to offer. Tourists regularly mention his act as a standout in reviews on Tripadvisor.
Of course, the energy in Juneau is very different this summer. Even so, Reynolds says he’s grateful to entertain locals at the grocery store, even if they’re just grabbing a carton of milk.
Reynolds was planning on going back home sometime in August but those plans are on hold at the moment. He might stay a little longer, as case numbers in Florida continue to surge. In the meantime, he’ll keep doing what he does best — playing music and entertaining.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I love to do,” he said. “Playing right in the middle of a song, I just might go South. Fine with me. The last guy that worked here 33 years is right up there in that jar, and that’s his ashes in that jar … in the Red Dog. My buddy Tag Eckles. He got me the job here. I just might have mine up in there someday, right next to his.”