Friday, May 9, 2014

Coming To America (part 2)...Child Accordionist For Hire

In Argentina my dad had been a locksmith by day and a musician by night. He was an extremely talented bandoneon player. The bandoneon is the main instrument used in all Tango music. My dad began playing when he was very young. He played in orchestras at Tango nightclubs and he played live on the radio. Because of his talent, the band leaders overlooked his young age. This helped my grandparents a great deal because my dad served as another source of income for his impoverished family.

When I was almost seven, a door-to-door salesman rang our doorbell. The man was promoting accordion classes for children. My dad happened to be home early from work that night. My parents let the man in and listened to his spiel. The salesman sat me down and gave me a tiny accordion. I pushed on a few keys on my right hand, opened the bellows, and pushed a few buttons on my left hand. Magic unfolded! I was a natural! Or at least that is what the salesman told my parents. My dad was no dummy and he knew that it was all just a sales ploy. But seeing little six-year-old me with a little accordion, which is in the same wind-instrument family as the bandoneon, made my parents nostalgic for their mother-country. They signed me up for lessons! I was elated!

Truth be told, I really was a natural. I learned to read music and play really well, really quickly. I went to mini group lessons once a week and larger group band sessions once a week. The owner of the place was a big Italian guy named Mr. Palermo. His son, Alex, was my instructor. I thought Alex was handsome. He had curly hair (maybe it was a perm?) and he looked like Jack Tripper from Three’s Company. He must have been a big fan of Saturday Night Live because he was always imitating Steve Martin’s skit of “Two wild and crazy guys”. I didn’t know what it was at the time but I figured it out when I got older. I digress. Sorry.

Back to my accordion…

The accordion eventually became my enemy. What had started out as a fun after-school activity turned into a source of dread and agony for me.

When I first started playing, I bragged to my classmates about my mad accordion-playing skills. This would certainly elevate my “coolness” status, I thought. And it did for a while. Eight-year-olds think it’s pretty cool if you play the accordion (or the harpsichord or mandolin for that matter). But as I got older and continued to play, I learned that 12-year olds do not. It became a source of ridicule and lots of comparisons to Lawrence Welk. I would try to negotiate with my mom to sign me up for piano lessons instead. I explained to her that I was already halfway there with the piano since the accordion has piano keys on the right side. But she wasn’t having it. What I still don’t understand to this day is why I didn’t just lie to everyone and say that I no longer played! They never would have known the difference!

My mom was so darn proud of my talents as an accordionist. Whenever friends came over she would have me play a little ditty for them. My mom also jumped at the opportunity to have me play at a party or at an event. She went to English classes for many years and every year the school would have a Christmas party. Guess who got to be part of the entertainment? I would sit there jamming out Jingle Bells while all the foreigners (mostly ladies) smiled and my mom beamed with pride. We also belonged to an “Argentine Club”. They held events and dances too. I remember playing for a crowd of more than 100 people more than once. Thankfully, the kids there were never mean to me. They understood what it was like to have Argentine parents. It was just something we laughed about together.

1977 - My public debut at my 7th Birthday Party

Now picture this….you’re walking through the parking lot of Target and you hear the sweet sounds of an accordion playing live. As you walk closer toward the store, you realize the beautiful melody is coming from a motorhome parked near the door. You ask yourself: Who the hell is playing an accordion? And why are they playing inside of a motorhome in a Target parking lot? 

What the kids at school didn’t know is that we didn’t actually go home in our motorhome after school every day (as I mentioned in my previous post, Tioga Times). No, we went to my dad’s key shop in the parking lot of a big store called Two Guys which later became FedMart which later became Target. (My dad owned about 10 key kiosks all in the parking lots of these stores throughout Southern California.)  

Mom making "mate" (an Argentine tea) in the parking lot.

