There’s a little less music in Wichita this week.
Pat McElligott, one of the city’s most popular piano players, died on Sunday at age 86.
“Bless his heart,” says businessman Jack DeBoer. “He was special.”
McElligott, a Montana native, was performing in Seattle when a couple of Wichitans convinced him to move here years ago. He spent the last third of his life playing such places as the Wichita Club, the Hotel at Old Town and most recently Larkspur in Old Town.
“He walked in one day, and he said, ‘I love to play the piano. You don’t have to pay me,’” says Larkspur owner Ty Issa. “And he sat down and started playing. I didn’t have the heart to say no. He’s been playing ever since.”
Issa has been paying him, too.
McElligott’s last performance at the restaurant was about two weeks ago.
“He’s had some health problems,” Issa says.
In addition to being able to play just about anything, Issa says McElligott had a talent for remembering people, even those who moved away and then returned to see him.
“He would recognize them,” Issa says. “It’s amazing. … People will come from out of town, and they make sure they stop to see him.”
That included aviation industry types who appreciated McElligott’s mastery of French.
It was McElligott’s personality more than anything that attracted audiences.
“He’s an entertainer more than a piano player,” Issa says.
DeBoer says he once had some friends to his boat on Lake Michigan and invited McElligott to play piano on it. He says McElligott used to be an accompanist for Barbra Streisand.
“Somehow the word got out that Barbra Streisand was going to be on the boat,” DeBoer says. “It attracted about 300 people who were on the dock. So I told Pat, ‘You better put on a wig, ’cause they’re all here to see you.’
“That was one of his favorite stories,” DeBoer says. “He had lots of stories.”
Though they were amusing, DeBoer says McElligott would often stop playing in the middle of a song to tell the tales.
“I’d tell him, ‘Pat, I want you to finish this next song because I really like it.’”
McElligott often would speak of famous people he’d known through the years, such as Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead and Lana Turner.
“A lot of people knew him in the world of the fancy,” DeBoer says.
Issa says Larkspur staff would take care of McElligott.
“He was part of the family. … He’ll be hard to replace.”
There will be a celebration of McElligott’s life from 5 to 7 p.m. on May 27 at Larkspur.
“He’s a legend in our world,” Issa says. “He’ll be missed.”