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Know Your Accordions

How button boxes squeezed their way into Frank Spetich's heart.


Blue suede lederhosen: Spetich and Stash Franjic - (left) rip through some mean Alsatian riffs. - COURTESY OF BETTY SPETICH
  • courtesy of Betty Spetich
  • Blue suede lederhosen: Spetich and Stash Franjic (left) rip through some mean Alsatian riffs.
Frankie Spetich could have chosen the Americanized piano accordion as his instrument, but instead he went for its gypsy cousin, the button box. Those who can't distinguish between the two instruments probably never lived in a remote mountain town in Europe, nor did they have a crazy Uncle Slavko who liked to slide around on cow pies when he got drunk.

The piano accordion is sleek, shiny, and black and white. Usually, its only embellishment is its owner's name, spelled in press-on rhinestones running down the side. It's the kind of accordion Lawrence Welk played as bubbles fell from the studio sky.

The button box has more of a homespun allure. Known to its detractors as the "honky box" or "cheesebox," its hand-painted folds might be decorated with patterned edelweiss or a pastoral scene of a grass-chewing goat. Its trim is usually adorned with mother-of-pearl inlay and etched brass. Rather than sounding smooth and champagney, like an American accordion, it sounds musty and twangy, with a yearning quality that its prim, tuxedoed relative can't match.

While piano accordions are made in factories, button boxes are more often fashioned by a solitary, gnarled craftsman. His backyard workshop is usually located in a beautiful yet impoverished town, whose forte is being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a Balkan conflict.

Spetich, a bandleader and composer who's known as the "Polka King of Barberton, Ohio," owns four button boxes. One of them, a Melodia, came from a shop in Menges, Slovenia. "I've been there six, seven times. I get such a reception over there. I feel like I'm somebody. When I walk in, I'll start to tell this little guy, Franz, what to fix. He says, 'You don't need to tell me. Just gimme the button box.' Pretty soon, he'll bring it to me with a big smile on his face, and I'll start playing. Next thing, I turn around and the whole shop's down there listening."

Spetich's Novak button box was made in Klagenfurt, Austria, where mass production is a dirty word. "There's four generations of the Novak family that make those." Their output is only about five button boxes a year, "because if you make more, you have to give so much money to the government. Five or under, you can sell them and keep all the money."

Spetich's family hails from Cepno, Slovenia, where the local button box player was called a domache godec, or "hometown musician." Before immigrating to Barberton, his father was a domache godec in training. "Button box players in them days were very precious people, because that's the only kind of entertainment they had," says Spetich, who's 76. "You had a town where nobody played, you never got any music."

The only accolade his dad got was a good swift kick, though: "He saved his money and bought this button box. His boss heard him play it in the hayloft and said, 'If you've got that much energy, we'll give you more work.'"

Though Spetich is retired, he has about 50 button box students at his store, called Magic City Music after Barberton's nickname. The manufacturing town earned the moniker in the early 1900s, when its population exploded. Now, residents joke that it's called the Magic City because everyone disappeared. In the 1980s, when the rubber industry tanked, people couldn't leave fast enough.

Last year, Spetich won a Lifetime Achievement Award from Cleveland's Polka Hall of Fame. As he walked down the aisle to receive his crystal trophy, the Hall of Fame All-Stars played his "Pony-Tail Polka."

"I got emotional," he says. "Some of the fellas that really opened doors for me were there." In his acceptance speech, he paid homage to bigger-city polka kings, people like Frankie Yankovic, Lou Trebar, and Johnny Pecon. Those guys had their own polka TV shows in the 1950s, when there was a polka TV show on every Cleveland channel.

Skilled in many instruments, Spetich avoided the button box in his youth because of its Alpine hillbilly connotations. But eventually, he took it up because he couldn't find anybody else to play it in his band. All the halfway decent button box players were already busy.

Once he mastered the rudimentary "hee-haw" style, Spetich could rip through a mean "Blue Skirt Waltz." But it wasn't until he was upstaged by a Slovenian bus driver who could eat a piece of chocolate cake and play at the same time that he unlocked the true secrets of the button box.

The guy knew notes in the outer limits of the instrument that Spetich had never dreamed of. "That's when my ulcers flared up." He sold all his button boxes, vowing never to pick one up again. Eventually, though, he clandestinely messed around on a loaner and couldn't put it down.

Spetich again swore off the button box in 1977, after a heartbreaking divorce. He might have faded into obscurity in this town of mom-and-pop fried chicken joints, had he not struck up a relationship with Betty, the widow next door. They bonded over a kind gesture -- she offered to pick up his mail for him while he went on tour. Two years later, they were sharing the same mailbox. He proposed on a Thursday. They got married the following Tuesday, because he had gigs booked later in the week.

A gracious, upbeat woman, Betty not only rescued all of Frankie's polka memorabilia from the trash, she got him back in the studio.

"He just needed some tender loving care," she says. "And he needed someone to let him know that he really had a lot to offer the polka world." Since the wedding four years ago, he's released eight CDs and is working on a ninth, Frankie Spetich Live From Rudy's Steak and Beer Garden. He also formed a band composed of his students, the Magic City Button Boxers. Its revolving lineup includes about 10 men and 1 woman, Mary Sakich, who's 85. Sakich is the only band member who gets to play sitting down. Her 65-year-old live-in boyfriend is usually in the audience cheerleading.

Spetich is never sure who's gonna show up for a gig. "We don't wear tuxes anymore. I just have 'em all wear black pants. I bring the shirts. I pass the shirts out, and we just shake hands and play." But unlike the Slovenian bus driver, they don't do both at the same time.

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