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American Accordion Scene
A Tour Through The Eyes of Bernadette

Bernadette on stage

Written by: Bernadette Conlon
Publication: Accordions Worldwide, 05 August 2005

I can still remember the surprise I felt, when I found I had been invited to play at the Las Vegas International Accordion Convention, two years ago. I had sold some CDs to some people from Salt Lake City, who gave the CDs to Paul Pasquali, organiser of the Las Vegas International Accordion Convention and he consequently invited me to play there.

Misfortune struck - and I was unable to secure a visa for last year, however by June 2005, I was all organised and ready to embark on my great adventure, which, in the ensuing twelve months, had added more ports of call to my adventure.

Bernadette & Lynn on stageMy mother, Lynn Conlon (picture right) and I flew out from Melbourne on June 19th. We arrived at Salt Lake City and were met at the airport by Dan Bedell, who had first spotted me playing along Southbank, when he came to Melbourne to speak at a geological convention in 2003.

Installed into five star accommodation, as Dan's wife Mella had a heart operation the following day, we took some short sight-seeing tours, before meeting with Paul Pasquali that evening. My accordion had a leather, which had come lose on my accordion during flight, which he ably fixed. He then showed us the impressive salt lake, as well as allowing us to tour his accordion shop.

My concert the following night was an overwhelming success. Any doubts I had had, as to whether I would be accepted by American audiences, were laid to rest and I received three standing ovations. All fears vanished from then on.

The 3 year old Salt Lake Area Accordion Club, of which Jay Todd is president, holds monthly meetings, which are attended by a very enthusiastic crowd of broad minded, receptive and enthusiastic accordion lovers and players. They were a joy to play for.

The following day, we flew to Seattle, where we were met by Eleanor Culling, a lady who was to feature heavily in my subsequent journey. She drove the three hour, unbelievably spectacular drive, over mountain and valley, to reach Leavenworth, where the Leavenworth International Accordion Convention was being held.

Having checked into our motel room, we walked the short distance to the Festhalle, an imposing, square structure, with surprisingly good acoustics. Accordions were playing, as we made our tentative entrance. We were immediately met by the beaming face of Bill Reitveldt, of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce. Introductions were made and we were offered food and drink and placed at a table, in full view of the ensuing jam session.

It was there that, for the first time I met Gary Blair, who was to be performing at three of the same festivals as I was. Interestingly enough, we both commented, I to Mum and Gary to his son, Gary, ("wee Gary" as he's affectionately known), that we had better get on well together, as we had three weeks alongside each other as headlining international artists. We need never have worried, as we got on like a house on fire, from the very start.

The following morning, I started my three days of adjudication. It was sheer joy to listen to the players, some adorably young and cute, some - er, adorably old and courageous. It was a joy to adjudicate them and give them the encouragement only an outsider can give, as well as giving them pointers on where they can improve. I gave three workshops, (which notes will be available on accordions.com). These were attended by fresh, eager faces and it was joy to pass on any tips I could.

My concert was another great success, in front of an immensely warm audience. I was surprised to find that the style of concert, where I seek requests from the public, was so popular. In the evenings, glorious jam sessions would evolve at the Andreas Keller, where accordionists, both professional and competitors, would participate. We all had a ball.

Leavenworth is a singularly stunning township in the Cascade Mountains, which has, for the past 25 years, become an authentic Bavarian village. This project ensued after the town dwindled and the townsfolk sought to find a way to popularise their little gem of a town, as well as it being a ski resort. The idea of a Bavarian village came up and ever since, people have travelled to Bavaria to gain inside knowledge. Every facade of a shop front or house, must be built in typical Bavarian style by law. The locals are fiercely proud of their beautiful town and rightly so; it sparkles, with German restaurants and cafes, speciality shops of every kind, from an all year round Christmas shop, to an Australian shop, (which was the only place I saw within the states, to sell Vegemite) and even a traditional gazebo, where bands and groups performed during the festival.

