The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Deiro & Deiro Continued

by Dr. Paul Allan Magistretti

Accompanying this early picture of Pietro Deiro was a caption that read in part, "He migrated to Germany to work in the mines at age 15. He brought with him the accordion pictured here - an Antonio Ranco of Vercelli with semitone or diatonic keyboard [this may be the instrument Guido refers to in his letter] In 1907 he arrived in this country and was the first to introduce the Piano Accordion to the American public on a San Francisco vaudeville stage in 1909. He was an instantaneous success and became the leading virtuoso of his day headlining with the Keith-Orpheum Circuit for 25 years [this would more likely apply to Guido than Pietro]."

Now, some confusion may have been perpetuated, as stated last month, by the fact that Guido was famously known merely as Deiro, which made it easy for his earlier fame to be (innocently or not) attributed to Pietro at a time when the younger brother was more prominent and located in New York, the media and cultural center of America. Adding to the confusion could be the fact that Guido's middle name was Pietro. Of course, the confusion served a real opportunity for Pietro, because his accordion conservatory , publishing and performing were flourishing from the mid-30's to the 50's when Guido's career was less prominent and mainly situated on the West Coast. Guido's most successful effort was in San Francisco and Northern California and involved a number of schools. But the West Coast and San Francisco couldn't compete with the media power of New York, so he was essentially out of the spotlight and Pietro was in it. Thus, there could easily be a transfer of identity and fame - all of which are products of the public's perceptionand which robbed Guido of his reputation as well as the truth. It's a brutal fact that economic and media engines in which many people have a vested interest or even an investment of consciousness (especially with the engines being located in the country's cultural center) are impossible to fight. Rumors, myths and lies can take on a life of their own and even celebrities with media engines of their own can't always overcome them. If we wanted to be forgiving (or naive) we could say that Pietro just went "with the flow," but he had to know it was at his brother's psychological and emotional expense, which may have contributed to Guido's "breakdown," as reported the year before he died.

Anyway, here are two letters from Accordion News, 1935. I've spent time on this subject, both for its own sake and because it opens up a window into the Golden Age of the Accordion in the U. S. The instrument flourished on the vaudeville stage (and its successors) from the start of the 20th Century up to the 1950's with Dick Contino being (& still being) the last prominent figure in the vaudeville tradition. In fact, Dick keeps the tradition alive in Las Vegas, which is the present major venue for vaudeville. In a report elsewhere in this month's issue, you can note that when he performed at the Las Vegas Accordion Convention, he announced that he was performing "his Las Vegas act."

Las Vegas reinvented vaudeville in the fifties when it needed a magnet for the public (before its current use of spectacular architectural themes of New York, Italy, Paris, Venice, etc). In the 50's the magnet was mainly just celebrity performers/movie stars with acts that would have been right at home on a vaudeville stage (except LV headliners comprised almost the whole show as opposed to the numerous acts on a bill in vaudeville). Some old time vaudevillians were actually used; for example, Mae West. In the early days of Las Vegas, Sinatra was enlisted to encourage his friends and associates in Hollywood to appear and so he helped open up the flow of talent.

Contino rose to prominence on Horace Heidt's Youth Opportunity Program (1947-1951), which was a variant of Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour (Bowes moderated from 1934-1945 & it was taken over by Ted Mack from 1948 to 1952); these amateur radio (and later TV) programs were transposed from the stages of vaudeville where theaters had amateur nights as an attraction to fill out a bill, give local prominence to their stage fare and maybe compensate for a lack of star power. Amateur nights have continued as a tradition right up to the present at the Apollo Theater in Harlem (carried on TV as Showtime at the Apollo). Also, there was a successful run of several years for Star Search and now there's Your Big Break. All these programs are remnants of vaudeville and amateur hour traditions and very much a part of the psychology of quick, "music bite" performances that compete for the audience's immediate, approbation and assume short attention spans. Today, there is rarely any desire to involve an audience on a deeper level or weave a spell.

