- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

CANAAN, Conn. (AP) - Paul Ramunni, a mild-mannered certified public accountant from Canaan, woke up one morning in 2008 with a desire for an accordion. The last time he had touched one was in 1966, when he shoved the Enrico Roselli model he had played since he was 10 years old into a closet before heading off to Fairfield University.

Forty-two years later, he had a sudden urge to squeeze the box again.

“We were in a rented house in the woods of Vermont, in the middle of nowhere, and I got this notion to get an accordion,” says Ramunni, a round-faced, bespectacled fellow who exudes good cheer. “My wife, Marsha, thought I might be ill, but I called a local clockmaker in Vergennes and asked if he had any accordions. He said he didn’t but he knew a guy who did two towns over.”

Long story short: Seven years later, Ramunni is director, curator, owner and one-man-band of his self-named New England Accordion Museum, which is housed in specially renovated section of his residence on Margaret Lane. The museum, opened in October 2011, now has more than 400 accordions, flutinas, concertinas and other related artifacts, ephemera and memorabilia, dating from 1820 to the present day.

There is a larger venue, A World of Accordions Museum, in Superior, Wisconsin, but Ramunni’s is the largest private accordion collection on the East Coast. In addition, he is now a member of the board of the American Accordionists’ Association and his venue and its mission have attracted the notice of accordion fans worldwide.

Tony Lovello, an accordion master from Kentucky, has visited the museum and played there. An inscribed photograph of Lovello takes pride of place inside the front door, alongside an autographed photograph of Myron Floren, who played accordion for 30 years on “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

Getting back to Ramunni’s epiphany in Vermont: The guy the clockmaker recommended was Cliff Douglas, an avid collector and seller who had 125 secondhand accordions in his garage. After careful deliberation, Ramunni purchased an old Excelsior (a four-rocker Model 00, to be precise), but his attention was also drawn to a pile of concertinas, brown and rusted with age, pulled aside in the middle of the garage floor. Douglas told him they were from a Nazi prison camp, the personal effects of the Jews who had brought them along when they were transported to that hellish place. Now, he said, they were headed to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

“That was an anchor experience and it really stuck in my head,” said Ramunni. “It just started from there. At that point, I was in search-and-rescue mode. I realized that there was a story inside each one of these boxes and that I was not just collecting the accordions, I was collecting the story that went along with each one. Otherwise, they would end up in dumps or garages, totally lost or forgotten.”

Ramunni has memorized the detailed personal stories of each object in his one-room museum and will happily share them with whoever drops in. (There is no admission fee, but donations are welcome).

He ardently believes accordions became a part of the fabric of America after they were brought here by immigrants from Italy, Portugal, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France and South America. His museum makes a convincing case for that point of view. For example, a couple of his earliest objects were inside Conestoga wagons accompanying migrants on their way westward; another one, a flutina, accompanied a Union soldier at Bull Run during the Civil War; another was with a soldier in the trenches during the First World War, as was one rescued by an American soldier in a tank during World War II. One particularly stunning accordion, a specially-made Chiusaroli model, was played by entertainer Barbara O’Connell on USO tours of military bases in Europe.

“We’re pitching everything in our haste to be modern,” he says. “It’s almost a crime against culture to get rid of these instruments.”

Not only is he saving accordions and the stories associated with them for their cultural and historic value, Ramunni celebrates their musical legacy as well. He regularly visits senior centers, libraries and hospices to share parts of his collection - what he calls his “mobile unit” - playing familiar songs and recounting the stories he’s collected. He gave a talk recently at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Connecticut in Waterbury, where he also teaches accounting to undergraduates.

“It was a lunchtime talk and the room was packed,” he said, smiling. “I told stories and played ‘God Bless America,’ and they were hugging and kissing me afterwards. It’s always a great time. People say, ‘I got goose bumps when you told me that story.’ I’m enjoying the daylights out of this.”

Accordions are free reed instruments, like harmoniums and pump organs, through which air is forced by pushing, pulling and squeezing the bellows (thus, the “squeeze box” nickname for the instrument). The accordion began life as a much smaller instrument called a flutina, the original patent for which was filed by an Armenian named Cyrill Demian in 1829 in Vienna, Austria. A flutina was placed inside a small oak boxes and carried around for portable entertainment the way one carries around an iPad today. Around 1850-1860, button accordions supplanted flutinas, and around 1900, piano keys were added to create the instrument with which most people are familiar today - thanks to the likes of Clifton “King of Zydeco” Chenier, “Weird” Al Yankovic and the Dropkick Murphys.

