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:: News and Views | City Beat |Monday.8/28/ 2000 ::

Transported by the sound of squeeze box, Bill Schimmel is out with what's billed as world's first accordion musical. People in his Philadelphia neighborhood were calling Bill Schimmel a piano prodigy when he was 6 years old because he could play Beethoven, Chopin, guys like that.
Transported by the sound of squeeze box, Bill Schimmel is out with what's billed as world's first accordion musical (Manhattan Moves by Paul Stein).
But the piano was not where his heart was.

"I knew what I wanted," Schimmel said. "An accordion."

At least, the joke went, it wasn't a set of bagpipes.

Finally, his father, a custodian who played trumpet, gave him an accordion for Christmas 1956. He was 10. Thrilled, he immediately squeezed out a wheezy "Silent Night."

Schimmel, 54, has not stopped since. He is arguably the greatest accordion player in the United States. Hold the jokes, he's heard them all.

And forget "Lady of Spain" and "Beer Barrel Polka." He can't remember the last time he played either.

That was Schimmel and his Tango Project ensemble playing when Al Pacino danced with Gabrielle Anwar in "Scent of a Woman." He has lectured on the accordion at Princeton, the University of Missouri and Brandeis. He toured with Tom Waits and recorded with Sting, Marianne Faithful and a dozen other pop stars.

And yesterday, as the sixth annual One Big Happy Family accordion festival wrapped up its three-day program in a SoHo cultural center, Schimmel introduced his "Manhattan Moves," billed as the world's first accordion musical.

That was Schimmel who led the weekend seminars on, among other things, "The Accordion as Fetish," "The Accordion as Fashion" and "Worship and the Accordion."

Fetish? "Yeah," he said. "We've got people now who don't play the accordion but who have a thing about it."

Schimmel lives with his wife, choreographer/dancer Micki Goodman, and their son Michael, 20, on the upper East Side, where, he said, few of his neighbors know his secret.

It's okay. The much-maligned squeeze box has made him a well-known, well-rewarded national performer, composer, lecturer and good-natured champion of the instrument that inspired a million bad jokes.

Okay, okay, here's one: "A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion but doesn't." He has performed with the New York Philharmonic, toured the country performing in the Broadway show "Victor/Victoria," and is artist in residence for the American Accordionists' Association, which is headquartered in Mineola, L.I. It has 17,000 members and sponsored the weekend festival.

His love of the button box was inspired by four uncles who played accordions. "When I played \[the piano\] everybody patted me on the head and said how nice I sounded," he said. "But when my uncles began playing, everybody danced and sang. It didn't take me long to figure it out."

When he started, his idols were the Three Suns, who made "Twilight Time" a standard, and Dick Contino, who had done the same thing with "Lady of Spain." Years later, Schimmel would dedicate albums to both.

Weird Al Yankovic, Frankie Yankovich and Pee Wee King, among many others, hit it big with the squeeze box.

In accordion circles, Schimmel is as big as they are. "The accordion takes us all back some place, to our roots, our families, our homes," he said. "That's its power."

The instrument fell out of fashion in the mid-'50s when rock 'n' roll exploded and created a teen culture that made the accordion seem old-fashioned. But, now, Schimmel said, the accordion is back, and not only in zydeco, Tex-Mex, polkas, French music halls and merchant ships.

"It's almost existentialist," he said. "It's square and it's hip. It's classy and classless, and it's elegant and vulgar. Never one or the other, but both."

He and his wife met at Juilliard, where they both were students. "I didn't know he played accordion," she said.

Would she have married him if she had known?

"I respectfully decline to answer," she said.

True Facts From the Accordion Folder

The first accordion performance at Carnegie Hall was on April 18, 1939, when a trio played "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor" by Bach.
The accordion is the official instrument of San Francisco, Detroit, St. Paul and Skokie, Ill.
Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev used the accordion in their classical compositions.
Tony Lavelli, one-time Boston Celtics star, used to play his accordion at halftime.
Jimmy Sturr, the polka king and accordion player, has 10 Grammy Awards, one less than Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones combined.
Connie Francis won an Arthur Godfrey national TV talent show playing a white accordion. Godfrey told her she had a fine future, but that she should lose the squeeze box. She did.

Daily News Staff Writer


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