The Music of Their Lives

Inspired by history and love, a Rocky River couple operates the largest accordion museum in the world — out of their basement.
A ruby red accordion from 1940s Italy sits on the desk of Jack White's Rocky River home. With its intricate engravings and swirling red lacquer design, it looks like the jewelry box of a queen.

But White is unhappy. To the retired schoolteacher, an accordion's artistry has little to do with exterior rhinestones and gems. Its true beauty lies inside, in its organized mess of keys, reeds and bellows. And right now the Frontalini accordion isn't pretty. When White presses on one of the front keys, it emits a piercing whistle.

"There's a couple of bad reeds," White explains, wincing. The perfectionist grabs a screwdriver off his wall of tools and scratches tiny indentations into the metal.

White places the reed back in its block and pushes the key again. The room fills with a deep, pleasing sound, like an oboist letting out a long, happy sigh.

He smiles. Task accomplished, the former teacher places the instrument back on a red felt-lined shelf in his basement, where it's surrounded by more than 450 other accordions that he and his wife, Kathy, have rescued and restored over the past 12 years.

Some might call it a hospital for broken instruments. Jack and Kathy call it the Cleveland Accordion Museum, quietly known as the largest collection of accordions in the world.

Since the couple opened their unassuming Rocky River ranch to visitors in 1998, guests from more than 26 states and 13 countries have walked through their house to view the instruments and experience a piece of Cleveland's musical history.

"People think we're crazy having all these strangers coming into our home," Kathy says. "But what fun is it to collect things if you don't get to share them with people?"

As an instrument, the accordion's reputation falls somewhere between Tiny Tim and Tommy Tutone on the cool meter. It is not glamorous like an electric guitar or as sexy as a heavy metal drummer. "The accordion has kind of been poked fun of," admits Anthony Rolando, the current United States national accordion champion. "It's stereotyped as a polka instrument. But it's actually one of the hardest instruments to play."

For a short time in history, the accordion was king in Cleveland. In the 1920s and '30s, Cleveland was home to four accordion manufacturing companies: Carro, Mikus, Shkorka and Anton Mervar. The latter's instruments were coveted around the world for their handmade, delicate wooden features and etched engravings.

It was Frankie Yankovic, though, who really put Cleveland accordion culture on the map. The Collinwood native became known nationally as "America's Polka King" after he beat Duke Ellington in a music battle in Milwaukee in the 1940s. Afterward, Yankovic traveled the country with his accordion, playing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the Lawrence Welk Show. Through all his travels and performances, Yankovic never lost touch with — or left — his Slovenian Cleveland roots.

In turn, hundreds of Slovenian and Italian mothers wanted their babies to be the next polka prince, so they enrolled their sons in one of the dozens of accordion schools that were popping up throughout Cleveland.

Jack White was one of those boys. Growing up on West 94th and Denison, White lived in the shadow of his grandfather, who played the accordion but also the violin, piano and saxophone.

Every Sunday afternoon, Jack, his mother and his two siblings crowded around their 9-inch television to watch WEWS' Polka Varieties, a locally produced, one-hour showcase of polka music.

For his 11th birthday, Jack received an accordion. Strapped to his thin, bony shoulders, he struggled to hold the instrument. His body drooped under its weight. Nonetheless, he loved going to music lessons — or at least he did until girls came into his life. When Jack turned 12, he found a better use for the 50 cents his mother gave him for his weekly lessons: He took his girlfriend to the movies.

"My mother couldn't understand why I stopped improving," Jack says with a devious smile. Girls suddenly took up the place in his heart where the accordion once resided.

For Kathy, the accordion held a much more romantic appeal. Every night during her childhood in New Castle, Pa., her father serenaded her and her mother with beautiful Italian melodies on the accordion.

Kathy would sit on the porch, in a sundress and brown pig tails, listening in awe as her father strummed the tunes of "Anema e Core" (an Italian title meaning "heart and soul") on a big, gleaming red and white accordion as neighbors looked on. "I thought he was the most talented musician in the world," she says.

It wasn't until years later that Kathy learned that the sleek, larger-than-life accordion she remembered as a child was actually a cheap, secondhand model. Her father had pawned his good accordion to pay for her mother's engagement ring.

However different Kathy and Jack felt about the instrument as children, both agree it was accordion music that ultimately brought them together. In the •70s, they were schoolteachers at Cleveland's East Tech High School when he asked her on a date. Kathy, a prudent sort, turned up her nose when Jack pulled up to her place in a Mercedes-Benz. Her features softened, though, when she heard the music streaming from his car: loud, cheerful, swingy strands of Cleveland polka, headed by an accordion.

"I think my love of polka is what won her over," Jack says.

After Jack and Kathy married, they, like the rest of America, packed away their polka records, placing them in the dusty recesses of their memories and closets.

That's where they remained until 1995. That spring, Kathy and Jack, who'd recently retired from teaching, were dining with Jack's mother at Cantina Del Rio's in The Flats when a guest accordion player came over and started playing.