Before the modern mass production of instruments, each accordion was a unique object, some so intricately inlaid with ivory, silver and even porcelain filigree as to be works of art in their own right. Indeed, even if such accordions were never played, they dominated a room by their sheer beauty, like folk art sculptures. Far more portable than pianos, they’re capable of creating a full body of music around which families or communities can gather and sing.

Therein hang the tales Ramunni has heard.

Ramunni pulls out a lap-sized Hohner model and explains that the person who brought it in said his aunt had played it for years, dying with it in her hands.

“She used music as a form of language to communicate with her family,” said Ramunni. “I think of those final musical notes as her last words to her family. People will tell me that their accordion was their grandma’s second voice and then say ‘I can’t toss this out; it would be like tossing grandmother out.’”

He moves quickly toward another accordion in the back corner of his museum, a much larger one that is so heavy it sits on the floor.

“A woman told me that her husband had this model and we’d agreed on a price over the phone,” he says. “But when I went to pick it up, she says, ‘Well, he wasn’t really my husband’ and I thought, ‘Uh oh, where is this story going?’ She told me that in 2002, he had proposed to her at a dance and she had accepted and 45 minutes later he died on the dance floor of a massive heart attack. This accordion was like his tombstone.

“You never know what you’re going to run into. I’ve had funny stories, serious stories and tearjerkers.”

Ramunni strides to another corner of the museum to point at a box-like Hohner piano accordion.

“You gotta meet Walter,” he says.

“Walter” was Walter Makiewicz, from Bristol, who was in the 10th Armored Division under Gen. George Patton in World War II. As U.S. troops moved east toward Berlin, Makiewicz’s tank smashed through a wall in a ruined German house, and inside was an accordion on a table, somehow intact through all the destruction. Jumping out of his tank, Makiewicz ran to the table and, in the middle of a firefight, scooped up the accordion and carried it back inside the tank. He later played it for his fellow grunts and for Patton, and after the war he was allowed to bring it home to Bristol. When Ramunni acquired the accordion, the Makiewicz family gave him a piece of shrapnel that had been surgically removed from Walter’s body and that is now kept in a Ziploc bag inside the accordion case.

Ramunni stops in front of another accordion on which is embossed the name Galizi.

“The Galizi brothers manufactured beautiful accordions in the 1920s, but they were also bootleggers,” he says. “The accordion shop was just a front for their bootlegging in the back. Their company folded when they were busted for selling booze.”

The Galizis actually knew little about accordions and hired two sets of brothers from Castelfidardo, Italy, (the Pancotti and Bugari brothers) to build them. The brothers were, in fact, so good at their craft that they left in 1924 before the Galizis were busted to start their own company, Excelsior, which is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of accordions.

He ends the tour with a story about a man in the Midwest who called to say he had reassembled a vintage accordion and wanted to know if Ramunni was interested in buying it. The man sent a scanned photograph of the thing but Ramunni noticed the enamel on the keys was unevenly cut.

“I was going to pass on buying it because of that, but then the man, told me that he was blind. He had put this accordion together totally blind,” Ramunni says. “I had to have it!”

Ramunni has acquired a fair number of his accordions on eBay, at yard and garage sales, thrift shops and pawn shops, but he also gets them as donations from people who hear about what he is doing and want to preserve a piece of their personal history. He seems constitutionally incapable of turning away any accordion that appears in his field of vision. This includes the broken-down ones, which he repairs himself.

“I’m shocked at the creativeness of the makers when I take them apart to work on them,” he says, as he opens the door to his work room and hundreds more accordions, all broken, pop into view. “They make noise but are not playable. If I lived to be 150 years old, I’d never be able to repair all these. But I do enjoy bringing them back to life.”

Ramunni’s largesse is so large that he, like his mentor, Cliff Douglas in Vermont, now sells a few accordions out of a small back office. He estimates that a decent used accordion, weighing 25 to 28 pounds, can cost from $300 to 400, while the high-end models go for as much as $8,000-9,000 (there are even some, made by Roland, that have computers inside, which seems like cheating).

Maybe the real measure of Ramunni’s success is that Marsha has tempered her initial skepticism of her husband’s obsession. She has even taken up playing the accordion herself.

Still, she does ask him now and again, plaintively, “How many more are you going to collect?”

___

Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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