I am always surprised when I hear accordion music on the radio. Nobody listens to accordion music anymore, including me. However, there was something about the tune that was nostalgic. Because my mother was a professional accordionist and teacher before she got married, I grew up listening to tunes such as ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Lady of Spain,” and “Manzanita”.
At Christmas, I have fond memories of her leading a caravan of neighborhood children up and down the block and accompanying us as we sang carols at each house.
In the early fall of 1932, three years after graduating from high school, Mom became intrigued when she heard about an Accordion Group at a Los Angeles music store and convinced her parents she wanted to learn to play. The purchase included ten free group lessons, and before long she was able to play actual songs on her own.
By that December she performed three pieces for two different chapters of the Eastern Star – and her career was off! Her scrapbook contains page after page of newspaper articles reporting her performance for various organizations over the next two years.
“See those windows in the addition at the back of the house,” by sister Chris recalls Mom telling her on a trip the two of them took back to Santa Monica in the late 1980’s. “That is where grandpa and grandma had a room built in early 1935 so I could give private accordion lessons. I had been teaching in the den, but it was not big enough.” The Chrissy Stage studio was born and she started her own accordion club that met once a week.
“My Dear Miss Stage, The Music Arts Society wants to thank you for the delightful program you presented at the Santa Monica Sing…” read one of the many thank you notes that have survived for eighty years. She performed almost weekly for a variety of organizations from the Mail Carriers and Ladies Auxiliary to the Veterans Service Club. Her performances became advertisements for her studio. My grandmother always had a knack for promotion, and I am sure she was the agent and advocate.
By mid-1935 she had 13 students, ranging in age from 7 to over 40. Their 11 performing members were called the Accordion Troupers. Two years later she had outgrown the home studio and she and my grandmother opened a music store in the downtown area of Santa Monica. It offered accordions, accordion accessories, music, and repair services – managed by my grandmother, in addition to instruction offered by my mother.
During the same period of time, Jimmy Walker, a cousin in England Mom had never met, also was smitten with the accordion. In his memoirs he describes being “spellbound with the instrument.” Even though he was only 17, he managed to save enough money from his part-time job to purchase his first accordion – just before the depression started. “This was the start of my long and happy association with the squeeze box,” he reminisced. When he visited the music store each week to make payments towards the instrument, he became acquainted with the owner. By time he made his final payment, he had been offered a full-time job working at the store.
Over his career he played regularly in pubs, clubs and on cruise ships. He was still playing at age 91.
A professional musician will sacrifice to obtain a high quality instrument. For an accordionist, quality of sound, range, number of keys and tone variability are critical. In addition, the instrument’s ‘pizazz’ was important. Mom’s accordion, an Italo-American, had inlaid mother-of-pear and other glamour touches that caught the light and sparkled when she played. It was probably her most prized possession over her lifetime.
I would guess that one of Mom’s deepest disappointments was that neither Chris nor I took an interest in learning the accordion, although she tried with both of us. Chris became an accomplished pianist,
and I played the cello in junior and senior high school.
How excited she was when my oldest son BJ developed an interest in the accordion, in addition to the acoustic guitar.
She passed her instrument on to him.
While I am not fond of accordion music, with the exception of beer garden polkas – in the right environment and accompanied by the appropriate beverage, I am grateful for the musical heritage my mother and her accordion contributed to my life.