Local celebrity/property magnate Mike Marotta keeps playing squeeze-box because he feels like it.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Mike Marotta’s second-story office on Monterey’s Alvarado Street is a museum with a very specific goal: showcasing the accordions of this area’s most prominent local families. There’s a cherry red accordion that used to belong to Anthony Rappa and a dark gray model that Carmel businessman Phil Coniglio used to play. The 15 accordions stand on small plastic shelves, their keys balanced above their bodies like shiny overbites.
Though the office is the home base of Marotta Real Estate, which owns a number of buildings in downtown Monterey, an adjacent room further reveals the 87-year-old Monterey native’s passion for music. One file cabinet in the room is stuffed full of folders containing everything from classical music to Jewish music. Marotta also has collected folders’ worth of songs for local vocalists like Ree Brunell to perform.
After rifling through a few folders, Marotta returns to the room where the accordions are displayed and takes an Italian-made accordion from the wall. He sits down and plays Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” His right foot taps as he stares off while smiling, the music transporting him to some faraway place. Then, Marotta’s gaze suddenly returns to the room as he bangs out a dramatic climax to the number.
Next up, Marotta plays a brisk showpiece samba called “Tico Tico,” his fingers moving across the keys as fast as a speed typist on a keyboard.
Marotta first started playing the accordion when he was 11 years old. His father, an Italian-born bricklayer who immigrated to Monterey, brought it home one day. “The minute I picked it up I was playing the son of a bitch,” Marotta says.
Just a year later, the young accordion player was gigging around Pebble Beach in a group called the El Nido Strollers. “We were all Italians, but (Pebble Beach founder) Sam Morse thought we were Mexicans,” Marotta says.
There were times when the young Marotta would work all day laying bricks and then jam on the accordion at night down at La Ida’s whorehouse on Cannery Row. Later, he played private parties around town. At those gigs, his fingers were so raw from laying bricks that they would leave streaks of blood on his accordion keys.
But World War II interrupted the young player’s music career. That is, until his military superiors in the Army handed him his favorite instrument to see what he could do with it. “I got that accordion, and I tore it apart,” he says. “They stood there with their mouths open.”
Though trained to be an Army medic, the performance set Marotta on a different path. He put together a 15-person military variety show that performed for wounded soldiers in hospitals around the nation.
“I played for guys who died in front of me,” he says.
His troupe of entertainers was frequently joined by Hollywood notables including Carey Grant and Akim Tamiroff, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 1943 film For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Following his stint in the service, Marotta returned to Monterey, where he performed rumbas and tangos with a band every Friday night at the Hotel Del Monte. Marotta and his father founded Marotta Real Estate in 1946. “This music has always been a second profession,” he says. “We’re businessmen.”
Over the years, Marotta has won accolades for both his work in the community (the Monterey Chamber’s 1982 Citizen of the Year Award) and his musical abilities (the Weekly’s 2007 Best Local Musician Award).
Marotta says he has also built up a repertoire of thousands of songs including French tunes, classical pieces and “every Italian song that was written that made money. As an accordion player, I can do it all,” he says.
Members of the local music community agree with Marotta about his musical abilities. Local bassist Dennis Murphy, who has played with Acoustic Alchemy and the Greg Kihn Band, has known Marotta for 25 years. “He’s the consummate pro,” Murphy says. “He’s the best representative of the Monterey Peninsula, musically and professionally.”
David Morwood, the jazz director and house drummer at the Hyatt, says he has never seen an accordion player perform quite like Marotta. “When he plays accordion, it’s soulful,” Morwood says. “Mike makes that thing swing.”
And the accordion player still performs at private parties and local events. “It beats staying at home,” he says, “and watching Bonanaza.”