Accordion school draws students from afar

New Jersey institution founded in 1952 is among last of its kind

January 20, 2002|By Kristen A. Graham | Kristen A. Graham,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HADDON TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- In the glory days, Stanley Darrow recalled with a wistful sigh, they were as popular as shoe stores.

"Back in the '50s and '60s," he said, strapping on a 21-pound, gleaming, black Titano and giving it a squeeze, "every town had an accordion school."

Now, Darrow's Acme Accordion School is among the last of its kind.

Founded in 1952 and last remodeled in 1960, the low, white building is a throwback to a time when Lawrence Welk and his champagne bubbles were floating at the top of their popularity.

Darrow brooks no maligning of the instrument upon which he has built his successful career as a musician and teacher.

Accordions are not kitschy or cute, he said. They are grand.

Bach, Handel, Gershwin

"Some people are jerky, but if you play the instrument properly, it sounds beautiful, like a real, serious violin instrument," said Darrow, 70. "In the '30s, the accordion was quite the sophisticated instrument, quite the thing."

Except for the children, Acme players generally eschew polkas. Bach, Handel, Gershwin and Ellington are more common fare, said Darrow, a polite man in crisp white shirt, black checked pants, sweater vest, and sunflower tie.

In the past, the vast majority of his pupils were children; now, most are adults. Darrow's oldest student died last year at 89.

"Kids are so busy," he said. "They're so involved in sports. Music has suffered."

Still, Acme thrives. Darrow and Joanne Arnold, his co-director and a former student, have taught thousands during the last half-century. Today, 125 pupils take weekly lessons, some traveling more than an hour each way.

"We really can't take any more," said Darrow, who lives in a small apartment off the combination accordion museum and band room. "We're busy enough as it is."

In a corner of the cavernous assembly room, the museum, rarely noticed by outside visitors, contains glass cases full of 20 or so old, rare or remarkable accordions, such as the Czech heligonka adorned with a delicate flower-and-leaf pattern and the beauty with a double piano keyboard.

Realization of a dream

The school is the realization of a dream for Darrow, who was born and raised in Camden, N.J., and got his start as a musician and door-to-door accordion teacher after studying the instrument in Philadelphia and Germany.

He and his wife, Sherrie, bought the white house in Haddon Township and founded their school. Eight years later, the Westmont Philharmonia, an accordion orchestra, got its start.

Darrow's wife and their children, Anthony, David and Elissa, all played. Today, Elissa operates the Pitman branch of the school, and Anthony and David run an accordion repair shop in nearby Westmont, N.J.

The school is a family place, complete with traditions.

On the first Saturday of November, National Accordion Month, all Acme students gather at the school. They sit outside, instruments before them, for a group photo. Someone always writes, "Play the Accordion -- It's Fun!" in shaving cream on the sloping roof.

Darrow has most of the group photographs on the school's walls, a jumble of black-and-white snapshots and color glossies tacked up alongside posters from bygone accordion days and the most recent shots -- professional pictures of Darrow, his daughter, and her two daughters, Lindsay and Katelyn Eystad, 8 and 4.

All four look straight into the camera, grinning, holding their accordions.

Giving his granddaughters the gift of the accordion means giving them the world, Darrow said. He has traveled the globe performing and competing.

Occasional world tours

Every six or seven years, he grooms a group of stellar Acme students and takes them on a world tour. They stop in Iceland, play in Paris, give concerts for U.S. Army troops.

Every March, Darrow and Arnold take a six-week tour of Europe themselves, playing concerts and finding radio work.

The two are described in trade publications as "accordion greats." Arnold, Darrow proudly noted, has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

He brushes off any accolades, however. All he needs is a folding chair plunked a few feet away from the vintage soda machine in his school's front parlor and the ability to listen to his favorite sound in the world.

"The accordion is one of the few instruments where you can play many types of music, from polkas to jazz," he said almost reverently, watching Arnold's fingers fly as she squeezed out a few preliminary notes in the chair next to him. "There's no other instrument like the accordion."

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