Anyway, from the turn of the century through Dick Contino, accordionists were defined in the public's consciousness as creatures of vaudeville and the accordion was seen as a machine for supplying musical bites [see Frosini's article elsewhere] of ethnic, classic or novelty origin and that narrow definition has persisted to today in popular culture. We can see how heroic Guido, Galla-Rini, Magnante, Frosini and others were giving wonderful concerts and composing to try and break out of the box and find a place for the instrument on the concert stage. Those artists possessed tremendous talent if not genius and had numerous triumphs, but unfortunately they failed to permanently change the attitude that limited the accordion in the American public's mind. Today accordion artists as talented (or more talented) than any musical performers on any instrument are unable to find regular bookings with orchestras and chamber groups and rarely make a living with their art alone. Large and small orchestras round up the usual performers ranging from triangle players to English (not French) horn players, but you won't see an accordionist with a regular chair. BAAC PAGE reprinted articles about Magnante's 1939 Carnegie Hall Concert (January 2001's issue) and Hilding Bergquist's call for a symphonic chair for the accordion in 1948 (April 2001's issue), but same situation pertains with the rare exception of Pavrotti's use of an accordion in his solo recitals [also, in Three Tenor Concerts] for Henry Mancini's arrangements of Italian songs [see the interview with Peter Soave in April 2001's issue and the article on Bart Benenico in October 2001's].

Guido's Letter to Accordion News, Sept., 1935

I have been publicly asked by Accordion News to make a direct statement on what this magazine is pleased to call The Deiro Brothers' Controversy.

The whole question has been somewhat confused by the introduction of extraneous factors. Let me state clearly my claims: 1) I was the first to introduce the piano accordion on the stage. 2) It was I who was known in the theatrical world as "Deiro," while my brother was known as "Pietro" and therefore I claim that, while I cannot compel my brother not to use his family name in all ordinary transactions, he should refrain from capitalizing on a name whose value, whatever it might be, he did not help in creating.

In all this there is no bitterness against my brother. I have always loved him and always will. Being my youngest brother, he has been always my special protégé. The fact that it was I who taught him how to play the piano accordion and that I have helped him greatly in his illness, as he willl certainly testify, proves that, no matter what he has tried to do to me, I have never ceased to love him as a brother.

However, a man must defend himself and the truth will not hurt my brother's merited fame as an accordionist.

In his vague statement published in the August issue of Accordion News he sandwiches an unsupported assertion between a pathetic cry for help and a rather silly allusion to my private life. Having no proofs, he piles inconsequential detail upon inconsequential detail in the hope, as he himself confesses at the end, of being believed, notwithstanding his lack of any proof. I understand his drowning man cry for help, but the allusion to Mae West is completely out of place [he asserted that Guido & Mae weren't married]. The Queen of Curves won't help him.

Now that we have disposed of the wrapping, let's come to the pill. It is a strange one. It looks like a pill, it smells like a pill, but if you try to take it between your fingers, it disappears. However, at first sight, this nothingness made up of words, seems to have a core: a name and date are mentioned in it. Pietro writes that on a certain day in the fall, heavy rain pouring on the city (what has the rain to do with it?), he played the piano accordion at the Washington Square Theater in San Francisco. He doesn't seem to remember much, although he states that this happened 27 years ago and that, during the performance, a bass button on his accordion getting stuck, Anthony Petromilli got up from his seat in the audience and flourishing dramatically a screw driver, rushed pell-mell back stage and, saving Pietro, the Washington Square Theater manager and the world, adjusted the rebellious bass button.

I have taken the trouble to write Anthony Petromilli, asking him to verify or deny my brother's statement. I give a literal translation of his letter, originally written in Anthony Petromilli's inimitable Italian: 'In 1908, that is 27 years ago, I was still in Italy. I came to this country in 1909. He (Pietro) could not have played at the Washington Square Theater before 1910 or 1911. I went to hear him. The rest are all lies. Anthony Petromilli.'

Well, Mr. Petromilli is a blunt fellow and, like most Italians, very much outspoken. He writes 'bugie' which means exactly 'lies.' While I wish to be very polite, I must translate the word faithfully. What remains of Pietro's statement? Nothing. The pill has disappeared from between our fingers.

