Eugene B. "Gene" Bonner, a saxophonist who was a leader of the Zim Zemarel Orchestra and a retired insurance underwriter, died of pneumonia Wednesday at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center. The Perry Hall resident was 80.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Stanwood Avenue, he was the son of Joseph L. Bonner, a General Motors quality control worker, and Gertrude Linsenmeyer Bonner, a homemaker. He was a 1952 graduate of Mount St. Joseph High School and earned a bachelor's degree in business at the University of Baltimore
"Even as a young child, my father was fascinated by music and recalled lying in bed at night listening to big bands playing live from the Steel Pier" in Atlantic City, N.J., said a daughter, Sharon L. Nicolary of Philadelphia.
Mr. Bonner joined the Maryland National Guard Band when he was 19 and played weekends for 11 years. He formed a band, the Commodores, and appeared on the "Oscar Frisbee Show" on a local television station, WAAM. The group was later known as Gene Bonner and His Orchestra.
He became an insurance underwriter with the Maryland Casualty Co. and would play music live on TV during his lunch hour. He began performing with local band leader Zim Zemarel in the 1960s. The group made 12 albums and worked in live acts with Tony Bennett, Bob Hope, Cab Calloway, Eddie Arnold, Al Martino, Phyllis Diller and Red Skelton.
Mr. Bonner and the band were featured with actors Aiden Quinn and Elizabeth Perkins on the dance floor at the Greenspring Inn in Barry Levinson's film, "Avalon." After Mr. Zemarel's death in 1999, Mr. Bonner and vocalist-drummer Wayne Hudson bought the orchestra.
Mr. Bonner was also featured in a "Homicide: Life on the Streets" episode. Playing his saxophone, he walked down a Fells Point street and led a funeral processional for a sax-playing policeman.
Mr. Bonner remained active in music until earlier this summer. He retired from the Fidelity and Deposit Co. nearly 19 years ago. He was also a co-founder of Tim's Automotive and Towing in Northeast Baltimore.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Isaac Jogues Roman Catholic Church, 9515 Old Harford Road, where he was a member.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 57 years, Shirley Tarbutton Bonner; two sons, Michael Eugene Bonner and Timothy P. Bonner, both of Perry Hall; another daughter, Patricia B. McElroy of Middle River; and seven grandchildren.