The whole town got involved with the accordion festival, which culminated in an accordion parade. Beautifully groomed, snow white horses were drawn up to pull the beer wagon, on which I and some of the local accordionists and the conductor, Joe Smiell sat. Behind us, thirty accordionists formed orderly lines, as we marched our way through the town. Never has the joy of music been so prevalent and it was a joy to play The Happy Wanderer, usually not my favourite piece, to the clear, blue skies, with radiant, sparkling sunshine, with the melodious strains of accordion music echoing to the towering mountains above. Crowds gathered and sang and cheered us along. Inspired, we even made the horses do another round of the town, as we played Beer Barrel Polka back to the stables. The town glistened, as the traditionally dressed locals in leaderhosen and drendels, came out to wish us well.

It was with a heavy heart that we left Leavenworth, travelling, as we came, via the mountain pass, as fog lay in dreamy cloudlets in the valleys. Little did I dare to hope to return, but Fate had other plans. Gary Blair and I flew into Las Vegas on the same plane, (as did my mother and his son!). Owing to the fact the we had a good deal of luggage between us, and to give wee Gary and me a thrill, Gary Sr. ordered a Lincoln (cab) to take us to our hotel, which was the way to get around Las Vegas, if you ask me.

Having settled into our room and made ourselves adequately presentable for dinner, we moved up to the convention room, for the opening dinner of the 2005 Las Vegas International Accordion Convention. Imagine, I felt like a lost, lonesome tadpole, as we tried to find a seat. You can't quite imagine what it's like to be in a crowd of 540 people, all either sitting at tables, or looking for them. People rushed headlong to their friends, knocking us in their eagerness so that I seriously wondered what in heaven's name I was doing there. It's pretty lonely when everyone knows everyone else and doesn't know you and you seem to be entirely invisible.

We found a table near the back and settled in. Fighting our way to the buffet table, we got some food and I tried to make some charming small talk to the gentleman next to me, who was helping himself to generous amounts of the fine fare. Finally making our way back to our table, Mum was in the process of wondering whether it was etiquette to butter her bread roll, or if she should wait, when, just like in one of those films, a guy of 68 (or so) came up and asked me "say, honey, can I buy you a drink?" Since I had had no better offer that night, (no offers at all to be exact), I accepted.

He led me out to the bar and ordered two of what he'd just had, a gin martini. His name was Dick Ranco. I tried to adopt the appropriate stance on the bar and made the right remarks. After a while, he said "come with me, honey, I'll introduce you to Dick Contino." Wow! What luck! I followed with unbridled eagerness. When we came to Mr. Contino's seat, he must have gone up to the buffet, but Dick, unmoved said we'd wait. Smiling, I adopted my "quarter to five by the mantlepiece" stance, (only there wasn't a mantlepiece) and waited, barely keeping an impulsively foolish grin from my face.

Surprised was I, when another gentleman walked up and asked, "Are you Bernadette Conlon from Australia. Surprised and delighted, I smile that I am. "Hello, I just got your letter two days ago, I'm Art Van Damme." Well, I practically fainted in his arms. Wow! I still get giddy thinking about it. What a man! Either that or the gin martini just kicking in.

Soon afterwards, in my pink haze, I was introduced to Dick Contino and I later apologised to him for not fainting in his arms, but Art Van Damme had got in first and, well, I didn't want to overdo it. Both men were lovely and supportive of me and my playing throughout the festival. They are true gentlemen. Later that evening, we were treated to a concert of Dick Contino, who hasn't lost it. He still has a mastery of the accordion, added to which is his now late Sinatraish singing voice and megastar personality, because, you must remember that he had 500 fan clubs in his heyday.

Mr. Contino still wears the fabulous sequined shirt and leather vest and he has amazing strength to be able to pick up the accordion in a pinch, only to put it down suddenly to sing, then pick it up for the instrumental break. He's really somthin'! Anyway, enough of me and Dick Contino - what is it with me and these older men?!

Tuesday brought workshops, a lunchtime performance by the magnificent Tony Lovello, with whom I played Leavenworth and who brought my accordion up in his car to Vegas. He got caught in the fires on the road from Leavenworth to Las Vegas and was lucky to survive without any harm. I had sent my accordion and CDs with him thinking it was much safer than carrying them with me on the plane!!! His bellows control is simply phenomenal, whether his world famous bellows shake, the right hand tremolo, the neatly hit smashing, crashing chords, or the glissandos. Tony toasted Dick Contino, before giving a flawless rendition of Lady of Spain.

