ST. PETERSBURG — David Hundley opened the heavy double doors at the State Theatre one morning several years ago. He was there early to prepare for a show that night.
Hundley heard something surprising: music.
On the empty stage, Cecil Warren — his janitor — stood in jeans and a white T-shirt, playing a trumpet that was lying around.
"He was playing some Miles Davis or something, really mellow and smooth." The sound echoed through the auditorium, bouncing off the high ceiling and between the walls.
"It was real contemplative," said Hundley, 53. "He sounded great. When I found out it was him I said, 'Wow.' "
Hundley was astonished to learn that the man who mopped up spilled beer and cleaned his bathrooms after concerts had kept quiet about his talent.
"He just kind of looked at me and said, 'Yeah, this is something I've been doing for a long time.' "
In fact, Mr. Warren's connection to music dated back to his childhood. As a fresh-faced 13-year-old, he appeared in a jazz trio on the Lawrence Welk Show.
Music wouldn't bring him fame or riches. During his adult life, he worked numerous jobs — everything from draftsman to engineer to artist to dishwasher.
But music was never far away. After moving to St. Petersburg in 1993, Mr. Warren played keyboards at downtown bars and restaurants, where he became something of a colorful fixture.
Mr. Warren died May 29 of multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects blood cells. He was 66.
"He was definitely the most unique and eccentric person I have ever met," said Wesley Warren, 38, his son. "And that's saying something, because I have met some real strange people in my time."
At 16, Mr. Warren won an art contest that led to a job at Disneyland, where he drew Disney characters during live animation shows. He later traded in his paintbrush for a T-square and went to work as a draftsman.
He moved from place to place, though always taking his keyboards, guitar, trumpet and drums with him.
He was an extrovert. He wore red suspenders decorated with pins of Disney characters. He made friends easily. He inevitably painted the furniture in his apartments in bold colors and packed the shelf space with Disney figurines and other toys.
He later worked as an engineer, designing plastics for automobile showrooms.
Due for a raise in the early 1990s, Mr. Warren instead made an announcement. "He said, 'I don't want a raise. I want to work less and play the piano more,' " recalled Russ Brown, 58, Mr. Warren's boss.
Six months later, he moved to St. Petersburg. Over the years, to pay the bills, he washed dishes at Coney Island Grill, served ice cream at BayWalk, and picked up trash at the State Theatre.
At night he played in jazz groups. He spent his free time at the Donut Connection on 34th Street, where they still remember him.
"Cecil used to sit in that corner," Donut Connection owner Chris Kara said Thursday, pointing to a single booth by the window. "He'd stay here for hours."
For a few months, Mr. Warren gave Kara's son piano lessons.
He met Carol Crabtree there. It's a long story, but in 2002 they had a child together. He was in his late 50s. The couple split up three years ago when Mr. Warren decided to pick up and move again, this time to Binghamton, N.Y., then Atlanta — where he died.
"I really didn't think he'd stick around, but we talked every day," said Crabtree, 47. "He was always footloose and fancy free, and he moved from here to there."
He left much of himself behind, including Disney characters, painted with uncanny accuracy on his daughter's bedroom wall. Hannah Warren is now 7, and recently won her first art contest.
A painting by her father takes up most of her playroom wall: Mickey Mouse standing inside a bright spotlight.
He is holding a microphone, and singing.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]