Squeeze-box madness.

Dueling "Stomach Steinways."

"Beer Barrel Polka" and "Lady of Spain." Life in the folk mode.

It goes in and out and in and out and in. . .

The American Accordionists Association was in town this week for its annual championship competition. More than 400 amateur accordionists, ranging in age from 5 to 28, competing in solo, ensemble and band divisions, in pop, jazz and classical categories. Accordions all over the place (but not a single monkey), making that distinctive accordion sound, that mix of a police siren and heavy petting. Accordions being strapped across chests and carted through the hallways of the Capital Hilton, all those keyboards, buttons and folds protruding like some hellish vision of Popeil Kitchen Magicians Gone Bonkers. Accordions stuffed into cases with wheels and shock absorbers. Accordions, all black and white, carried around like pet zebras. Accordions with wingspans the size of giant condors. Enough accordions to entertain at weddings and bar mitzvahs from here to San Fransicso and still enough left over to play every Holiday Inn lounge in New Jersey. Accordions to the right of me; accordions to entertain at weddings and bar mitzvahs from here to San Fransicso and still enough left over to play every Holiday Inn lounge in New Jersey. Accordions to the right of me; accordions to the left of me; into the valley of squeeze rode the 400. (And if one more kid plays "The Way We Were," I'm going to pass out.)

"It's getting to be an extremely popular instrument," says Maddalena Belfiore, the national contest coordinator and herself an accomplished classical accordionist. "I'll tell you what I say to a child who wants to play an instrument: I tell them it's much more versatile than any other instrument. It's portable. It's self-contained. Its range enables it to become many instruments. It can perform all types of music. The accordionist doesn't need anyone else. We can play club dates or lounge or concerts."

And if someone says, sure, but how many spins can you put on a polka?

"I say, no.You play it all. You play pop, jazz, classical. And you'll never starve playing an accordion. Especially with the economy being what it is today, they'll call you first before they'll call a three-piece band."

How I started playing the accordion:

Dan Mastroianni, 19, Bridgeport, Conn.: "There was one lying around the house; my grandmother had brought it back from Italy. I just picked it up and actually started playing it backwards, with my left hand on the keyboard.I knew what the keyboard was, but I couldn't figure out what the buttons were for."

Karen Moody, 17, Dearborn, Mich.: "I had neighbors who were taking accordion lessons. One day their car broke down and we took them to band practice. I saw all those tiny accordions in the car, and I though they were just so cute, going in and out and in . . ."

Anthony Falcetti, 16, Springfield, Mass.: "My parents own a music store, so that's why I started with it. People always ask me why I play the accordion. You know nobody every asks a guitar player why he plays the guitar. I tell people how much you can do with the accordion. There's just an unbelievable need for people to stroll -- you know, strolling musicians. Yeah, I started out playing at nursing homes. Now I do luncheons, anything. I can work every weekend easy."

In and out and in and out and in . . .

Barry Manilow, Barbara Mandrell, Jimmy Stewart, Connie Francis all play the accordion.

Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles all used accordion on albums.

Leonard Bernstein, it is said, likes the accordion.

"It's a fun instrument," says Frank Busso, an accordionist for 31 years and now president of the AAA. (This one, not that one, dummy.) "People have fun playing it. You ever see a smiling violinist?"

How much does an accordion weigh?

"The large size weighs 27, 28 pounds -- but the weight is carried on your shoulders, or on your lap if you sit and play; it's not heavy, really."

How much does it cost?

"Anywhere from $500 to $7,000."

Can you electrify it?

"Sure can."

Can you play and sing at the same time?

"Sure can. One girl in the competition played the accordion and sang "What I Did for Love" . . . You can do so much with an accordion; it has so much range."

Then why do people associate it with monkeys?

"Because the guy down on the corner 35 years ago took the Staten Island ferry and came every Sunday with his monkey. But that's dead and gone now."

Can you play "Lady of Spain?"

"Unfair. Unfair."

(Cheap shot joke: Why did all these accordionists come to Washington? Maybe the bowlers convention needed entertainment.)

The good news at this year's AAA competition is that the winner in the most prestigious category, the United States Accordion Cup category, gets to perform in a solo concert in Carnegie Hall and gets to represent the country in next year's world accordion competition.