"My mother was swooning over the guy. Her eyes were tearing up," Jack says. He got jealous. "I told my mother, 'Come over in a couple of weeks, and I'll play for you, too.' "

One problem: Jack hadn't played the accordion since 1953. So Kathy dug out the phone book. "There was only one person listed under accordion," she says.

When Jack and Kathy went to the man's house, he got out his accordion and played a song Kathy's dad used to play. "She had tears running down her face," Jack recalls. "And I thought, Well, sheesh, now I'm really going to have to learn how to play."

But Jack, a master chess champion and expert car mechanic, has always had a perfectionist streak. He can't simply repair a car's engine; he has to dismantle the whole car. "Anything he sees, he feels he can make better," Kathy explains.

In the 1960s, Jack took a Ford Mustang and ramped up the engine to 600 horsepower. In the 1970s, Walter Halle, president of Halle's department store, shipped over a 1935 Mercedes 540 K from Germany. It arrived in shambles, with missing parts and rusted handles. Halle went to Jack with a blank check, asking if he could fix the car. It took three years. Jack had to remold and create parts that no longer existed, but he was able to restore the car. It later sold at auction for $600,000.

Jack, it's safe to say, never did anything half-heartedly. So he was horribly dismayed to discover, after hundreds of hours practicing, that he would not suddenly become a virtuoso in his 50s.

"Jack realized that he was never going to master the accordion," Kathy says. So he did the next best thing: He decided to become the world's foremost collector and restorer of accordions.

Accordion collecting is not a lazy man's hobby.

Jack and Kathy spent their Saturdays and Sundays trolling Ohio's flea markets and music stores, looking for instruments. "Every Saturday, we'd get up early and look in the phone book for a music store we hadn't been to yet," Kathy says. Then they'd print out directions, and hop on the road, finding parts of the state so small they weren't printed on maps.

Most trips ended in success. Everyone, it seemed, had an accordion or 10 they wanted to get rid of. No one used them anymore. Just like the city's abandoned factories and vacant buildings, accordions were the remains of a past that people had left behind long ago.

On the plus side, it made collecting the instruments cheap. And after Jack had bought about a hundred of them, the accordions started finding him, Jack recalls. "I started getting phone calls like, 'My grandfather died. No one knows what to do with an accordion. Do you want it?' "

Jack and Kathy took them all in. They had a system: Kathy would scrub the instruments down, and Jack would try to get them working again by tinkering with the reeds and keys. It wasn't long before the couple began to see themselves more as preservers than collectors or scavengers.

To Kathy, the instruments served as sort of a living memorial to her deceased father. She felt a personal stake in the instruments: "I kind of felt like I was saving them," she explains, sounding like a worker at an animal rescue shelter. Their friends took to calling their home an "orphanage for accordions."

Soon, as the collection starting creeping into their bedroom, Kathy decided they required a larger home. They ended up settling on a house in Rocky River with an extra-large basement. Kathy's son thought they had gone crazy.

But in Kathy's mind, she and Jack weren't just restoring old instruments, they were recovering important parts of history. "Every instrument has a family history behind it, a story about how it came to be," Kathy explains.

"Like this one here," she says, pointing to an older, wooden accordion with hand engravings. "We found it at a flea market for $20. It had a tag on it from the Port of Cleveland that read 'Unclaimed Freight.' ... You have to wonder about its past. Obviously, the instrument was important enough for someone to ship it over. So why didn't they claim it? Maybe it belonged to an immigrant who died on the way over here, or maybe a musician who sent it over on the ship but didn't have the money to claim it later. I wanted to know more."

But in the mid-'90s, there wasn't a lot of information on the accordion or accordion genealogy. So Kathy called libraries throughout the world, collecting material and becoming "the information booth of the accordion," says her friend Valerie Vacco-Rolando. "I think this [compiling and dispersing of information] brought out the same sort of satisfaction for Kathy that teaching did," Vacco-Rolando adds.

Jack and Kathy weren't content just to acquire the information, though. Even before they opened the museum, they became known as a clearinghouse for accordion music and data. Musicians would call them, looking for out-of-date sheet music, and the couple would supply them with it, free of charge.

And if they heard of young musicians who wanted to learn to play the accordion but didn't have the money to pay for it, they'd provide them with a gratis one. "This is their way of giving back to the world," Vacco-Rolando says.

To access the Cleveland Accordion Museum, visitors must first walk through the Whites' living room, which (fittingly) is decorated in black and white tones and uses accordions in place of mantle decorations.

"I try to limit accordions to one part of the home, but it doesn't always work," Kathy admits.

The staircase that descends to the basement begins in the Whites' recently remodeled kitchen — your last glimpse of the modern century before stepping back in time.

In the basement, it feels like 1920s Europe. Cheerful button-box music plays from speakers, and the walls are jampacked with vintage posters and signed pictures of famous accordion musicians: Lou Trebar, Frankie Yankovic, Charles Magnante.

And the accordions. How to describe the accordions? There are hundreds of them — 466, to be exact. They are arranged on hand-made red wooden shelves, by color and year. Huge Hollywood-style spotlights shine on the instruments, which look — when lined up in rows — like sparkly, shiny slot machines in a casino.

