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Don't Be a Playa Hata

Mama's got a squeezebox: Cheri Thurston and her Petosa.
James Glader

Don't laugh, Cheri Thurston says. It's not as easy as it looks.

Contrary to popular opinion, she explains, jaw clenched, struggling with the right shoulder, this is a serious instrument. It's a 25-year-old Petosa from Seattle that cost $6,000. If it were a violin, some would argue, it would be a Stradivarius. If it were a piano, it would be a Steinway. As it happens, it's a squeezebox. But a Cadillac of a squeezebox.

"I think it's beautiful," says Thurston, accordion in her lap, locked and loaded. "And not at all easy to play."

For instance, because of the instrument's bulk there are 120 bass buttons she can't see and must play by touch. This particular model weighs 28 pounds (heavier than most) and can cause, as her chiropractor can attest, considerable lower-back strain. Then there's the coordination of fingers and keys and buttons that would give even Xbox masters fits.

How about a demonstration?

The "Tick Tock Polka"?

Okay. A one and a two and a...oh, all right, she sighs, Petosa wheezing like a harmonica.

Go ahead and laugh.

A little.

Thurston is founder, president and spiritual leader of the Closet Accordion Players of America. For eleven years, it's been her mission, or at least her hobby, to persuade the masses to change their tune about what could be the most maligned instrument on the planet. She publishes a newsletter, hosts a Web site (http://capa.cottonwoodpress.com) and unpacks her Petosa every chance she gets. Her hard-core membership of 2,000 accordionists includes icons Weird Al Yankovic and Myron Floren.

"A dent," she says. "You can say I've made a dent."

In her 54 years, Thurston has been many things, from a seventh-grade English teacher to a poet, but now she owns and operates Cottonwood Press, a Fort Collins-based publisher of English and language-arts textbooks such as Hot Fudge Monday, the "tasty way to teach parts of speech."

The petite, perky woman with strawberry-blond hair, who thinks fast and talks fast and laughs and laughs and laughs, is the oldest of four children born to a family of farmers in southeastern Colorado. Her German dad was a lifelong fan of the accordion, but instead of picking up the instrument himself, he and his wife drove a four-year-old Thurston to an accordion studio in La Junta.

"I had no feeling about it either way," she recalls. "It was like, 'Brush your teeth, eat your vegetables, take accordion lessons.' It was all the same to me."

For the next six months, she learned to play using a Crayola technique developed by her mom. First they colored her accordion keys to correspond with a particular note, such as red for "C," blue for "D" and black for "E." Then they colored Thurston's fingernails to match (thumb red, index finger blue, middle finger black, etc.). Finally, they colored the sheet music. In no time at all, Thurston performed "Mary Had a Little Lamb." At age five, she played a Rural Electric Company banquet.

"All I remember was crying and pitching a fit," she says. "It wasn't because of the accordion, but because they wanted to put my chair on a table so they could see me better. I thought it was undignified."

She continued to play through junior high and high school, distinguishing herself at conventions and contests such as a state Kiwanis Club talent show. "I survived playing 'Bringing in the Sheaves' on the back of a flatbed truck in a parade," she says. "And performed on the radio with a tap dancer named Kitty. Those were strange days."

Then came the '60s, the Beatles and Haight-Ashbury. Thurston tuned in, turned on and stuffed her accordion in a closet. It wasn't until many years later, in April 1992, over a few glasses of wine, that Thurston casually mentioned her repressed talent to a close friend.

"What?" the woman asked. "How could I not know this about you?"

"Oh, well," Thurston shrugged. "Guess I'll just have to come out of the closet."

Bing! "The Closet Accordion Players of America!"

At first it was "just some screwy idea," but the more Thurston thought about it, the more she realized that if anyone needed a support group, it was accordion players. For generations, accordions have been the centerpieces of musical styles such as conjunto and zydeco. For German and Polish immigrants, there's no better way to bring back the old country. In the '50s, accordion master Dick Contino had hit records, 500 fan clubs and 48 Ed Sullivan Show appearances. Then the accordion hit a sour note. Thurston suspects it had something to do with the lavender tuxes and bubbles of the Lawrence Welk Show.

"It became a cheap joke," she says. "If you wanted to show that someone was geeky, you gave them an accordion. I always thought it was really unfair."

So Thurston developed logos, letterhead and entire packets of material, then fired off her first set of press releases. Soon after, she found herself rising at 5 a.m., swallowing coffee and becoming the butt of one corny radio morning-show joke after another. One Florida station even had her playing the "Beer Barrel Polka" simultaneously with a classical accordionist and the host's aunt from Pittsburgh.

"Very weird," she recalls. "A threesome with people on other phones."

She took it in stride, doing what she could to demonstrate that not all accordionists wore plaid. And if they did, that was okay, too. During one television program, Thurston even performed her original tune, "Jesus Loves Me Polka," to show that "anything sounds better in polka time."

But not long after the performance, Thurston took a call from a man asking if he could join her Christian organization. When she replied, "What Christian organization?," he bristled: "Why did you play the ŒJesus Loves Me Polka'?" Later, Thurston got a letter telling her to "stop shoving religion down people's throats" if she wanted to promote accordion tolerance.

"Some people took me more seriously than I intended," Thurston says. "Even some accordion players. I use humor to get attention, but I also make serious points. I always thought that if we're good sports about it, we're a lot more likely to get people to listen to us and change their minds."

One outlet for that is the CAPA Times; for just $6, members can have the quarterly newsletter mailed to them. In it is everything from "A plus" accordion cookie cutters to warnings about the "condensation hazards" of storing instruments in car trunks. There's also an "Accordion Poetry Corner" featuring such odes as "Harvey's Love," CD reviews of such virtuosos as Marin Nasturica and his "dazzling" right-hand technique, and profiles of members, such as Billy Madison of Montana. But the highlight of the newsletter is often Thurston herself, who writes articles with titles like "What I leaned from accordion lessons besides how to play the accordion" and passes along such original tunes as "I'm Tired of the Beer Barrel Polka."

During the past decade, Thurston has struck a chord. Hundreds of people have written her to say they've dusted off their accordions. Businesses have reported increased sales. Pop musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow and Beck have hoisted squeezeboxes on stage. Thurston is even proud to note that the punk band the Scary Tweezers features an accordion.

"It's been out of fashion so long it's coming back," she says. "People are discovering it's cool. Finally, I can say it proudly: 'Yes. I play an accordion.'"

When she's not slipping on the Petosa and publishing textbooks, Thurston is deep into side projects, including the Moonlighting Teachers, a troupe of educators and counselors who perform skits and parodies. Beginning this weekend, they will stage Thurston's latest play, A Hair From the Head of a Prince, at the Rialto Theater in Loveland.

"It's a fairy tale for grownups," Thurston says. "A musical about a prince who is following his heart and passion against the wishes of his wicked stepmother. He wants to play accordion."

And that, she says, is her dream. No matter what she's doing, she'll find a way to work in the squeezebox. Hopefully, Thurston grins, she'll get the last laugh.


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