Saturday, May 27, 2006
Out of the closet
I grew up in a musical family. My dad and his brothers and my cousins and I were happiest when playing pianos, accordions, organs, guitars, mandolins, banjos, and just about whatever we could put our hands on. Family parties always had live entertainment.
My first instrument was the accordion. I grew up over a music studio. We lived in a duplex and my uncle, the music teacher, lived on the first floor. Daily practice was the norm. His calling up the stairs to tell me what I was doing wrong was also the norm. Other kids played with their dolls. I was often tuning up with my dad for some after-dinner duets.
The accordion is a happy instrument. It knows its social standing and is quite content with its humble state in life. Yes, it may never be welcomed in the better salons of the world, but it has been seen in many a saloon. The accordion, in the 1950s, was the instrument of choice for blue-collar families who wanted their children to learn the keyboard. A lot of kids from Polish-American and Italian-American homes were carrying red-and-white-faux-marble Sonola and Rivoli accordions around while actually becoming decent musicians. If you practiced your daily scales and fingering techniques and mastered the Clarinet Polka, you were secretly admired by your peers and knew that you could hold your own against any piano-playing rich kid.
By the time I was in my late teens, we had an electronic organ in the living room and I’d be entertaining friends and family with “Sound of Music” sing-a-longs. Stop laughing. I know it sounds corny as hell. I almost auditioned for Lawrence Welk. Looking back, that would have been the CORNIEST, but I’d be living in Branson now and collecting a decent residual paycheck. There’s something to be said for all those bubbles.
My first job while going to high school was for a piano company. None of the salesmen could play a note; I was brought in to clinch the sale. My job was to sit down and make the customers fall in love with the product. Play a familiar tune, smile a lot, and make it look so easy that the buyer would go home with a piano or organ expecting to soon have my repertoire mastered. I was about 17 at the time and had been playing since I was nine. The five free lessons that came with the sale didn’t exactly turn the customers into virtuosos. It was a good experience though because it introduced me to the world of business and acting. My eccentric boss was a competitive guy who would do anything to make a sale. He would sing “Galway Bay” with an Irish dialect if necessary or take me with him to a poor black church and belt out “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. Marty was Jewish. I learned to go with the flow and I even ended up playing with an all-girl combo for awhile. I gave music lessons and thought about what I really wanted to be when I grew up. No visions or mandates appeared. So I kept a song in my heart and continued to make music.
This all came to an end in my 20s when I got married. I never reinvested in my music as fully once the kids came along. I was too consumed with the demands of being a wife and mom. It was great to see both kids get interested in organ and guitar. And for awhile the sound of music was heard once again in our house. I did manage a brief stint as church lady and played the organ for funerals, weddings, and Sunday services. My accordion’s high-profile days, however, were long over.
Years flew by. The kids left home; husband left wife, and there I was - living alone in my very first apartment, still trying to figure out who I wanted to be when I grew up. The accordion, my beloved accordion, was sleeping in my closet. A deep slumber.
Wake-up call. My new son-in-law phones from New York city. “Hey MIL (mom-in-law), I’m directing a friend of Jenn’s in her first show. It’s called ‘My Mom Across America’. She does this one hour of stand-up comedy about a bus trip she takes with her mom across Canada. It’s hilarious – a Korean-American rite of passage! Mother-and-daughter vignettes. I think it’s gonna be a hit. One problem though. The script calls for an accordion. Jenn mentioned that you used to play. Would you consider giving it a try?”
Jaw drops. What did he say? He’s got to be kidding.
“You know, MIL, accordions are really making a comeback. Cajun and French accordionists are playing up a storm.”
Okay. “Er, David. I grew up with ties to Frankie Yankovic and his Polka Kings.”
“Omigod, do you mean Weird Al’s father?!”
“Er, yes, I guess so. Is that good or something?”
“Yeah. It’s terrific! I’m sure you can do the show! Why don’t you come on up and meet the actress and we’ll do an informal audition in our living room.”
So, gentle readers, after years of gloom in a dark closet, my accordion had its rebirth. In fact, I had my rebirth. I pulled that puppy out and, hot dang, it was still good to go. It was 40 years old but the reeds and bellows were fine. I just had to invest in new leather straps.
The rest is show-biz history. Tina Lee, beautiful in her Korean folk outfit, and I, more demure in my black Capri pants and red blouse, played two major venues in New York. One was the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in the East Village. I heard later that this was really “in”.
I’d love to know what the audience was thinking when I came out onstage and plopped myself down stage right - middle-aged broad hauling her squeezebox. Tina then came onstage and regaled the crowd for almost an hour with a really funny true story of mom-daughter dynamics and clash of cultures.
Me? I was so cool. I got to play the Canadian national anthem, “La Vie en Rose", Korean folk melodies, one polka, "Stouthearted Men", and closed the show with “New York State of Mind”. Yeah, the gig went really well.
We even had our own webpage.
I could almost read my accordion’s mind. “Now that I’m out of the closet, I don’t ever want to go back in. Free! Free at last!”