Squeezin' the Cheese
Love reigned supreme during Samsonite and Delight-Ya's recent tour through the cold corridors of Oregon State Hospital, the stark and unpredictable location where Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed in 1975. Rather than butt heads in mortal combat, the large inflatable Godzillas that accompanied the duo danced affectionately as Blue Öyster Cult's riff-heavy ode to Japan's favorite atomic monster filled the ward.
But the touching spectacle of blow-up dinosaurs frolicking together was perhaps less memorable than the unusual means by which "Godzilla" was rendered by the Portland-based Samsonite and Delight-Ya. That song -- and every other cover tune the pair performed during its hospital sweep -- sprang to life not through the wonders of screaming electric guitars, walls of feedback or stomping kick drums, but through the polkafied dual exhaust of twin accordions -- Italian cherry-colored Castiglionis, at that.
"I couldn't tell the nurses from the patients," recalls Samsonite, whose legal name is Botielus (sounds like "bowtieless"). "It was pretty weird. We started out playing to the pretty easygoing people and the young people, then the criminally insane last. Some of the people that were in [Cuckoo's Nest] were actually in the audience. They had to keep all of the wards separate."
"They were great audiences," adds Delight-Ya, a husky-voiced looker also known as Cybele. "They loved it. We got a lot of feedback -- a few handwritten thank-you notes and stuff. And the chief medical officer told us that outbursts went way down, even before we played. They put up a bunch of posters beforehand, and it was kind of a reward for being less violent or making outbursts or anything. We even autographed a few anti-violence posters."
In addition to deploying non-destructive, rubberized, dance-happy lizards, Samsonite and Delight-Ya found other ways to customize their set for the institutionalized.
"We cut out some of the dirty words," Delight-Ya recalls. "We had to clean up everything -- take out any references to drinking, which there's a lot of because of the beer celebrations with polkas and stuff. With 'Relax,' by Frankie [Goes to Hollywood], instead of saying 'When you want to come,' we said, 'When you want some fun.' We had to sanitize it, leave out 'Born to Be Wild,' things like that.
"It was definitely one of our most fulfilling, gratifying concerts," she says. "We did five shows there in one week, and everyone really seemed to enjoy it so much."
What's not to enjoy? If Lawrence Welk broke up predictable renditions of "Liechtenstein Polka" and "Baby Elephant Walk" with "Fat Bottomed Girls" or "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a regular basis, everyone might be a little less crazy. Samsonite and Delight-Ya -- who dub themselves "the cheesiest accordion duo in the world" and have orange, tri-cornered hats to cement their stake to the claim -- are, in their own way, making the world a better place.
"We mostly polkatize rock songs and TV themes and jingles and stuff like that," Delight-Ya says. "We irk traditionalists because we tweak everything and we don't have any reverence or respect for the original songs. We pretty much try to give any song a polka beat and get in some yodeling and some 'yaaahs' and change some words to German and stuff. We don't go as far with the lyrics-changing as Weird Al does. We're more half-assed. We're each half an ass, and together we're a whole ass."
Such unholy unions aren't squeezed out of thin air -- or even aerosol cans. The pair met in Houston in 1985 when Delight-Ya was dating the Reverend Horton Heat (who went by the name of Jim Wallace in those days, fronting a band called Six Gun). Seventeen years later, they've been joined in the eyes of the King, if not the authorities.
"We've had two ceremonies," Samsonite says, "but we've never done anything official. We were married on a rock-and-roll stage by a rock-and-roll minister."
"At the Church of Elvis," Delight-Ya adds. "For a Fox after-breakfast TV show. We don't have the government involved in our relationship."
Both polka manglers come from über-traveling families. Born an Army brat in Virginia, Samsonite lived in Italy and in Taiwan as an adolescent before getting himself stationed for two years in Würzburg, Germany, as a saxophonist for a fifteen-piece Army band; he performed traditional Bavarian polka tunes in beer halls and John Philip Sousa marches for highbrow Washington functions, including Ronald Reagan's inauguration.
"We'd get up at five or six in the morning and play Army music or the theme from Rocky, and these tanks would drive by, showing off their speed or whatever," Samsonite recalls. "And there were boxing matches that we'd play for. Glenn Miller and 'The Chicken Dance' were really big."
