By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Dick Contino walks onstage at a video-poker bar called the Arroweed Lounge on an Indian reservation in Nevada with a 30-pound accordion strapped to his hairy chest and the aura of 52 years of show business trailing behind him, an aura ignored by those dropping quarters in hopes of jacks or better. Time was, when the man stepped into the lights, legions of pre-Elvis, post-Frankie bobby-soxers would lose their minds, ecstatic over the sleek black hair, the Pepsodent smile, the 6-foot frame, and the way Contino played the accordion. No Myron Floren he, this was not tryptophan-laced Lawrence Welk noodling. No, sir.
Contino wrangled and humped his instrument, jammed on the thing like a stallion in heat, wrenching the box in and out, eyes shut tight and jaw muscles tensed, lost in the red-hot Italiano reverie of "Lady of Spain." For teenage girls in 1947, it was thrilling, it was obscene, it was Dick Contino.
In 1947, he was fresh out of high school looking down the barrel at an exciting career as a butcher. That year he auditioned for and won bandleader Horace Heidt's Youth Opportunity talent show on national radio. By 1950, he was 20 and making $4,000 a week, wearing a diamond pinkie ring that winked in the spotlight as his right hand sped across the keys of the black squeeze box that could belong to only one man: pearl-inlaid letters across its front spelled out CONTINO.
The liner notes on his Mercury LP, An Accordion in Paris, describe his early success as only '50s liner notes can: "Over 400 Contino fan clubs across the country drove disc jockeys out of their minds with requests for Dick's recordings. Mailmen grew round-shouldered under his fan mail. Veteran guards at the stage doors of America's leading theaters testified that they had never seen such adulation from fans as that for Dick Contino."
Then the Korean War came along, and the shoulders of all those mailmen began carrying a lighter load. In what he now refers to as "the Army beef," Contino got called up, wigged out, and bugged out the day before he was to be inducted into the service. Bear in mind, this was April 13, 1951, a long time before Vietnam, a long time before choosing not to go to war was an acceptable--if not even admirable--option.
In 1951, there were few things worse than being a draft dodger. Especially a draft dodger who happened to be a strapping 6-foot, 180-pound stud making more in a month than most guys made in a year, with countless sweet American frails melting at his feet. Contino went into hiding for a week. The FBI had a warrant out for him, and by the time he gave himself up, the headlines were bold and rampant, telling the tale in wicked shorthand for all to see:
"Mystery in Contino Case Deepens," "Surrender of Dick Contino Promised for This Morning," "Dick Contino Gives Self Up, Says Threat of Guardhouse Made Him Flee Fort Ord," "Contino Indicted as Draft Dodger," "Mentally Unstable, Contino Repeats at Second Hearing," "Contino Pleads Guilty; Jailed in Draft Case," "Contino Gets Six Months, $10,000 Fine."
All that fuss over an accordion player.
When the authorities got hold of him--the 21-year-old was reportedly cooling his heels at a Los Angeles "sanatorium"--Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Karesh told the press that "Contino will be handled just like anybody else, except his bail will be set at $5,000 instead of $1,000." Karesh went on to add--in perfect '50s noirspeak--"He skipped out once, and he might do it again."
Contino served six months at the McNeil Island federal prison in Puget Sound, and upon his release was immediately reinducted into the Army. He went on to serve 16 months in Korea entertaining troops, was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant with meritorious awards, and spent the next six years in the Army Reserves before being issued a presidential pardon by Harry Truman.
All of which did nothing to rejuvenate his career.
The label of draft dodger could not be so easily erased, though he tried. God knows he ate mighty helpings of crow.
"Dear Miss Hopper," went a 1952 Contino-issued Western Union telegram to all-powerful Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. "I hope you will come to my opening night at Mocambo. I am deeply appreciative of the tolerance of the press and the patience of the public. I pray to distinguish myself with dignity and honor in the near future. Thanks be to God for recovering me from my sickness and affording me once again this opportunity."
But despite constant onstage mea culpas, apology-laden interviews, and the humble covenant to distinguish himself with honor on the battlefield of the Mocambo, nothing could placate the public. Contino lost countless bookings, had film and recording contracts nullified, and was taunted relentlessly at the few appearances he could book--something that has amazingly followed him to this day from unforgiving vets with memories like elephants.
But as Howlin' Wolf once sang, "The little girls understand." Contino's fan base still pumped the love for the man who pumped the accordion. This from a special bulletin of the Contino Boosters Official International Fan Club, dated May 3, 1951: "This club as well as all the rest throughout the country are sticking by Dick in his hour of need. Why? Because he's stuck by us when we needed him. You ask, When did he stick by us? When did we need him? Well, let us tell you. We've needed Dick ever since we first met him and knew what a wonderful guy he is. We've needed his beautiful music ever since we heard the first strains of 'Lady of Spain' way back in 1948 when he was 'just another contestant.' We've needed his terrific personality to prove to us that it's possible to be nice as well as happy in the world of disaster in which we live. Oh, yes, we've needed Dick! And we shall always need him!"