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Out-of-work silent-film players push piano-accordion agenda?

February 18, 2011

I read today on an accordion list that out-of-work silent-film piano players pushed the popularity of the piano accordion.  (This is a “once upon a time,” post.)  Got me thinking about why button accordions aren’t played very much in English-speaking North America.  Please pardon (or enjoy) my accordion-geek/history rambling:

Did out-of-work movie-house piano players drive the piano accordion’s popularity?  Hmm, interesting.  It was certainly easier for jobless pianists with time on their hands to take up the piano-accordion.  Those “transferable skills” were definitely one reason they became popular, but was it just silenced movie-house players that did it?  What kinds of new jobs were they gonna get by playing an accordion (piano keyboard or not)?  Did the squeezable new fad instrument create that much demand for accordion players?  But wait a minute – by the time silent films (not soundies yet) shut down vaudeville in the 1920’s, piano accordions already outnumbered other kinds thanks to this gentleman….
Photo of Guido Deiro with top-hat and piano accordion.

Here’s Guido Deiro from a New York Star newspaper advertisement for Deiro’s first performances at “The New York Palace” (week of April 21, 1913).  [“The Palace” was the top stage in North America.  The biggest of the big-time.  Deiro was a Rock Star.]

I believe piano accordions became popular because it was easier for dealers in North America to sell only one style of keyboard, rather than to try to stock five or six different regional European systems (C/Griff  B/Griff  Finnish….)  The piano keyboard style was sold as “new! modern!” and “not like the old-country!” and simply saved the dealer tons of money.  Certainly by 1930, the piano acc was almost the only one being sold in the States.

By 1916, vaudeville star Pietro Frosini had “disguised” his chromatic-button accordion with a dummy piano keyboard.  It’s claimed he didn’t want to appear old-fashioned compared to the Deiro brothers and their flashy new piano models.  After vaudeville was killed by movies, Frosini himself played accordion for silent films, then when the silents were killed off, he went on to decades of radio-work (where it didn’t matter what his keyboard looked like I suppose.)  That means his first job (vaudeville) was killed off by his second job (silent film accompanist) which was partially replaced by his third job (radio).  He died in 1950; if he’d moved on to TV he’d have played through the demise of three entertainment industries!  [Click for how accordions top all other instruments in movies.]
In the 20’s-30’s, sound-films, radio, and phonograph records (and later still juke-boxes) were drastically changing the musical entertainment world.  The piano and the accordion – and music in general – were in interesting times then (not like today’s calm digital market).  Millions of pianos were being discarded from homes and businesses, like used home-electronics, to make way for player pianos first, and then phonographs and radio.  Millions of pianos were “out of work.”  Really, I can’t see how tons of almost free pianos would help sales of accordions, piano or otherwise.  And maybe the movie-house players went on to become accordion teachers, but they were joining a throng of piano accordionists who’d already started on the instrument.
New player piano being loaded into a house, while old "silent piano" sits forlorn on the curb.  (old advertisement)

The Passing of the Silent Piano’ – Aeolian Company Advertisement, USA, September 1911.

Meanwhile the accordion was rising into its “boom-time” craze which lasted from the late 1930s until 1960 or so.  Millions of piano accordions were sold.  I’ve actually heard that that’s partly what eventually drove the accordion under – they saturated the market with good machines, until they didn’t have any customers left to sell to.  Nowadays, we reap the benifits of their unsustainable business plan.  The fact that they built so many accordions so well may be the only reason anybody can afford a decent accordion today.  I don’t see any young people buying new accordions – they cost thousands of dollars!  Our “accordion renaissance” floats on this sea of used accordions.  Lesson?  Take care of what you’ve got, those days probably aren’t coming back any time soon.

[The point I don’t know how to address, is: why are piano accordions played in other countries?  Italy and Germany were accordion manufacturing centres.  Why do they play piano-accordions there, where they could have made whatever kind they wanted!  I’d be happy to hear theories.]
Thanks for that, rant/pondering over.

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