It's 3 p.m. on Saturday and the place is packed. Folks have traveled 500 miles or more for the show. As the night unfolds and the band picks up, silver-haired supporters scurry onto the scene and the dancing begins. Songs such as "Yodel, Sweet Molly," "Somewhere My Love" from "Dr. Zhivago," and "The Blue Skirt Waltz" beckon the crowd to waltz, tango or jitterbug. Four hours later, there's still no sign of stopping. The Great Falls Accordion Club is a time machine of sorts, whisking crowds back to generations past. The Great Falls club started in 2000 with three or four members and has grown since. Members range in age from 50 to 80 and play mostly waltzes and polkas from the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s. They also play a few old-time country tunes. "We draw the biggest dance crowds in town from what I understand," group leader Pat Sharp said. "It's hard to find a parking place when we play. It's just really, really a pleasure and an honor to see your friends dancing out there and having fun." Doris Seaton has performed with Sharp since the group's beginning. She said seniors can identify more easily with their music than what's played on the radio, TV or the Internet. "It's the music they grew up listening to. The music they danced to when they went to a prom," she said. "We end our program with 'Now is the Hour,' which was huge in World War II when soldiers were being deployed. The music itself brings back so many memories for people who are dancing, and I think that's part of the appeal." Sharp started the group after taking a trip to Kalispell and joining in on an accordion jam there. She had so much fun she thought if Kalispell can do it, so can Great Falls. Along with Sharp and Seaton, Judy Lee and Elaine Tweet have been with them from the start. The group typically has five or six accordions at the dances but once had 12 players at the Moose Club. "Our music is always a jam," Sharp said. "We're a casual, laid-back group. We're all playing instruments until we leave and playing together. It's partly why the group works so well." Greg Buimilla of Fort Benton plays bass and said they're often the talk of the town after they perform. "We played in Shelby a couple of months ago, and I used to live in Shelby, and people that I have talked to from there said that's the best performance they've heard in a long time," he said. The Accordion Club regularly plays the Elk's and Eagle's lodges in addition to the senior homes and activity centers in town. Their next show is Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Eagle's Lodge from 1-5 p.m. They also play in the smaller communities around Great Falls. Seaton said while they perform mostly in Great Falls, people from all over come to hear them play. "It's not just a Great Falls thing, it's a music thing," she said. "People have found music they like and they're willing to follow it and are able to follow it I guess." Jeff Gutowski, governor of the Moose Lodge in Black Eagle, said it's not unusual to see the crowd filled with seniors when the Accordion Club plays. "They come here every three months or so and the last one we had here we had about 150 people show up," he said. Seaton said that seniors across the state travel from Billings to Butte to Philipsburg to listen to their favorite accordion jams. The Billings and Butte polka festivals draw large crowds, as does the Rocky Mountain Accordion Festival in Philipsburg. Over the years they've had fiddle and banjo players, guitarists and even some sax players join in on their jams, Sharp said, Sharp, who plays keyboard, organ, guitar, the fiddle, mandolin, steel guitar Irish flute, harmonica and fivestringed guitar, has played music all her life. When she was a child, she lived on a farm near Dunkirk, west of Shelby on Highway 2. She often used music to keep things lively, especially during the winter. She attended boarding school in Great Falls and in seventh grade took a year of piano lessons and learned to read music. More recently, Sharp taught herself to yodel from tapes and a training book she purchased five years ago. She's taken guitar lessons and started an intermediate fiddle class just last week. "Music is a big part of my life right now," said Sharp, who is 77. "I play 24 to 27 times a month sometimes by myself, sometimes with a group. There's nothing that I've found that compares to sitting down to a jam and playing a song. You make eye contact with someone across the room — the connection there is something I've never encountered in any other activities in my life." This year the Great Falls club is approaching its 160th performance. Despite lifetimes of experience, Sharp said each time they play they learn something, especially when someone new shows up to play. Seaton said the group welcomes new members and often is approached by people at shows who would like to learn how to play accordion. When she's not working or playing, Seaton also gives lessons.
Putting the oomph in oom-pah-pah
Folks travel 500 miles to hear Great Falls accordion band
Published: Friday, February 12th, 2010
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