Accordions Worldwide Celebrity Interview of Tom Collins and his Famous Friends
Celebrity Interviews

Moderator: Wallace Liggett
Conducted in Montana, USA
21 May 1999

Q. Tom you have been around the accordion world for a number of years and have had the pleasure of knowing many of the big USA names from the golden years of the accordion. Perhaps you might share with us some of the experiences you have enjoyed from your association with these famous personalities. Maybe we should start from the early years of vaudeville. During this era two of the most revered were the Diero Brothers Pietro and Guido. Did you ever know them personally?
A. Their careers on the stage were in the twilight years when I was just beginning to study the instrument. I never had the pleasure of knowing them personally but through the years I have become well acquainted with Pietro Diero Jr. (called Lee by his friends) and Guido Diero Jr. who is known as the Count. Lee Diero followed his fathers career in the musical world as head of the accordion music publishing business. He has now sold this to various interests and is enjoying his retirement in New York City. Recently in Las Vegas, Eddie Chavez the esteemed accordion historian, and I spent a day with Guido Diero Jr.

Q. How were you able to make contact with the son of Guido, and could you tell us some of the things you learned from the visit?
A. I serve on a foundation board which is headquartered in Las Vegas. One of our trustees is a personal friend of the Count and arranged for us to have lunch together at the Las Vegas Club. Young Guido arrived in a sporty Jaguar and bore the flamboyant characteristics of his distinguished father. He carried two brief cases filled with his fathers memorabilia.

During our lunch together he bought out many items which he thought might be of interest to us. It was startling to read in those clippings that his fathers talent commanded an income of $500 per week during the 1920's. This salary was a fortune during the early years of the century when there was practically no income tax.

Q. If I remember correctly, Guido had a vaudeville act with the famous actress Mae West. Did his son mention this?
A. Yes one of the first comments about his father was that he was Mae Wests' first husband. He even showed us the divorce papers where-in, she charged him with adultery. It was also surprising to learn that Guido was one of the composers of that famous musical Kismet. Our conversation over lunch included many anecdotes from the life of the Counts father and later he invited us to his home to view more of his momentos. As we entered this rather palatial house there was a large colorful tapestry hanging in the entry way confirming his claim as an authentic Italian Count.

After playing on his fathers two Guerini accordions from the vaudeville era, he presented both Eddie and me each with a photo of his father during the prime of his career which he autographed for us. Guido Senior was truly the epitome of sartorial splendor, dressed in a Homburg hat, Lord Chesterfield Coat, pin striped pants with his shoes covered with gray spats, standing next to his Packard Limousine. A fitting climax to a most historic day learning of the Counts famous father.

Q. Speaking of this grand era of vaudeville, have you known Anthony Galla-Rini?
A. Oh yes, we first met after World War 2 when he was doing a program in Detroit. Truly one of our great concert artists. Since then our trails have crossed many times and it is always a wonderful experience to meet with Tony. In the early 1950's when I first opened my accordion studio, I visited him again at his home in Los Angeles. There was then an interlude of several years when I did not see him.

We met again at the Coupe Mondiale at Auckland (New Zealand) in 1980. The Maestro is a man with a unique memory and I shall never forget our conversation that evening at the reception for the visiting dignitaries. As soon as I spotted him at the other end of the room I walked to him and shook hands. At one time he and my teacher Harvey Brownfield were on the same vaudeville circuit. Immediately after greeting me, Tony inquired about Harvey and then astounded me when he asked, "What ever happened to his son Bruce?" It must have been many decades since he had seen the Brownfields and I was amazed that he could remember the individual family names.

Q. We read of Maestro Galla-Rini rather frequently these days, as he's still active in the accordion field?
A. It may surprise you to know that Tony just celebrated his 95th birthday on January 10 this year. All the accordion fraternity met to pay their respects to this great artist. I must express my regrets that other travels precluded my being among the invited guests. A couple of years ago, Tony and I were on the same program for the Texas Accordion Assn. and there was a fine opportunity to visit with him about events in history about which I had a great curiosity.

We sat together in the back seat of a van which met us at the airport and drove us to the convention site at Ft. Worth. After a while, I asked Tony to explain to me what happened which drove a wedge between the American Accordion Assn. and the Accordion Teachers Guild.

Q. We heard of this sad split in the USA accordion world and would be interested in knowing what occurred creating a conflict. I'm sure our readers would be anxious to know the facts of this controversy?
A. When I inquired about this Tony was very cooperative in providing the details. He began with a negative attitude toward Pietro Diero, who had an opposite viewpoint from Galla-Rini. Basically it was a conflict of musical philosophy tempered with some bits of professional jealousy. Tony began with the comment that Pietro tried to simplify everything.

