1 September 2017

Guido Deiro - vaudeville star

Accordion player who wowed America

Guido Deiro with the instrument that made  him a highly-paid vaudeville star
Guido Deiro with the instrument that made
him a highly-paid vaudeville star
The musician Guido Deiro, who was the first artist to become a star playing the piano-accordion, was born on this day in 1886 in an Alpine village north of Turin.

For a while, in the early part of the 20th century, he and his brother Pietro were among the highest-paid performers on the booming American vaudeville circuit. Using his stage name, which was simply ‘Deiro’, he made more than 110 recordings, which sold in large numbers.

He ‘covered’ many popular hits and well known classical and operatic pieces and wrote compositions of his own, the most famous of them the song Kismet, which became the theme song for the Broadway musical and was used in two film versions of the story, which was based on a play by Edward Knoblauch.

Deiro became something of a celebrity and was seldom short of glamorous female company. He was married four times, on the first occasion to his fellow vaudeville star Mae West, who would go on to become much more famous as a movie actress.

He was born Count Guido Pietro Deiro in the village of Salto Canavese, near Courgnè, about 45km (28m) north of Turin. His family were long-standing rural nobility.

The generation in which he was raised farmed dairy cattle, kept vineyards and fruit orchards, and sold their produce from a number of general stores in their ownership.

Pietro Deiro tried to take credit for his brother's achievements by making false claims
Pietro Deiro tried to take credit for his brother's
achievements by making false claims 
As a young boy growing up, Guido showed a talent for music when he entertained himself on the ocarina, a kind of flute. It was his uncle, Frederico, who introduced him to the accordion, which at that time required the player to press buttons to create sound.

Guido taught himself and his father was happy to let him play in the street outside his general stores, reasoning that the crowds who gathered to listen were potential customers.

He decided to turn his talent into a career partially to avoid the marriage his parents had planned for him, to the daughter of another noble family.

Despite being offered the chance to succeed his father in running the family business, he left home to become a professional musician in France and Germany.  He ended up in America after Ronco-Vercelli, an Italian accordion manufacturer, asked if he would travel to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition to demonstrate their new piano-accordion, which has buttons on one side and a piano-style keyboard on the other.

The event was held in Seattle from June to October 1909, after which he stayed on in Seattle. He played the piano-accordion in saloons, soon becoming a highly skilled player and attracting the attention of agents looking for new acts.

Hired by the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, he made his debut at the American Theatre in San Francisco in June, 1910, and never looked back.

Mae West often starred on the same bill as Deiro in her vaudeville days
Mae West often starred on the same bill as
Deiro in her vaudeville days
Soon he was a headline act, playing at music halls across the United States and Canada, and even beyond.  As the piano-accordion became more and more popular, he was its biggest star.  At his peak, he was earning as much as $600 dollars per week, at a time when an ordinary worker might earn as little as $5.

He continued to appear in vaudeville until about 1930, when he began to wind down. He concentrated on selling piano-accordions and coaching would-be players, setting up a number of studios on the west coast of America.  He married four times, although none of his marriages lasted many years.

Deiro suffered badly in the financial crash, which not only saw his stage appearances fall away drastically as vaudeville companies ran into difficulties, but the value of his investments diminished massively, in some cases wiped out.  He never recovered and when he died in 1950 his lifestyle was barely recognisable from that he enjoyed as a high roller in the 1920s.

His brother, Pietro, was never as good a musician, but was more shrewd with his money and his decision to start a publishing company producing accordion music helped his build his own fortune.

Controversially, though, he did so in part by seeming to rewrite history, allegedly making outrageous claims about he and his brother’s early days in Seattle so that he could take credit for Guido’s achievements.  He wrote a book in which he claimed he had been the first to play the piano-accordion, in San Francisco in 1907, a year before Guido arrived.

He had indeed been in America in 1907, but worked as a coal miner in Washington State, living with a relative who had emigrated. He did not learn to play the piano-accordion until Guido taught him, yet built an entire profile for himself around this and other falsehoods, brazenly passing himself off as the ‘Daddy of the Accordion’.

Medieval win towers dominate the
skyline of Courgnè
Pietro died in 1954 and it was not until many years later that Count Guido Roberto Deiro, Guido’s son by his fourth marriage, enlisted the help of Peter Muir, a scholar of early American music, in putting the record straight and giving his father the credit he deserved.

Travel tip:

Salto Canavese is a village in the Valle dell’Orco, which stretches into the mountains to the north of Turin, descending from the Gran Paradiso National Park. It is close to the town of Courgnè, which has some well-preserved medieval buildings around the Via Arduino, the town’s former commercial centre.  The old town is dominated by two towers – the round tower, known as Carlevato, probably dating back to 1200 and part of a larger castle, and the square tower, called the Clock, originally of the 14th century.

A wintry scene in Valle delle'Orco
A wintry scene in Valle delle'Orco
Travel tip:

The Valle dell’Orco, particularly in its upper reaches, offers some dramatic Alpine scenery and is very popular with walkers and climbers, with many towering rock faces. Indeed, the famous cliffhanger scene from the film The Italian Job was shot in the village of Ceresole Reale, which sits alongside the beautiful Lago di Ceresole.

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