Playing Both Ends Against the Middle, the Accordion Guerrillas Are Fighting to Make the World Safe for Polkas

updated 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Silverware tinkled softly against china as patrons chatted over their meals at Harry's Restaurant in San Francisco. Suddenly the quiet conversations and background chamber music ceased. A 16-piecc accordion band charged through the door and began pumping out a glass-rattling "Lady of Spain." Outflanking stunned managers and waiters, the musical guerrillas went on full attack, forming a conga line, snaking between tables and into the bar for a boisterous chorus of "The Beer Barrel Polka." Those Darn Accordions! had struck again.

Formed over a year ago, the band was the "brainchild" of one Big Lou, a tall redhead who leans toward rhinestone tiaras and the gaudiest jewelry this side of Woolworth. The musicians stage their lightning raids into restaurants, bars and coffee shops from an unmarked blue van, perform their two quick tunes and then head for the exits.

Big Lou won't give her last name because of crank calls (or maybe threats), but by day she's a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and she once played accordion for some rock bands in central Texas. In a moment of instrumental loneliness, she decided that it would be great to hear a whole bunch of accordions playing en masse. So she called the few players she knew, and they called a few, and like a bad dream her wish came true.

Most of those assaulted by the group take it well, once the shock wears off. They smile, clap along, and at Hamburger Mary's, a hip burger palace in the South of Market, a few young patrons even jumped up for an impromptu polka.

On the other hand, of course, some victims react...ah, accordionly. A few give tips ("please leave"). Or directions ("not in here"). At a McDonald's the group's performance was especially brief. "It's against company policy," intoned a grim, white-hatted manager, as he ushered them out the door. So far only one restaurant has barred the group altogether: a snooty Italian joint where the maitre d' blocked the entrance with his body.

Reactions like that always dismay Tom Torriglia, a technical writer and sometime publicist who has become the group's self-described "director of media relations." Torriglia boasts that he is "probably the only person in the world who volunteered to play the accordion" and that he was really good in grade school ("I won the school music contest at St. Vincent de Paul"). The great thing about the accordion, he says, "is that it's not restricted to one type of audience. It evokes unbridled passion and joy for everyone who either listens or plays." Pause. "And it's a great way to meet babes."

This summer Torriglia announced a marathon at which Those Darn Accordions! would play "Lady of Spain" for 10 straight hours in hopes of raising $20,000 for a trip to an international accordion competition in Italy. "For a $2,000 donation, we won't play for an hour," he promised shrewdly. "For $20,000 we'll cancel the event."

At one point the band even approached San Francisco Supervisor Willie Kennedy, asking that the accordion be declared the city's official instrument. To their delight, Kennedy actually introduced the proposal. "I don't play any instrument; that's why it was easy for me to choose the accordion," she explains.

The resolution passed (6-4), but Mayor Art Agnos refused to sign. "I am not satisfied that the accordion should be considered preeminent in its importance to I the musical and cultural history of San Francisco," spake I the Mayor, who kicked the proposal down to the Court of I Historical Review, a semi-absurd body that in the past has adjudicated such ponderous issues as: "Is there a Santa Claus?" and "What is the origin of the donut?" Be serious, said the court, giving the proposal a quick thumbs down.

Players of a lesser instrument would probably have called it quits by now. Not these folks. Their next goal? To convince the Bay Area Music Awards to add two "Best Accordion Player" categories (traditional and zydeco) to next year's list of honors. "Obviously they should do it," says Torriglia confidently.

—Ken Gross, Dianna Waggoner in San Francisco

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