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 CafĂ© 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!”


Margaret said...

Like riding a bike, music never leaves you, does it?

The Mater said...

Oh Margaret - I certainly hope so. Poor accordion has been resting lately, along with the piano. But something tells me that I'll be making music again soon.

Jenn said...

Oh, I loved reading this! Actually, do you know that the show didn't require accordion music? Tina hadn't imagined it with accordion accompaniment -- but D. and I did! That was SO much fun, seeing you onstage where you belong. Here's to a long, long career as a brilliant accordion temptress! xoxoxo

The Mater said...

LOL I'm not a bit surprised! You two continually find ways to make me move my butt :>)

Thanks! And thanks to Tina too! It was so much fun!

Tree said...

Oh, how I wish I could have seen you there, on stage, playing that accordion!
And just so you know, I would gladly have attended one of your Sound of Music sing-a-longs. In fact, if you ever get the urge again, I know most of the words to most of the songs!

Anonymous said...
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Simon said...

As soon as you mentioned the stint as a church lady, all I could think of was a mental image of Dana Carvey in the SNL role of the Church Lady uttering, "Well, isn't that special?"

Hope that you and your squeeze box see plenty more action in the future.

(Which is definitely NOT a reference to your "Love in the afternoon" post a couple months back.)

kirsty said...

You truly rock! Weird Al has given a whole new generation an entree into the wonderful world of polka. Oh, and I hope you don't EVER grow up!

LadySeduction said...

My oldest still adores the Sound of Music to this day, altho I am not sure she shouts that out to her "homies".

I miss these kinds of home lifes...We homeschooled for years and likely will again with the little girls and I always envisioned more sing a longs. Thanks for reinspiring this vision. My husband plays like an angel, but hasn't for years.
How grand that you took to the stage, I would have LOVED to see this too!!
Hey and thanks so much for your words of support and wisdom over on my little 'ol site. You have no idea how much it helps.

Cuz Sue Z said...

Hey Cuz- this is wondeful - wish my POPPOP and your folks could read this. You do us proud!!!!

Terry said...

Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving such flattering comments. If I could write like you I wouldn't worry about posting pictures, either.

I have always found the accordian such a wonderfully eclectic instrument--every time I see a photo of the Eiffel tower I hear accordian accompaniment in my head. It also has a certain comic association (so huffy, puffy physical). For years I have kept that Far Side cartoon on my refrigerator, of the split screen of heaven and hell. An angel tells a new arrival "Welcome to heaven, here's your harp." A devil tells his new arrival, "Welcome to hell, here's your accordian."

I'm bookmarking you. Don't know how you found me, but I'm glad you did.

The Mater said...

Terry, welcome to my blog! Mi casa, su casa :>)

I have seen that cartoon! Believe me, a good accordionist can make some heavenly music too!

Thank you for the lovely comments. LOL, I had already bookmarked you before reading this. Kirsty, another quilter, led me to your site. Your quilting is amazing!

And Cuz Sue, so great to have you stop by too.

Thanks to everyone for the wonderful comments.

Cuz Alice said...

You are an inspiration Girl! I remember taking that pic of you in my living room while we sang and sang all those oldies! I sure miss those musical family parties. It's about time you got that poor accordion out of the closet, the world needs to hear from ELAINE! Don't waste that talent of yours!

geogirl said...

Did someone mention a Sound of Music sing-a-long?? I'm so there!!!

Ellamama said...

You give me a lot of hope. I had the urge to start playing the banjo this weekend. I'm still basking in the glow of other people's musical ability.

Since Ella was born four years ago we have attempted to get her every musical instrument practical for a young child. We got her a toy, yet usable, accordian when she was three. When she starts kindergarden we are going to start some sort of formal music lessons.

Thanks for the stories...and the inspiration. Sally

radioactive girl said...

Do you know my daughter is dying to learn to play the accordion? That she begs me to Tivo Lawrence Welk? That I have absolutely no idea where to find someone to teach her to play? We did buy her a piano, and without even having lessons yet, she is better than I ever could be. What a gret story you told! I have been here several times, but never commented before, but this I could just not pass up!

The Mater said...

To all of you - thanks for stopping by and "listening to the music"!

Get those banjos and keyboards out and go to it!

I love that some little girl has noticed that accordions are cool! Bless you child :>)

You've just inspired another post! Go take a look.

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