Dick Contino is remembered today for his performances in notoriously (and, one might add, enjoyably) bad movies such as Daddy-O (1959) and The Beat Generation (1960). But for about three years, from 1948 until 1951, Contino was a star attraction as a musician, earning 4,000 dollars a night. He had a recording contract with RCA Victor and an instrument named after him, could write his own ticket, and all of that as an accordionist. True, the accordion has been in eclipse for decades as a "serious" instrument --, Robert Klein probably put it best on Child of the 50's when he described the accordion as "groovy if you're in a prisoner-of-war camp, someplace where you don't have access to 'real' instruments" -- but at one time in the mid-20th century it was popular, and Contino was its most popular exponent in a period before electric guitars were played by anyone outside of the jazz field.
Born in Fresno, CA, in 1930, Contino took up the accordion as a boy and began entering talent competitions during the mid-'40s, ultimately winning first prize during 1947 in a contest run by bandleader Horace Heidt. He put Contino under contract and featured him on his weekly radio show, the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Hour, where the teenager became a star. Contino's two most popular numbers were "Lady of Spain" and "Bumble Boogie." The accordionist later sued Heidt to get out of his contract, and then organized his own band. During 1949 and 1950, he played to capacity houses at some of the choicest venues in the country, including the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, his earnings reaching 4,000 dollars a night. By 1950, there was a "Dick Contino" model accordion in production from instrument maker Settimio Soprani, and that same year he signed a contract with RCA Victor. This was followed by the 1951 release of his only album, Dick Contino, recorded at the Starlight Room at the Waldorf. He seemed destined to a long and profitable career when it all came crashing down in the early spring of 1951. Contino had received his draft notice and reported to the induction center at Fort Ord in California on April 11, and then walked away. His whereabouts were unknown for more than a week and a search had begun when he turned himself in, claiming emotional distress and disorientation as the reason for his unexplained departure. He was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to six months in prison and a 10,000 dollar fine, to be followed by two years of military service. Contino spent much of that time in Korea before being discharged honorably, with the rank of sergeant, and when he returned to civilian life in early 1954, the scandal had largely been forgotten, but so had he. His career momentum was gone, but he soldiered on, attempting to re-invent himself as a Vic Damone-type singer, which was only partly successful. He made the papers for his marriage to actress Leigh Snowden, but also for his voluntary bankruptcy in 1957. At the end of the 1950s, he made appearances in four films, including a starring role -- in an abortive attempt to present Contino as a kind of Elvis Presley-type rock & roll singer -- in the low-budget crime drama Daddy-O. Contino kept on performing as an accordionist right to the end of the 20th century. In 1991, he also returned to the pop culture consciousness when Daddy-O was shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000. ~ Bruce Eder