The big accordion had little legs beneath it.
Patsy Pace flashed a wide grin as he looked out behind the 22-pound musical instrument. Weighing only 55 pounds himself, he needed his mother’s assistance to strap on the bulky contraption.
He fidgeted about in his suit and tie, running his pudgy fingers over the keys and switches, pulling and pushing the bellows of the shiny accordion until he felt comfortable.
Black hair combed to perfection, the 7-year-old Akron boy waited to take the stage.
The audience applauded politely 75 years ago when Patsy’s name was announced at Hammerstein Music Hall in New York. With rhinestones reflecting off the black-and-white accordion, the eager youngster walked into the spotlight, stood before a microphone and looked up at the famous host.
“I’m 6 years old,” Patsy gushed, apparently too excited to remember his recent seventh birthday. “And my mama is 23. I said my prayers all day so now I guess I’ll play good.”
CBS radio host Edward Bowes, the 62-year-old drillmaster of Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, sponsored a special “Salute to Akron” during the national talent show on May 20, 1937. Besides Patsy, Akron residents competing that Thursday evening were former telephone operator Kitty Graham, city trash collector Tommy Flocker and truck driver Eddie Wilson. Winners were decided each week by a national phone-in contest.
For the occasion, Akron Mayor Lee D. Schroy bestowed upon Bowes the titles of “Honorary Mayor,” “Honorary Chief of Police,” “Honorary Fire Chief” and “Honorary Assistant Manager to Shorty Fulton at the Akron Municipal Airport.” The University of Akron named Bowes as “Grand Marshal of May Day.”
Meanwhile, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. presented the radio host with five new tires for his automobile. Made with a special mold, they were imprinted with Bowes’ name. The company also gave him a lifetime pass on any Akron blimp.
Surely, the city wasn’t trying to butter up the no-nonsense Bowes, who was known to stop a mediocre performer in mid-act by sounding a gong.
In Akron, the program aired on WADC radio. Technicians spent weeks installing a $1,700 telephone exchange on the fifth floor of the Ohio Bell building on West Bowery Street.
The program hired 100 young women for $2 each to answer 75 phones. The exchange Melrose 1212 existed for one night only. Families were allowed three votes while groups could vote up to 25 times.
When the national broadcast began at 8 p.m., the lines opened. Calls flooded the Akron exchange until all 75 phones were busy.
“This is the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour,” each operator answered cheerfully. “What is your vote, please?”
Patsy Pace, the son of James and Josephine Pace, became a little star that evening.
A student at Bryan Elementary, Patsy lived at 46 S. Charles St. between the North Hill Viaduct and Howard Street. He was born in the home on Feb. 19, 1930, as Pasquale Pace.
At age 4, he found a cousin’s accordion and began pressing keys with his tiny fingers. Patsy’s family was amazed to hear recognizable tunes take shape.
“I just knew when the notes were wrong,” he explained decades later to the Beacon Journal. “I was told later I had perfect pitch. It wasn’t something I developed. I was born with it.”
Within a couple of months, little Patsy could play standard tunes on a toy accordion. He graduated to a larger model after his family ordered an instrument from the Italo-American Accordion Co. of Chicago. The name “P. PACE” was embedded in sparkling rhinestones.
Building a repertoire of more than 200 songs by age 6, he entertained at social events, appeared at public ceremonies and performed on local radio.
“Like the infant Beethoven who stole from his bed at night to compose his immortal tunes on the piano, so black-eyed Patsy hums in his sleep, his mother says, and beats time unconsciously to the creations which he sings,” the Beacon Journal reported in 1937. “And two hours before breakfast each morning, he is hard at work on his practicing when the fingers of dawn have scarcely touched the sky.”
Following the footsteps of famous accordionists, Patsy confided to an interviewer: “I want to be like Pietro Deiro. I want to be like Phil Baker.”
During Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, Patsy played to perfection. Although the song title has been lost to history, the audience roared with approval as the little boy squeezed every note imaginable from the oversize accordion.
“What is your vote, please?”
“What is your vote, please?”
“The little boy with the accordion.”
Patsy walked off with the contest. In Akron alone, he received 9,843 votes — thousands more than soprano Kitty Graham. Another 1,567 Akron residents couldn’t get through because the lines were jammed.
In addition to entering the national spotlight, Patsy received some valuable advice from Major Bowes. The radio host told Patsy’s parents that the gifted boy should learn to play the piano. He began taking classes with Rena M. Wills.
“There is no way of predicting to what heights Patsy Pace will climb in the music world,” the Beacon Journal noted.
Patsy attended Jennings school and North High School before graduating from Buchtel in 1947. At age 17, he enrolled at Juilliard School of Music in New York, majoring in piano and composition before graduating with excellent grades in 1950.
No one expected what happened next — least of all Patsy Pace. In New York, he became addicted to heroin.
Casual use of drugs led him into a downward spiral. Akron police arrested him in 1951 after finding a syringe and narcotics in his car. Over the next two decades, Pace was arrested dozens of times on charges of drug possession, breaking and entering and forgery of prescriptions. He spent five years in prisons and hospitals.
The public had trouble reconciling police photos of gaunt, sullen Pace in his 20s with memories of the child star.
“I never dreamed when I watched those little hands move over that accordion that you would ever be before me on a charge like this,” Summit County Common Pleas Judge Clande V.D. Emmons told Pace while sentencing him to probation in 1954.
Breaking through the storm, Pace reclaimed his life in the 1960s by submitting to methadone treatment.
The piano virtuoso composed music, performed with the Cleveland and Akron symphonies, played jazz in packed nightclubs, taught music lessons and recorded the 1978 original album Pacific. The comeback was complete.
“I’ve put aside the dreams of my youth that I will do this or be here or there at this time in my life,” he told the Beacon Journal in 1981. “My ambitions of the big time are gone. My life has changed so drastically. People who knew me before don’t believe it.”
Pace was 75 when he died of pneumonia in 2006.
He didn’t get to be Pietro Deiro or Phil Baker, but he was finally content to be Pat Pace.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a new book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.