At that time, Galla-Rini was plugging for full chord notation while the rest of the AAA Board wanted to use symbols. Pietro's belief was that it would be much easier for beginners to learn accordion in this manner. I can understand this as it made no sense to complicate a young students learning task. It was a way to further the popularity of the instrument. The AAA Board figured the serious student could learn full chord notation at a more advanced stage of study. Tony was very concerned that they would adopt the symbols for chords and they did it at a meeting time when he could not attend.

Thus the split was created and Galla Rini became one of the founders of the Accordion Teachers Guild, (founded 50 years ago). This fracture between the two associations existed for many years although today, many of us including myself are members of both organizations and the two organizations share board members and an amiable relationship.

Q. Probably the most renowned and respected name from the Golden Era was Charles Magnante. Did you have the occasion to know him personally? If so could you tell us about some of your experiences with him?
A. Of all the great accordionists from this era I probably knew Charlie the best and we did many things together besides music. I first met Charlie in the early 1950's when I had the music studio. He often traveled with a trumpet playing friend Walt Sarad, who was the factory representative for Excelsior Accordion Co. They would take turns driving and when Walt drove, Charlie would get in the back seat and practice. When Charlie drove, it would be vice versa.

After we initially met, Charlie became our house guest whenever he visited this part of the country (Missoula, Montana). We had a special apartment for him and he often stayed here for several days. Often he was here to do workshops and seminars for our accordion students and then do several concerts in the area.

Q. You mentioned doing a variety of other things with Charles Magnante. Could you tell us about these activities?
A. It may not be generally known but Charlie was an avid hunter. He was mainly interested in trophy hunting and I recall the time that he stopped to visit with us on his way home from Alaska. He had been up there for nearly a month and said he never fired a shot. I immediately asked "Didn't you see anything to shoot at?" "Oh yes he said but I didn't see anything worth having mounted." Later Charlie and I would always work in a hunt in Montana whenever he came this way on concert tour.

Q. Do you recall any special moments on these hunting expeditions with Charles Magnante?
A. There were many interesting occasions but one had an especially interesting twist. We had arranged an antelope hunt in the Big Hole Valley and a young accordion playing friend named Dan Carpino volunteered to be our driver and guide. Hunting antelope can be quite different since you generally drive until you can spot a herd of them. A couple of things about antelope not generally known unless you're a hunter is that they won't get behind a tree or jump a fence. The main protection of an antelope is its amazing speed, running in wide open spaces.

The vehicle Dan drove on this expedition was a World War 2 jeep with several hundred thousand miles on it. Ran fine, but there was a coil spring sticking out of the seat on which Charlie was seated. We spotted a herd of antelope and Dan floor boarded the accelerator. We were flying over the prairie covered with pears and dry washes. When we got within range, Dan slammed on the brakes and Charlie bailed out to get a shot. In his anxiety, he did not realize the spring had bit into the seat of his trousers. He tore the seat out of his pants but did manage to bag a trophy pronghorn. We located a safety pin and patched up his rear. It was evening before we arrived into town and stopped in the first saloon for a burger and a brew.

Somehow, it was discovered that we were accordionists and it was only minutes before Charlie was strolling with his accordion strapped on. The audience was enthralled to hear such beautiful music in this remote Montana bar. It was a humorous twist when we overheard one of the ladies remarking to her friend. "That guy can sure play and I'll bet he could make a good living with that thing if they scrubbed him up and got him a decent pair of pants." We had a good laugh to hear this comment about the world's greatest accordionist.

Q. That is a great story and it certainly brings out the human side of this fine artist. I understand Charles Magnante had a special Excelsior accordion built for you. Could you tell us a little about this?
A. Yes. This happened in 1958 and I still have this grand accordion as my prize possession. One morning when I took Charlie to the airport it was in the midst of an early winter storm. By the time we arrived, the flight had been canceled which meant that he would be our guest for another day. We returned home and put on a pot of coffee. There was plenty of spare time to visit and it was not long before we were talking accordions.

I said to Charlie "You know, I've not had a truly fine instrument since my first professional Italo-American." Immediately Charlie responded with "Tom, you let me know the specification and I'll have one built for you. I'll follow it through production at the Excelsior plant and if you don't like it there is simply no obligation to buy it." In about two months I received a letter from Charlie wherein he reported the accordion was finished but they didn't follow the specifications on his bass. He took the accordion back to the factory and had it rebuilt to his specifications. This is truly a great instrument and I'll never part with it! I have saved his letter in my files.