The bad news is that next year's world competition is in Kansas City.

"Unfortunately," says Bosso.

More good news: The 1982 world championships are in Hamburg.

"Now, that's a nice trip."

The goal of this very flexible group of musicians is to spread the gospel of squeeze throughout the country, to make the accordion more popular and more respected. Bosso says the AAA is trying to get acceptance for the accordion as a music study major at colleges and universities; 33 schools now accept it.

Traditionally, acceptance from the classical community has been a problem. The accordion has always been the Baltic Ave. of the musical Monopoly board. Belfiore tells of the time she was a student at Juilliard, and she had to decide whether to drop accordion -- which wasn't acceptable there for study -- in favor of piano. (She chose accordion.) "There is still a stigma attached to the accordion," she says. "It shows itself when we want to enter students in all-instrument competitions, and they reject us. They base it on literature." The classicists say there isn't yet a sufficient body of compositions written for accordions. (When was the last time you heard someone squeeae out Beethoven's Ninth on a Stomach Steinway?)

But if Leonard Bernstein likes it, can it be all bad?

Then again, if Barry Manilow plays it, can it be all good?

If there is, as the AAA people say, an accordion boom, it is a boom mainly among ethnic groups, particularly Italians and Poles (although the accordion is said to be quite popular now in China -- the country of its invention -- and in Korea). And the U.S. boom certainly owes much to Lawrence Welk and his chief accordionist, Myron Floren.

"Myron Floren contributed a lot," says Belfiore. "He brought legitimacy to the instrument."

Go through the Capital Hilton asking the parents of the accordionists who the role models for accordionists are and invariably they say Welk and Floren; they point to them as living proof that there is a lucrative financial market for accordionists in today's America. "Do you have any idea how much money Mr. Welk makes?" asks Harold Westaway of Massachusetts. "Let me tell you, it's BIG money."

But there are some dissenters from this party line, even within the AAA. "Some people look at Lawrence Welk and say, 'Look how much he's done; he's got the accordion up front,'" says Bosso. "But then someone will say, 'Yeah, he's got the accordion up front -- up front for Grandma.'"

And this debate isn't just carried on by the adult generation. Young accordionist Karen Moody, who took second place this year in the U.S. virtuoso solo category, and Joe Cerrito Jr., 23, of Providence, R.I., will say that Welk and Floren have helped accordionists immeasurably. rBut then Marybeth Soens, 18, of Dearborn, who won this year's U.S. jazz solo prize, will say, "I don't think his music is varied enough." And Dan Mastroianni, an extraordinary classical accordionist who won this year's top prize, the U.S. open virtuoso category, and will go to Hamburg (he won it in 1979 and went to New Zealand), will say, somewhat angrily, "Sure, Lawrence Welk has an accordionist. But it's always a polka; it's always so rinky-dink. Why can't he bring someone out who'll play a Bach fugue?"

Accordion Dreams:

Anthony Falcetti: "To be at a concert with jazz artists like Oscar Petersen, Dizzy Sgillespie and Dave Brubeck, and to go out on stage with my accordion and wail with them. That would be dynamic."

Dan Mastroianni: "To be the one person who does stick it out and makes the accordion popular as a classical instrumenmt . . . I played Carnegie Hall three times. The first time there were about 200 people, the next time 400 people, the last time, maybe 100 people. They see 'Accordion Concert' and they just assume it'll be polkas; they don't even come in. They have no idea that I can play Bach, that I've taken the music he wrote for organs and transferred it to accordion. . . You ask me what happens if I've blown it by sticking with the accordion. If I've blown it, I'll die happy. I can't see dumping it and going to piano just to make a living . . . I love it. I have to play it. It's me."

Accordion Joke: Three musicians die and go to heaven. St. Peter meets them at the gate and asks the first one, "What did you do on earth?" The first one says, "I played trumpet." St. Peter shakes his head and says, "Sorry, we're loaded with trumpet players. You go below." He turns to the second one and asks, "What did you do on earth?" The second one says, "I played guitar." St. Peter again shakes his head and says, "Sorry. Too many guitarists. You go below." By now the third musician is scared and shivering, and when St. Peter asks him what he did on earth, the man says quietly, "I played accordion." St. Peter gives him a big smile and says, "Step right in.Your've been in Hell long enough."