Delight-Ya, meanwhile, followed her family as it bounced from home town San Francisco to the Philippines and ultimately to Texas, where the clan settled in the mid-'80s. More drawn to pine trees than tumbleweeds, Delight-Ya soon moved to Oregon to fulfill her unique destiny.
"We came from opposite ends of the country to meet in the middle," Delight-Ya says.
Apparently star-crossed, the two soon found themselves combining music, multimedia and costumed alter egos into various art/performance projects. When she's not dressed in lederhosen and grappling with a squeezebox, Delight-Ya works as a professional Marilyn Monroe impersonator named Marilyn Mirage. Samsonite, in non-polka mode, composes symphonic new-age music in the spirit of Jean-Michel Jarre or Vangelis; as Botielus, he's released three albums: a self-titled debut and Vision Quest in 1990, and Phresh Ideas in 1991. A fourth release, Imaginary Orchestra, is still in the works. Together the two also perform as a Euro-synth/pop duo called Hässenpfeffer -- after the German word for rabbit stew -- which lends an eco-social consciousness to women's issues and assorted political matters.
Then there's the pair's three-year stint in public-access television, which spawned the ludicrous edutainment program The Chess Show in the late '90s. Hosted by Cybele -- who wore slinky evening wear, false eyelashes, gold eye shadow and big hair -- the monthly call-in event brought viewers together to swap pawns and bishops with one another on their TV screens. Somehow the series won Portland's Hometown Video Award, the local cable-access version of the Emmys; paraplegic cartoonist John Callahan once gave it a glowing endorsement: "Since I've been watching The Chess Show," he remarked, "I'm beginning to get the feeling back in my legs."
Encouraging circulation in other parts of the body, sexy Cybele sometimes dons a low-cut jumpsuit and platinum wig to become Miss Cybelvis Monroe, another Marilyn-inspired character that finds her imagining Monroe's interpretations of Elvis Presley's hits while backed by Botielus on accordion and sequencer, for disco-billy results.
Cybelvis Monroe, Ms. Mirage and the less glamorous and far cheesier Samsonite and Delight-Ya are acts that the two sometimes perform as singing telegrams. And besides brightening the occasional mental hospital with double entendres, fog machines and bubble-makers, Samsonite and Delight-Ya bring their ever- broadening show to shopping malls, grocery stores, community halls and even the occasional Eagle Lodge. Such gigs help keep dreary day jobs at bay; neither quick-change artist has had to punch a clock for over a year. (For a complete breakdown on their modest entertainment-and-merchandise industry, consult www.funduo.com.)
"The key is diversification," Cybele says, lapsing momentarily into finance-speak. "I don't think we could make it on any one act quite yet. But we do a little of this, a little of that. September is busy for Oktoberfest. And I get hired a lot as Marilyn for Christmas."
"We do a lot of private things nowadays," Samsonite continues. "We don't really play rock clubs. There's an annual polka party every year that's kind of a big deal. It's not straight-up traditional at all. It's more like Mission Impolkable, Polk Fiction, Polkacide -- the really tweaked stuff. We've been doing this accordion shtick for over seven years."
"But it sounds like one year," Delight-Ya adds, laughing.
Seasoned cheese merchants, the two routinely offer individually wrapped, processed-food prizes to audience members who correctly identify songs at their live shows.
"We had a piece of our cheese thrown back at us once," Delight-Ya admits. "But it could've been a tribute. You know -- like how Tom Jones has underwear and ladies' bras thrown on stage? And hotel-room keys?"
If anyone can locate polka's lascivious side -- and inspire the throwing of love-hungry amulets -- it's Delight-Ya.
"You know what I like about accordions?" she asks with a husky chuckle. "They're strap-on!"
Three years ago, Samsonite and Delight-Ya attained something that resembled fame, at least by squeezebox standards: The pair's single "Y2Kymca.com" (penned by friend and Chess Show creator Clinton Wittstruck) earned "Best Y2K Song of the Millennium" honors from NPR during the final week of 2000. Fortunately, they didn't let it go to their heads; for them, polka is still all about the people. Asked what song is most frequently requested by audiences, Delight-Ya responds without hesitation.
"'Freebird,' man," she says. "'Cause some yahoo always calls it out, and that's how come we learned it. 'Cause we want to give the people what they want. If somebody doesn't call it out at the end, we'll make it our encore and we'll force it on them. And they'll like it!"
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