Eagle’s swan song

After four years as a noontime celebrity at Boston College, the Piano Guy is performing his final dining hall show today

Dennis Carr, in a weekday routine he started as a BC freshman, plays tunes for the lunch crowd in the Eagle's Nest in McElroy Commons. Dennis Carr, in a weekday routine he started as a BC freshman, plays tunes for the lunch crowd in the Eagle's Nest in McElroy Commons. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Zak Jason
Globe Correspondent / May 5, 2011

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NEWTON — Sporting a maroon school sweatshirt and jean shorts, Boston College senior Dennis Carr set his backpack against the baby grand, and began playing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer’’ from memory.

Over the course of a half-hour, a few hundred students, professors, and dining hall employees walked by. It was lunchtime in the Eagle’s Nest, one of the most popular dining halls on the Chestnut Hill campus.

Some stopped and listened on their way to grab salads. Some sat at round tables nearby and sang along. Others ate their paninis and paid no attention to Carr, as if his playing was background music buzzing through a ceiling speaker.

“The first time I played that piano was at night,’’ Carr recalled. “Nobody was in there. The next day, at lunch, I was walking by and I thought, how different could it be?’’

Nearly every weekday for the past four years, Carr has performed in the Eagle’s Nest. Since giving his first rendition of Five for Fighting’s “100 Years’’ one October day his freshman year, he has become a ubiquitous celebrity on campus. Though many people don’t know his name, almost everyone at BC has heard of the Piano Guy.

But in less than three weeks, Carr will graduate with 2,250 other BC seniors. Today, the final day of undergraduate classes, Carr will perform for the last time in the Eagle’s Nest. More than 1,000 students are expected to gather from noon to 1 p.m. for the Piano Guy’s last hurrah.

“I know I’m going to miss his playing, and it’s also sad because he’s become such a part of BC, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would say it’ll be strange without him,’’ said Adrian Tatro, a freshman who often sings along to Carr’s music with her friends.

Carr’s journey to celebrity was unexpected, and largely unsought. Growing up in Merrimack, N.H., Carr took piano lessons from the third grade until his junior year of high school. Though he showed talent from a young age, he never joined any bands or music clubs at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua.

Beyond playing piano for “BC Idol’’ (the school’s version of “American Idol’’), Carr hasn’t performed in any organized capacity at college.

But once he began playing in the Eagle’s Nest, it wasn’t long before students were applauding, patting him on the back on their way to eat burritos, and requesting songs. He uploaded their favorites onto his iPod or purchased sheet music, went to a practice room at night, and worked on them until he felt ready for a lunchtime performance.

Over the last four years, he has expanded his repertoire from five songs to roughly 60 — everything from his idol Elton John to Journey to the score from “Forrest Gump.’’ “Mostly it’s what I hear on the radio,’’ he said. “All of the songs that you know are hits.’’

He has even attracted groupies. This year, a group of freshmen regularly dined at a table near Carr and sang along with whatever he played.

“My friends and I were eating in the Eagle’s Nest one day while Dennis was playing the piano, and I really wanted to go over and listen. Then he started playing ‘Love Story’ and everyone wanted to sing along’’ to the Taylor Swift hit, Tatro said. “It was pretty spontaneous.’’

At times, a crowd surrounded the Piano Guy, nearly blocking the entrance to the dining hall. Other times, he simply provided background music. But Carr said he enjoys the informal setting. “There is nothing like seeing someone’s face light up with a flash of recognition of a song,’’ said Carr. “That’s my favorite part.’’

Sometimes he would pound away for five-hour marathon sessions, from the lunchtime peak until long after the custodians had left. On Valentine’s Day two years ago, after playing for hours, Carr noticed a couple enter the empty dining hall to watch. As he played Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight’’ from “The Lion King,’’ the couple started a slow dance. “A lot of little memories like that will stay with me for a while,’’ said Carr.

Though he’s logged hundreds of days performing in the Eagle’s Nest, Carr has never eaten a meal there, he said.

He usually eats in the dining hall on the floor above, and then sets up shop at the piano.

While Carr owes most of his fame to his performances, social media have enhanced his legend. By creating his own YouTube video profile and Facebook fan page, Carr has crafted a strong online presence.

In his junior year, Carr employed his celebrity to help a fellow student. When ESPN’s “College GameDay’’ sports show visited Boston College in October 2009, Carr first heard of football player Mark Herzlich’s battle with Ewing’s sarcoma. Carr sent him a video of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.’’

“I didn’t think he’d respond. But he responded and then I realized how down to earth he was,’’ said Carr.

Soon after, he crafted Music for Mark, a 9.4-hour (in honor of Herzlich’s jersey number, 94) saga of song and dance to raise money for Ewing’s sarcoma research.

But with the close of classes, all of this will evaporate. Even though Carr will attend BC’s Lynch School of Education to receive a master’s degree, even though he admits that he’s met more people in his life through his dining hall performances than anywhere else, even though he’s spent the past four years fashioning an identity as the Piano Guy, Carr proclaims he will never again sit at the Eagle’s Nest piano.

“I don’t want to continue as the person who can’t let go,’’ he said. “You’ve got to know when to exit stage left. It makes it more special.’’

Zak Jason, a member of Boston College’s class of 2011, is a former arts and review editor at the independent student newspaper The Heights.