Q. Charles Magnante did some amazing things with stradella bass. Did he ever embrace the "free bass system"?
A. It is strange how things become tied together. I was in New York when Julio Giulietti was first importing instruments with the new free bass. We had breakfast together and Julio knew I was spending that night with the Magnante's in their home at Ossining, N.Y. During our conversation about his new accordion Julio remarked "Tom you could do a great service to the accordion industry if you could convince Charlie to switch to free bass." Of course I did not want to get involved in the controversy but I did say I would mention it to Charlie.

Later that evening Charlie and his wife Charlotte and I dined at a Japanese restaurant. During our conversation I mentioned casually that I had breakfast with Julio and he was telling me about his new free bass system. Immediately Charlie responded with "Tom, the stradella system made the accordion great and I don't think free bass will ever be an important factor in the development of the instrument." Several years later while in Castelfidardo with Julio, he informed me that he should have listened to Charlie. Julio had a warehouse full of free bass (only) accordions which he had still not sold when he died.

Q. Well that is an interesting story. Is there anything else you would like to mention about your friendship with Magnante?
A. Yes Wally, there are a couple of trivial items I would like to mention. It was not generally known but Joe Biviano, a fine accordionist and teacher from this golden era was married to Charlie's sister. We used to all get together whenever I was visiting in New York. At times when I needed to borrow an accordion while visiting there I would call Joe and he would loan me his 140 bass Excelsior. In those days many of the top professional accordionists played 140 or 160 bass instruments. Charlie used to say he could do anything he needed to play any score on a 120 bass. The accordion world has learned this and today it is rare to see anything other than 120 bass.

Also I wanted to mention that Charlies wife, Charlotte, was also a fine accordionist and entertainer. The last time I stayed at their home we were seated around the breakfast table having a cup of coffee when Charlie suddenly said "Charlotte why don't you put on your accordion and play a few tunes for Tom". She did that and I was amazed with her fine technique on the keyboard and her lovely singing voice. She was truly a top entertainer.

Q. With all the compositions arrangements and other accordion history Magnante must have produced in his lifetime, do you have any idea where his material is at the present time?
A. I can not say for sure but a few months ago, Charlie's only son Peter called to ask my opinion in this regard. Charlie had recently passed away and there were many large crates of his creations which were in storage. He was inquiring about suggestions as to where this should be housed and preserved for future generations to study.

Right away I thought of several American universities where a degree in accordion is granted and I am not yet sure whether a decision has been made. Surely there will be a public announcement when this is finalized. It would be a wonderful legacy if the future generations of aspiring young players could study some of Magnantes treasured contributions to the musical world.

Q. I'm sure there are many memories about Magnante about which you could write a book. But there are probably other great accordionists we could talk about? It occurred to me Tom. There is another renowned accordion artist from the vaudeville era about which our audience might be interested. Through the years did you ever have any contact with Pietro Frosini?
A. Like most young accordionists, you did not have a complete repertoire without some of Frosini's marvelous compositions. By the time I was an aspiring young student, he was in his twilight years and passed away in 1951. However I have always played much of his music and recently did a program with one of his famous students, Charlie Nunzio.

Three years ago, Nunzio, Galla Rini and I were together on a program for the Texas Accordion Assn. I had never met Nunzio before but followed his career and knew he had studied with Frosini. During some of our jam sessions at this convention Nunzio, and I decided to do a few of Frosini's numbers as a finale on the program. It was great fun and in his mid 80's Nunzio is still one of the truly great living accordion artists.

Q. Some of our New Zealand accordionists have studied with John Molinari in San Francisco. He is certainly a well recognized accordionist and I'm sure our audience would be interested in anything you might tell us about him.?
A. I had always felt that Molinari was one of the finest living accordionists of the world. I had first met him many years ago while in the Bay area (San Francisco) and we became close friends. We did many programs together at the famous Bohemian Club and played at their summer camp on the Russian River.

In fact, the first time I heard of the now famous Kimberly Accordion Festival, held in this small Bavarian community in British Columbia was when Johnny called me from there. He and his wife Diva, had decided to visit this grand affair and thought they might return home through Montana. I immediately invited them to stay with us and he and Diva were here for over a week.

Q. I can imagine the plethora of accordion activities in your home during the time the Molinari's were your guests. Can you tell us about some of the happenings during this visit?
A. Well Johnny was very unselfish with his talent and was willing to share his music with any responsive audience. We were busy on a daily basis playing everything from the local service clubs to doing a concert at the park with our city band. It was truly an exciting time in my accordion life being able to enjoy the pleasure of such another great artist at our home.