The fact is that in 1908 my brother Pietro was in Seattle, Washington playing in a saloon called 'Idaho Saloon,' and owned by Frank Butti. He was playing a 3 row, sixty bass, semi-tone accordion, which I had given him in Germany.

Finally, I recognize as true the statements of Harry Weber and Santo Santucci concerning my priority as a piano accordionist, published in the August issue of Accordion News. Why shouldn't I? They represent the simple truth and they can be fully proved.

Guido Deiro

Herman Weber's Letter, Aug., 1935

Mr. Guido Deiro
% Italo-American Accordion Mfg. Co.
3137 W. 51st St.,
Chicago, Ill.

Dear Guido:

I just recently learned of your new connection with the Italo-American Accordion Co. and I want to congratulate you upon your new venture. You should make tremendous strides, as you are capable and well fitted for your new position. Your theatrical, stage and concert experience should serve you to excellent advantage.

During our relationship as artist and manager, which dates back some sixteen or seventeen years, we cemented a friendship, which I hope will last for many years.

At times, through your modesty, you permitted other accordion artists to steal your laurels through false advertising and misrepresentation. I recall that I negotiated several contracts for you on the big-time vaudeville circuits, namely Keith and Orpheum and that you were recognized as the only outstanding accordionist in these major circuits.

I also recall at times some imposters going so far as to use your name and trademark. I wish now to affirm in the most positive way that you are the original and only Deiro; that you were the first to introduce the piano accordion on the stage in this country and that you are responsible for numerous innovations and improvements on the accordion, which through your modesty you failed to take credit for or commercialize.

I wish to assure you that if, at any time, I can further your interests in your new connection by making a statement or providing some of your original credits, I will be only too glad to respond to your request.

Sure that you will continue to be an outstanding artist in your field and again wishing the best of success, I am

Your sincere friend and manager,

Herman W. Weber

A Statement Appended to Guido's 1935 Letter

Dear Editor:

I noticed in your magazine an article by Pietro Deiro stating that he was the first to introduce accordions in this country and that Guido Deiro did not come to this country until 1914. I know this is not true and wish to correct Pietro Deiro's statement. I saw Guido Deiro for the first time in 1910 at the Orpheum Theater in Spokane, Washington.

He was playing the accordion and a guitar player named Porcini played with him. They called themselves The Milano Duo. Their opening number was The Sharpshooters March and Guido Deiro played a solo, Poet and Peasant Overture. They played Ciribiribin and La Spagnola as their finale numbers.

Both Guido Deiro and Porcini were dressed in white suits and straw hats.

In the early fall of 1912 I saw Guido Deiro doing a single and he was billed as "The American Premier of the Piano Accordion." I saw him again in 1913 at the Orpheum Theater and while here he married Julia Tatro, a pianist of Spokane.

As a player and teacher of the piano accordion I wish to say that I admire both Guido and Pietro Deiro as the World's Greatest Accordion Players.


Prof. Gregory F. Romanoff
(Spokane, Washington)

In Conclusion

This Deiro versus Deiro battle over reputation is interesting in a number of ways. First it pits two world-class accordionists who happened to be brothers against each other in a battle over reputation. There is drama in it. In a way, it's Shakespearean - well, Iago complains in Othello that if someone steals his money, it's nothing, but if someone steals his reputation, it's everything. Iago may be ingenuous, but what he says rings true. Of course, in the Deiro case reputation and money went hand-in-hand, because celebrity had value - this was the start of an age when fame and the mass media connected in a way never before realized in history and it could lead to wealth & power. Hitler's rise to power was based on his manipulation of mass media as he cynically fabricated a persona of mythological proportions. Celebrity was a new unexplored form of alchemy and involved the growth of newspaper chains, radio and motion pictures allowing people as never before to invent or reinvent themselves and in Pietro's case, to steal his brother's identity. Such a theft is psychologically profound - after all, the great tragedies, as well as modern man's major quest in life, turn upon matters of identity: anagnorisis in the larger sense, as the Greeks called it.

This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of BAAC Page - the newsletter of the San Francisco Bay Area Accordion Club.

To read the first article in this two part series, go to Whoever Was First, We Shouldn't Be Last

For more about Guido Deiro, see GuidoDeiro.Com

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