A Legend With Oomph -- and Oompah

By John Kelly
Thursday, February 15, 2007

In 1996, a Washington Post article described accordionist Merv Conn, then 76, as being "in the waning years of his music career."

We should all be so lucky to wane like Merv Conn.

"I'm thinking of playing this one Sunday," the now 86-year-old told me when I visited him at his house in Silver Spring the other day.

He unsnapped the short leather strap that kept the bellows of his red and black Verdi accordion shut and then launched into "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin, picking out the jaunty notes of the ragtime melody with his right hand while providing a rich counterpoint with his left.

Merv played the Gershwins'"Embraceable You" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." He played Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." At my request, he played Sousa's "Washington Post March."

If you go to the AFI Silver Theatre on Sunday, you might hear any of those -- or, knowing Merv -- all of those. Sunday is when local filmmaker Jeff Krulik will screen his newest work, a 45-minute documentary called "The Legend of Merv Conn."

"Is Merv Conn a legend?" Jeff said when I called him on the phone. "To me, he is."

A legend and legendary. If, in the course of the past 70 years, you have had any reason to rub up against Washington's accordion industrial complex, you have probably encountered Merv.

A D.C. native, Merv got his first accordion at 14 and studied with a teacher named Sylvia Kaplowitz. ("Her husband had a very well-known dress shop near the Earle Theatre," Merv remembered.) He became a teacher himself, the Johnny Appleseed of the accordion, with a flagship studio on 14th Street NW and outposts in Maryland and Virginia.

"The accordion was so popular at one time that it's hard to believe today," Merv said.

He taught Richard Nixon's daughters to play the accordion. He played for Harry Truman at the White House. At Senators' games at RFK Stadium, he played an amplified accordion called a Cordovox.

Then the Beatles came, and any kid longing to be cool preferred to strap on an electric guitar than don an accordion.

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