Our wonderful friendship ended on a sad note not many weeks later. While Johnny and his wife were here, they talked about plans for another tour doing concerts with Viekko Ahvennainen in Scandinavia. Then Johnny invited Bettie and me to join them on this exciting accordion tour. We were deeply saddened that this was not to become a reality. All plans were made and our flight reservations booked when a mutual friend phoned us to say that John was stricken with terminal cancer and the tour had to be cancelled. It was a sorrowful period in our life to lose such a great artist and dear friend.

Q. I can understand your sadness and Molinari's passing left a large void in the accordion world. One of the big names who created a special niche as a jazz accordionist was Art Van Damme. Did you have a chance to get acquainted with Art during your musical career?
A. Oh yes. I first met Art when he was playing for the Western Hotel chain in the early 1950's. He came through here several times and we always enjoyed some happy accordion times together. In fact, he and Johnny Smith, the fine guitar artist along with Walt Sarad and I traveled together to the Coupe Mondiale held in Auckland (New Zealand) during 1980. This experience is filled with many memories travelling together with these great guys for several weeks. One thing I vividly recall is Art talking about his jazz career.

I never realized, he began as a classical accordionist and did several appearances with respected symphony orchestras in the U.S.A. Then he said "You know being a concert artist is a very demanding profession and not much fun. The audience knows every item you perform and are highly critical if you do not perform it precisely as the composer wrote."

He decided to be a happier accordionist by going the jazz route since he could play a different arrangement at every concert and let the audience judge it by their reaction to what they hear at that time. He said that its a lot more fun and you don't have to practice so hard.

Q. A person can't argue with this wisdom when you reflect on his fine accomplishments during a most successful musical career?
A. Art certainly had a well defined mission in his career and he created a very special spot in accordion history.

Q. One of the accordion greats we have not talked about is Myron Floren. I'm sure you must have crossed paths with him during your life with the accordion. Can you tell us about Myron?
A. Well our friendship goes back many years when Myron was just starting his career with Lawrence Welk. Of all the accordionists, I don't think there is any one alive who has the entertainment acclaim enjoyed by him. After over 40 years weekly exposure on national TV, his name has become a household word. Also, I'm sure no one has the financial rewards attained by Myron.

When we first met, it was in the mid 1950's when Myron was in Missoula to do a program in our University of Montana field house. He visited us here at home and then he invited me to be part of the show. I still have the photos which were taken from this.

He was a fine accordionist at that time but through the years he has become a truly great artist. His many TV videos, recordings and ongoing popularity will attest to that.

Q. It is good to know the achievements of such a talented entertainer and his success has spanned many years. I understand the famous Welk Show is no longer produced live but has still retained its popularity with numerous replays. Does Myron still do many live performances?
A. Well I know from talking with him that he does over 200 live shows a year (until recent illness). One show with which I've been involved this last decade or so is the annual Kimberly Festival in British Columbia. It has become a tradition for Myron to fly into Spokane where I meet his plane. Then we drive to Kimberly together.

Often Eddie Chavez, that renowned accordion historian from San Antonio will come to Missoula and join us on this venture. It has become an annual assignment for me to put together the finale for Myron's show. This is always a packed house and the dozen or so accordionists who take part in this show are always enthusiastic participants. The audience always reacts with a loud standing ovation.

Q. Yes I think almost anyone who has ever worn an accordion will know about Myron's unique musical career. He has certainly retained his popularity during the years and I guess he is well ensconced in his senior years. Would you hazard a guess as to his age?
A. Really Wally I don't have to guess on this one since I know Myron's birthday. He will be 80 next November 5. It will be an occasion for a grand celebration not only because of such a successful career but also a tribute to such a fine person. I have never known a kinder more modest individual than Myron. He is truly one of the finest persons in the accordion fraternity and my wife Bettie and I treasure the memories of being with him and his spouse of many years, Berdyne.

She was one of his first students and they have a new Excelsior accordion sitting in a closet which he gave her as a wedding present. It has hardly been played since they began a wonderful family shortly after their marriage. Since then Berdyne has been too busy raising five lovely daughters. Now that they are married and out of the nest, she is anxious to return to playing duets with her famous husband.

Q. Well Tom, time is about to preclude us carrying this interesting interview further. It has been a great pleasure to have you with us and we hope all those who view this interview will enjoy our discussion. We'll look foreward to having you with us again and all the best wishes for your continued happiness in this world of 'reeds and bellows.'
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