Monday night saw Art Van Damme perform with his quintet. Contino was pretty marvellous at 75, (we celebrated both birthdays), but Van Damme is superlative at 85. Concerts with flamboyant soprano Mary Mancini and Mario Tacco followed.

I gave workshops on Pietro Frosini on Monday and Tuesday, as well as attending some wonderfully informative ones from names such as Peter Soave, Julien Labro, Gina Brannelli, the K Trio and many more. I was especially thrilled with the audience who attended my own workshops, by their interest and penetrating questions, which I aimed to answer as best I could. Though I have recorded two CDs of his compositions and arrangements, I was incredibly honoured to have been invited to speak about Pietro Frosini, as he was an Italian born American composer and I thought it was rather like doing a workshop on tea in China.

Tuesday's concert featured artists such as the K Trio, whom I had only heard previously on tape, a fabulous improvisation between Peter Soave and Julien Labro, the apparently delicious Ginny Mac, (who had the devoted attention of every male in the building, not least because of her infectious western swing music), plus the entrants in the Guido Deiro scholarship, which was won by Washington 16 year-old Sammy Thomas, a very gifted young man.

And, on the subject of Deiro, I had the pleasure of attending Count Guido Deiro's fascinating workshop on his father's life. From the professional tornado, who was America's most highly paid entertainer, (even out-earning singers) to his torrid love affair with Mae West, about whom there is to be a Hollywood film made, to the remarkable history of the illustrious Deiro family.

Meeting Count Deiro after the workshop, I had the pleasure to speak to him of my own work, which in principle at least, is not that much different to his father's, in that I aim to please the wider public, beyond the accordion scene. How nice that I had my own private audience with Count Deiro and even gave him a small, private concert.

My own concert was on Wednesday, in which I aimed to demonstrate the different types of music which can be played on accordion. I was honoured to be able to play my tribute to the three whose birthdays we were there to celebrate, Art Van Damme's 85th, Dick Contino's 75th and Myron Floren's 85th. Tragically, (for me anyway), Myron Floren was unable to make it for the convention, due to ill health, however I was honoured to play in his tribute concert on the Wednesday afternoon and to play my own version, which I had devised, of Happy Birthday, incorporating the different and varying music genre of these three great accordionists.

The convention ended too soon, with a jam session, (which had occurred each night), at which we all got together and played. Mum having gone to bed, I tested the patience of my chaperone, who waited with me, while I exchanged notes with others on the accordion scene, which I really can't do from Australia.

On Thursday, I mustn't have annoyed my chaperones too much, as they agreed to meet me for breakfast and take me around before their flights left. When I came back, my mother, who is diabetic, was still lying in bed, with the curtains drawn. I knew that I had to get her to a doctor and she ended up with heart failure, as a biproduct of her diabetes. I put her into hospital, much against her wishes, and returned to pack, as she insisted I carry on with my tour.

Meeting the two Gary Blair's, I sat down to coffee with them to discuss my fate, when the guy in the coffee shop asked was I Bernadette, the accordion busker from Southbank, Melbourne. He had worked in our Crown Casino in Melbourne, would you believe it? It's not fun being sick on holiday and I would venture to say it's almost worse to have a loved one sick in hospital while you're travelling.

I left the next morning for Victoria Island Canada. It was Canada Day and July 4th weekend, so my plane was delayed. Having caught another cold in Vegas, I spent the entire stopover of an added two hours, coughing vigorously and violently, living on a diet of cough drops. My plane got in and I was delighted to meet my new hosts, Bill and Joyce Bennett.

They took me to their house, where they gave me a splendid dinner, before I was bid to perform an impromptu concert for the neighbourhood. The following day, we went by ferry to Salt Spring Island. Two and a half years ago, Bob and Joan Conlon had come to Australia and, because of our unusual last name link, they had contacted me after conducting a Google search. They live in a beautiful house, which has bewitching ocean views, set amid towering native trees. This inspiring landscape gave thought to recuperating my flagging spirit and it was lovely to catch up with old friends.

My concert for the Victorian Accordion Club was the following day. Suffering from coughing bouts, I played between sips of hot tea to a beautifully warm crowd of enthusiasts. As in Salt Lake City, it is lovely to see the strength of these smaller town accordion clubs.