My mom suffered from anxiety and she didn’t like to be alone at home. Learning to drive the motorhome changed her life. Anxiety problem solved! She would spend most of the day while I was at school in the motorhome – knitting, reading, listening to the radio, even cooking – while my dad worked in the key shop. After she picked me up from school, most days we would go back to the parking lot. I would do homework and practice the accordion in the motorhome. She was also a drill sergeant when it came to practicing. I was supposed to practice an hour a day and boy did she make sure I did – even if it meant doing it in the motorhome. After I was done, I was free to go roam inside the store alone. The employees knew me by name. When I got hungry, I would go to the snack bar inside the store and order a chili dog and a Coke for $1.01.  

Sometimes, we would have to go directly from my dad’s key shop to my accordion lessons. The parking lot of the music studio was in the back of the building and the driveway into the back lot was very narrow. My mom had no choice but to park her RV about a block away in a residential area. In case you don’t know, an accordion is a pretty heavy instrument; too heavy to carry in a carrying case for a whole block. So, my mom would have me wear it as I walked down 17th Street in Santa Ana. Cars would honk at me sometimes and I’m sure everyone did a double take when they drove past a small child with an accordion hanging in front of her walking down a busy street. 

I didn’t fully realize then just how completely abnormal my childhood really was. I knew I was different but I was ok with it most of the time as long as I was with my mom. She made me crazy and she embarrassed me and made me do things I didn’t want to do but I loved her to pieces anyway and she was all mine.

1981 - Mom's English School Christmas Party
1981 or 82 - Playing in Argentina on a borrowed Accordion. Even there, I couldn't escape this thing!

1982 or 83 Playing at the Argentina Club Anniversary Party
trying to hide my face into the keys

Playing at home for the family


  1. Interesting story. I also was a student at PALERMO SCHOOL OF MUSIC. My years of lessens there were from 1969-1972. (I began my journey into accordion playing briefly at MILTON MANN MUSIC STUIDO on North Broadway in Santa Ana a few months proior). When I went to the Palermo school, Alex Sr. saw my old Milton Mann accordion music books in my case and said to my dad jokingly, "Get rid of those dirty books!" The Palermos school was on West Seventeenth Street in Santa Ana, California just east of English Street where an old Taco Bell walk up restaurant was and still is. My accordion teacher at the Palermo school was 'Mrs. Hayden'. An older lady that seemed to be in her 50's or 60's. At least that's how I remember her and she alway wore a dress, never slacks. After my lesson, then it was 'band night' which meant all of the other accordion students would assemble in an adjacent toom with about three levels and play the songs that we knew while parents sat adoringly smiling in folding chairs. Alex Sr. condicted and Alex Jr. would play the drums on occasion. It got fun when the lights would get turned off and a black light was flicked on and then Alex Sr. would throw a white glove to one of the students in the 'band' The white glove would glow over the keyboard during a group number and it was entertaining. Mr's Palermo was an atractive woman with immaculate pumped up and coiffed red hair and a pony tail. I also remember when we all did concerts at Smedley Jr, High (now Carr) and also Santa Ana Valley High. What was interesting is after I stopped playing the accordion in my teens and got to High School, Alex Jr was at my same school. He was class of 1977 at Orange High School and I was Class of 1979. I outgrew the accordion but the fact that I learned to read music came in very handy when I was in musicals in High school and later in a church choir and a leader of the gongregation in my church. I now have a piano and have applied my accordion experience to that so it really was a great investment all of those years ago.
    Atnhony Reichardt
    Santa Ana, California

    1. WOW!!! I am completely FLOORED! This is amazing!!! I was there from 1977 to 1984. There weren't any female teachers that I can remember. Only Alex Sr. and Alex Jr. Sometime in the early 80's The Palermo's sold the studio to a man - Mr. West. And my new instructor was Mr. DaSilva. I had forgotten about Alex Jr. playing drums!! I remember him holding his mouth open in an odd way while he played. I remember the old style microphone on the "stage" and the Christmas recitals too. I had also forgotten about them turning down the lights and only having the back room lights on. But I don't remember anything about a white glove. I was 7 when I started playing and about 9 or 10 when they sold to Mr. West. I had zero idea that Alex Jr went to Orange High. I live near there!! crazy small world!!! How did you stumble on this post? I'm just curious. Thanks so much for sharing your story!!!


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