When you work in the newspaper business, you get calls and e-mails from people pitching stories, almost all day long. About a week ago, I got a call from Mike Martino of Drexel Hill. Mike, who told me he is “the ultimate showman accordionist,” is planning a concert for later this month at Collenbrook United Church in Drexel Hill and he wanted to get the word out about the show. Although he performs regularly at private parties, he told me that he only does one public concert a year. He also assured me that he plays the accordion “like I’ve never heard before, in a style that is quite different than other accordionists.” He threw out some interesting facts about his lifelong musical career, tempting me to seal the deal.
“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I always hated the accordion until I heard you play,’” Mike the accordionist told me in our conversation.
He asked me to meet him at Arby’s in Clifton Heights for the interview over lunch. I didn’t tell Mike, but I had a hidden motive for why this story piqued my interest and why I wanted to hear more. I have been a “closet accordion player” since I was in fifth grade. Although I took lessons in grade school, I only touch the instrument once a year at Christmas time. I’ll whip it out to play a few carols, mostly for family. I use the word “play” very lightly, because my timing, rhythm and smoothness are minimal at best and seem to get more and more rusty with each passing year.
Because I am a very-very-amateur accordion player, I have a great admiration for everyone who’s an excellent, talented accordion player. Let me tell you, it’s not easy! Having tried it myself, I realize what a multi-tasking musician you have to be to operate the instrument proficiently. You have to work the keys, the chords and the bellows, all at the same time. I guess my brain just couldn’t handle it all.
I can still remember practicing as a child, with my glittery black and pearly white accordion that my parents bought me at Eighth Street Music in Philadelphia, sitting on my lap, as I squeezed the bellows in and out with all my might. My very loud renditions of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” and “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” wafted through the house for the umpteenth time. In the background I could hear my family members: door slamming closed, door slamming closed, door slamming closed. My dear teacher, Mr. Joel Cavalier, at the now defunct Collingdale Music Store, patiently taught, guided and encouraged me each week, bless his soul (and ears).
I arrived at Arby’s to find Mike sitting in a booth, next to one of the most battered briefcases that I’ve ever seen (no offense, Mike). It probably took less than a minute before he began to whip stories and photos and newspaper clippings out of the briefcase to demonstrate to me that he was no mere two-bit accordion player!
“You would love my show,” Mike exclaimed soon after we met. “I don’t just stand there and play songs. You can just pop in a CD if you just want to hear songs. I actually put on a show with jokes, stories, comedy and impersonations and lots of flamboyant stuff. You have to stand out from the others. There are musicians and then there are showmen musicians. I am the latter.”
The photo albums in his briefcase were pictorial resumes of the places he played and the well-known performers who endorsed him. He has made a living as a performer and a teacher. Mike, a former Al Alberts Showcase performer, played as an ongoing solo performer, at Valley Forge Music Fair, Steel Pier in Atlantic City, Mickey Rooney’s Downingtown Inn, Palumbo’s in South Philadelphia and Pulsations Nigh Club. He appeared in the movie trailer for Silver Linings Playbook and had speaking parts in the major motion picture, Jesus’s Son and the TV series “Hack.” He was featured on Stella’s Halloween special on KYW Channel 3 and in the television commercials for ACME Markets with Gene Crane, for which he also arranged the music. He opened for performers Donna Theodore, Pat Cooper, Morty Gunty and John Raitt and was a featured solo performer with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Additionally, Mike is a song writer. He wrote original music for Broadway star Donna Theodore, whom he says, was featured on The Johnny Carson Show over 50 times. This is all just a sliver of his resume. Mike sat in the booth and leafed through pages and pages of memories, sharing stories of performances at night clubs, country clubs, convention centers and theatres.
Mike pointed out newspaper quotes about himself. Bob Hope called him a “Superstar.” After hearing him play, world renowned accordion artist Dick Contino said, “I enjoyed hearing you play very much. You are one of my favorite accordionists.”
“I always wanted to play the accordion,” Mike confessed. “Once, I began taking lessons, I got consumed with it and then I fell in love with it. God gives us all some sort of gift, but we need to work on that gift and nurture it to achieve success.”
Mike’s father, Sam, was a hair stylist. One of his customers had no money to pay him, but asked if he would take a trade and bartered with an accordion. Mike was 11 years old when his dad brought the accordion home and presented it to him as a gift that would change the course of his life. Upon seeing the huge instrument, his mother Marie exclaimed, “It’s bigger than he is” and his dad responded by saying, “They will both grow together.”
And grow they did. Mike took lessons on the accordion from local teachers, Andy Arcari and Jacob Naupauer. He practiced up a storm, giving up sports and other school-age pursuits to strengthen his accordion playing skills. He flew out to Las Vegas so accordion icon Dick Contino could hear him play. He ended up being a mentor to Mike. The end result is a musician who not only plays the accordion, but who puts on a high-energy show to remember. The accordion showman has been entertaining audiences for over fifty years.
“I still practice,” the talented musician said. “I am always looking for new techniques and new songs to add to my repertoire.”
His music selection includes everything from popular hits and international favorites to classical, ballads and rock. Mike produced four CDs, his most recent one called “A La Italia.”
“Expect the unexpected when you pop in one of my CDs or attend a concert of mine,” he added. “I’ve written at least thirty of my own tunes over the years.”
Mike continued to pull out items to show from his briefcase full of memorabilia— the picture of him and Tina Fey at an Upper Darby Performing Arts Center event, the 1989 proclamation by Delaware County Councilman Mario Civera, then a Pennsylvania Representative, recognizing Mike’s accomplishments, the ads featuring his name as an entertainer at the Delaware County Italian Festival in Rose Tree Park, the letter from the late PA Senator John Heinz marking January 7 as “Mike Martino Day,” announcements from when he appeared on WPEN, KISS 100 and other radio stations and information about the movie, “Forever Fifty’s,” for which Mike produced, wrote the script, starred in, directed and composed the music for its sound track.
Although he was born in the city, Mike and his family moved to Delaware County when he was young and he never left. He’s a graduate of Upper Darby High School. Martino went on to attain his music education degree at Combs College of Music. The showman played all over the county and all over the country.
“Some day, when people will say to me, ‘What did you do with your life?’ I will have these CDs and these memories of all my performances,” Mike said as he tapped on his well-worn briefcase.
After our walk down Mike’s memory lane, I stood up to say good-bye and get back to my computer.
“You’re going to come to my show to see for yourself, right?” Mike asked, as he pulled some tickets to the upcoming performance out of his tired and trusty briefcase that was overflowing with a lifetime of happy melodies and memories.
I just smiled, full of fresh and unexpected inspiration. I couldn’t wait to go home and pull out my old accordion that night and try again. “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean….”
For more information on “The Ultimate Showman Accordionist: Mike Martino” concert at 6 p.m. Sat., Oct. 21, call 484-326-7982 for tickets. Colenbrook United Church is at 5290 Township Line Rd., Drexel Hill.