Having heard that Frank Marocco was in Vancouver, I endeavoured to see his Sunday concert, as it had been advertised in two separate sources. Never having seen or met Marocco, I was dreadfully disappointed, when I found that he was not performing as advertised and that he was several hundred miles away, over several boarders. My frantic trip to catch the ferry, which was an escapade in itself, was not wasted, as I had a beautiful meal with Rod Miller, whom I had met in Leavenworth and Las Vegas and with whom I travelled to Kimberley, and his wife Barbara.

Bernadette photoStaying at the Millers' small farm house overnight, Rod and I set off driving the ten hour trip from Custer, Washington, to Kimberley for the Kimberley International Old Time Accordion Championships. We got there just after the first concert finished, before we checked into our accommodation. Kimberley's huge ice hockey arena was converted to a concert platform with hundreds of chairs in front. These were full for the competitions, which ranged from the old time, (waltzes, schottisches and polkas), to popular and light classical.

The entries were high and the audience lapped up the fruits of competitive labour. The categories ranged from 10 years and under, to 79 years and over. It was amazing to see the broad range of the competitors, their zeal and industriousness. Concerts took place in the evenings, followed by a dance and everywhere you turned, there were jam sessions. Like Leavenworth, Kimberley has a predominantly Bavarian theme, with a gazebo like Platzel at which everyone had an opportunity to play before the milling throngs.

A drummer, bass guitar and guitar were available for the performers to use as backing and I enjoyed my performances there. Gary had followed me to Kimberley, as had Janet and Jay Todd, who had made me so welcome in Salt Lake City. There was a huge contingent from Leavenworth, which included the lovely lady who ran the Andreas Keller restaurant. Names synonymous with the accordion, such as Mike Belitz graced the programmes and everyone was in the mood for dancing.

My mother, while I was in Victoria, had been released or discharged, (take your pick) from hospital and was alone on a long weekend, where accommodation was unavailable, not to mention a lack of flights. A chance e-mail to Eleanor Culling, from Leavenworth, set the wheels in motion for Mum to fly, at Eleanor's organisation. Not only had she been the MC for Leavenworth, but she totally took care of travel arrangements for Mum. Mum flew to Seattle, where Eleanor met her and took her to Leavenworth to recover. When she was fit enough on the Wednesday, they drove to Kimberley.

On Thursday, probably the highlight of the trip occurred, (short of my fainting in Art Van Damme's arms!). We successfully broke the Guinness Book of Records for the most accordionists playing at one given time together. 644 of us strapped on accordions and took part in this once in a lifetime experience. Conducted by the Canadian representative, Bill Sturges, Gary Blair from Scotland, Janet Todd from USA, Igor Zavadsky from Ukraine, and I led the troops to battle, from the stage.

A crowd of thousands let up an almighty cheer, as it was announced the record had been broken and we played like no-one's business, as we were filmed by an enormous national TV crew, for nationwide broadcast. I am proud to say that I was catalogued number 1 in the list. It was a real buzz to be part of this spectacle.

Dancing continued that night and the next and I even managed to have some dance lessons from Kimberley's dancing adjudicator. To judge the "dancability" of a piece of music, a couple dance off stage in a curtained off area, marking the competitors on their dancability.

Sadly, too soon, the competitions ended with the Happy Hanz open solo championships, won by Austin Cawa. I had the thrill of participating in the massed band, which played at the end, before the final fling.

Bernadette and friendsRod and I drove back to Leavenworth on Sunday, as I was to take advantage of Mum's ill health and play, for the last time, in Leavenworth. When they found I was to play, the two Garys Blair, Gary's chauffeur and some of Rod's Millers friends, decided to come along for the ride. The Keller was filled with music and song and a fantastic jam session to end my debut American tour.

I would like to thank all those who were responsible for, and who helped organise the tour, too numerous to attempt to name. There are so many who lent a hand, when my travel arrangements went south and when my mother got sick. I love you all.

I never knew that I could meet so many dear people at one time - people who will remain friends, I hope, for life and whose memories I cherish. In closing I will suggest every accordion enthusiast should plan to visit these festivals at least once in their life. Age, nationality, or ability to play an accordion have no bearing on the attractions these festivals bestow on attendees. They are guaranteed to be a highlight of your life.

Bernadette Conlon
July 2005
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