There are sleek black and white models from Germany, made only for professional use. There are green bejeweled ones from Russia that look like a child's music box. There are models with ivory keys, rounded keys, off-white keys and malfunctioning keys. There are models from as far away as Castel Fidardo, Italy, and as close as West 56th Street in Cleveland. There are models that the Whites bought for $20 and ones that are worth $15,000. All are kept safe by many dehumidifiers and a thermostat that stays at 70 degrees.

There are also thousands of pages of sheet music, alphabetized by song title, and racks and racks of records, organized by artist. All contain hundreds of memories and stories. One corner of the museum is taken up entirely by a shelf of small, delicate accordion figurines. They were a gift from a Rhode Island man.

One day, seven years ago, Jack was working in his basement when he received a mysterious phone call. "Jack," the voice on the other end said. "The boxes will be arriving Friday."

That Friday, four cardboard boxes arrived on the Whites' doorstep. They came with a letter. The mysterious caller's wife, Elizabeth Frazier, had spent years painstakingly collecting hundreds of accordion pieces. When she died, her husband couldn't bear to look at them. "I prayed to God about what to do with them," he wrote. "When I found you on the Internet, I felt like God had showed me the light."

Every day, dozens of letters, e-mails and packages arrive from people like Frazier's husband who want to share their stories, pictures and histories.

Recently, a Canton man sent a collage of clippings and photos from his brother-in-law, who was the 1947 Triple A accordion champion. The brother-in-law's health is failing, and the man wanted to find a way of honoring him in life. This, he thought, would be the perfect tribute.

Kathy and Jack understand the weight of storing and conserving these memories. "People have entrusted us with their instruments," Kathy says. "We promised to give them a good home."

But at ages 60 and 71, the Whites are starting to worry a bit about their future. The same instruments that bring them so much joy also hold them captive. They don't know how they can leave them. And they don't want the museum to ever leave Cleveland. "There's such a strong history of accordion playing here," Kathy says.

This stance doesn't bode well with Kathy's son. "He lives in Vegas and wants us to move out there, but we just can't," says Kathy, as she brushes away a speck of dust from one of the instruments.

This weighs on them at times. "Sometimes, I think, You know, we could have put a nice pool table here," Jack adds, as he surveys the hundreds of accordions, packed floor to ceiling, crowding his basement.

This sentiment, though, never lasts. The museum, for both Jack and Kathy, is a testament to history and to love. A few years ago, Jack had surgery that removed a few of his ribs. As a result of the operation, he no longer has the ability to play the accordion for very long. He gets out of breath quickly, and the straps dig painfully into his back, in the place where his ribs were removed.

It would be normal to feel frustrated and angry to be surrounded by beautiful instruments you cannot play. But for both Jack and Kathy, the museum has had the opposite effect. It has healed them. It gives them something to look forward to each morning. And at random times during the day, Kathy and Jack will find themselves down in their basement, spending hours admiring and cleaning and rearranging the instruments.

"This," says Jack, "is where we go to get lost."

Roaming the Halls
Northeast Ohio is home to several quirky museums and halls of fame. Here's a rundown on three of them.

The Greater Cleveland Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame and Museum
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of the city's only slow pitch softball museum. Located in the former Euclid city hall, (and sharing space with the Polka Hall of Fame), the Softball Museum commemorates more than 70 years of Cleveland softball history. The sport has been a "mainstay in Cleveland since the '30s," says museum coordinator Bud Langdon. "When teams played at Morgana Park, they used to get crowds of 4,000 to 5,000 people." The first lighted diamond ever to be used was at the Lakewood Elks Field in 1934. "The majors didn't even have diamonds yet," Langdon says. The museum contains hundreds of artifacts from Cleveland's softball heritage, including balls and bats used by Mike Macenko, one of Northeast Ohio's most famous softball players, who hit more than 6,000 home runs in his career and was selected 34 times to the All World Softball team, and the original silver cup won by Erin Brewery's Bloomer Girls softball team in the 1935 Softball World Cup in Canada.
Donations accepted, open Tue and Sat 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 605 E. 222nd St., Euclid, 216-289-2802

The National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum
Highlighting Cleveland's rich history of polka and Slovenian Music, the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum has been open since 1988. Nicknamed "Cleveland's other music museum," the hall features exhibits and pictures of famous Cleveland polka musicians, including a large section on Frankie Yankovic that includes his old accordion and a uniform he wore onstage in Hollywood.
Free, Tue-Fri noon-5 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 605 E. 222nd St., Euclid

America's Ice Cream and Dairy Museum
With summer upon us, there's no greater escape from the heat than a scoop of ice cream. The cold dessert has a long, storied history, which you can explore at America's Ice Cream and Dairy Museum. Located on Medina County's last family-owned dairy farm, the museum covers the cultural history of ice cream from its genesis in Egypt to Italy's creamed ices to its present day incarnation in America. Housing one of the largest ice cream and dairy collections in the country, the museum showcases milk freezers from the 1890s, milk wagons from the early 1900s, and a restored, antique "gas light" soda fountain from 1905 (back when the only available ice cream flavor was vanilla!).
Cost varies by group, open May through October by reservation, 1050 Lafayette Road (state Route 42, Medina, 330-722-3839
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