By Susan Lagsdin
Frank Calipristi certainly looks the part as he strolls through the dining room of King Ludwig’s Restaurant or livens up the summer crowds at Leavenworth’s central gazebo. His dapperness and demeanor, the dark lederhosen and embroidered shirt, and of course the ornate and glossy accordion on his chest mark him as a true Bavarian.
“Sprichst du Deutsch?” A tourist might ask. “Nein, ich spreche kein Deutsch,” he’s learned to reply.
Frank is of Sicilian descent, born and raised in South Philly’s Little Italy, with Korean War-era combat training followed by college degrees that lead him to high-clearance work around the country. General Electric’s aerospace program and Hanford’s nuclear program used his expertise, about which he’s humble.
“Basically, I made triggers for nuclear devices,” and, he says, “At Hanford I was kind of the go-between for the tri-party agreement between Washington State, the EPA and the DOE.”
Now at 84 he is one of Leavenworth’s most recognizable strolling accordion players, and it brings him great pleasure.
Whenever he breaks into something evocative like the German Snow Waltz or Edelweiss or a lively polka tune, most people can’t help but sway a little, tap something, feel like dancing. He’s become part of the ambience of downtown, like the little shops, the mountain air, brats ’n’ beer.
He said part of the fun is gauging the crowd, edging toward the largest or most welcoming-looking group and enjoying their surprise.
King Ludwig’s Restaurant returnees expect him to be there year after year — which he has been, for 22 in a row — and thousands of selfies and videos have been taken by tourists with Frank in the foreground, half-timbered muralled buildings or mountains in the background.
“When I take requests, especially from older people,” said Frank, “I can tell from their expressions that the song is bringing back memories for them… that’s a nice thing to be able to do.”
He has about 50 songs in his repertoire, many traditional German tunes, but he can bring out the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, King of the Road, It’s a Wonderful World. Modern stuff, he calls it, realizing the misnomer. “I don’t really play that acid rock and rap stuff…” It’s probably best.
His Petosa accordion, of mahogany and floral inlay, was custom-made in a small town in Italy and found in Seattle. (A second one, the dealer said, would retail today for $12,000.) “You know, the accordion isn’t even German in origin,” Frank explained. It’s a point of pride to him that “the Italians invented it in 1860 with just buttons, and it’s evolved to having keys on one side and buttons on the other.”
And Frank himself isn’t even an accordionist in origin. He was and is proficient at the piano. He started playing the instrument as a child because he had a hankering to march in Philadelphia’s New Year’s Day Mummer’s parade (an 8-hour celebration) and a piano was much too unwieldy.
So, he quickly taught himself to play and has been traveling around with one accordion or another ever since.
Ironically, it was his penchant for another art form that brought him to Leavenworth.
He drove up from the Tri-Cities and exhibited his oil paintings — many of which adorn the walls of his home on Alpensee Strasse — during the 1980s at Art in the Park.
Later, vacationing with his wife and searching for the best place to retire, he remembered how beautiful the area was, and in 1996 they came to stay.
Frank was never just window dressing and street sounds in his favorite tourist town.
In retirement, his corporate strategy skills were easily recycled into community volunteerism. He soon became involved in the Royal Bavarians, a genial hosting group, and helped organize the Autumn Leaf Festival. Now he’s turned his talents to the multi-faceted Projekt Bayern and its popular, people-pleasing Octoberfest. Coin collecting and world travel round out his vigorous life.
Frank shared this story from a big family reunion trip to Italy in 2007. Flying out of France from the Nice airport, he opened his (suspicious-looking?) accordion case at the security gate. The guard demanded, “Play us a tune!”
Complying, he launched into Under Paris Skies, and by the second chorus guards had gathered together from the other checkpoints and joined arm-in-arm, swaying in a soulful and loud rendition of the song, doubtless startling the waiting crowds.
“Play us another!” the guard demanded again. Frank looked at his watch, looked at the departure gate, and said, “You see that plane out there? If I miss it, I’m gonna have to walk to New York.”
Frank knows he’s playing an instrument with an up-and-down, or rather in-and-out, history of popularity. Is it cool? Is it classical? Maybe not. But, oh does it bring him joy, and the tunes he squeezes out of it make other people smile and remember the past and want to dance.