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Anthony Galla-Rini, 102; Accordionist Strove to Raise the Instrument’s Profile

Times Staff Writer

From performing on a vaudeville stage at 7 through conducting summer-camp ensembles in his 90s, Anthony Galla-Rini lived by the motto “Have trunk, will travel.” He needed the trunk for one simple reason: to carry his accordion.

The internationally known accordion player, composer and arranger died July 30 at Corona Regional Medical Center after suffering a heart seizure, his son Ron said. He was 102.

Galla-Rini played a variety of woodwind and brass instruments, starting with the cornet, but the accordion was his passion.

“It was his entire life’s work, to elevate the accordion to a concert instrument,” Ron Galla-Rini told The Times this week.

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A self-taught musician with virtually no formal education, Galla-Rini was born Jan. 18, 1904, in Manchester, Conn., into a musical family from Verona, Italy.

His mother, Angela, was pregnant with him on the ship crossing the Atlantic. Once in America his father, John, organized a touring vaudeville act featuring Galla-Rini’s three sisters.

The rest of the family settled in San Francisco, and Galla-Rini began first grade. After six months of schooling, his father summoned him in 1911 to join his sisters on the vaudeville circuit in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The Galla-Rinis crisscrossed the country, playing with many vaudeville headliners, including Bob Hope, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers. Talking movies in the late 1920s effectively ended vaudeville’s run, and the Galla-Rini act disbanded in 1932.

Galla-Rini’s career was far from over. He had taught himself to read music and had begun composing and arranging classical and popular pieces for the accordion.

He returned to San Francisco, where he taught accordion and met Dina Petromilli, whose family ran the Guerrini accordion factory. They married in 1933 and had their only child, Ron, in 1936.

Except for a short period in Brooklyn and a few stops in the Midwest, Galla-Rini and his new family lived primarily in Southern California, calling Eagle Rock, Glendale, Redondo Beach and northern San Diego County home.

Galla-Rini broke into the movie business and played the accordion on many film scores, most memorably in “Laura” (1944) and “High Noon” (1952).

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Starting in the 1930s and continuing over the next several decades, he performed as a solo musician and toured the United States and Europe. His gigs included the Trocadero on the Sunset Strip and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1941 he composed his first accordion concerto and was the featured soloist with the Oklahoma City Orchestra.

And always Galla-Rini shared his passion for the accordion, through private lessons and group seminars. In 1990 he founded summer camps for accordionists in British Columbia, Oregon and San Diego.

At those camps he would arrange such traditional melodies as “Old Man River” and “God Bless America” for ensembles often numbering 30 or 40 accordionists. As Galla-Rini began to slow down with age, Kjell Holmes, president of the San Diego chapter of the Accordion Lovers Society International, took over running the camps.

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“It was not new music, but familiar songs, arranged for accordion,” Holmes said of Galla-Rini’s adaptations. “That really grabs people.”

Galla-Rini, who moved to Corona several years ago to be closer to his son’s family, is also survived by four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He outlived his first wife, Dina; his second wife, Dolly; and his six siblings.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at Olive Branch Community Church, 7702 El Cerrito Road, Corona. In tribute to Galla-Rini, an ensemble of accordionists will perform music he arranged.


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