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Meet Walter, Rochester’s Accordion Man

January 29th, 2014

Walter, Rochester's accordion man, performing underneath the Freddie-Sue bridge in Corn Hill as a crowd gathers for the Eddie Money 'Party in the Park' concert [PHOTO: Jeff Gerew, C7Photo.com]
Walter has been a fixture at local sporting events and concerts for decades. Known to most Rochesterians as “The Accordion Man,” Walter plays his squeezebox (and sings) outside most hockey, basketball and lacrosse games… at music events all around the city… and of course, a Redwings game would not be the same without Walter’s rendition of Take Me Out To The Ballgame playing in the background as fans line up at the turnstiles.

In a recent phone conversation with him, Walter told me he’s been playing around Rochester for three decades. He’s missed only one game in the past 15 years. And he’s gone through 83 accordions. His latest one is currently out of commission with broken keys and a worn strap…

After seeing Walter’s ad on Craigslist external link, Kelly Keyes-Darcangelo (a long time fan) decided to start an online fundraiser external link to help him pay for a new accordion – or at least get his repaired. The campaign raised $297.

Out of curiosity I sent him an email to find out what was up, and if the $297 would be enough to make the repairs. He called me up late Monday night to say the accordion is now at a repair shop in Batavia. The work will cost over $300, but he says, thanks to Kelly’s campaign he’ll be playing it again soon.

These are complex instruments external link – like miniature pianos really. Walter explains, “Good ones are VERY expensive. As much as $1,500. The cheap ones don’t last very long.” And with lots of use, they deteriorate and can be expensive to fix.”

He’s had ten accordions stolen. Most out of his car… but some have been swiped from him after being followed late at night. But he loves to play and he loves people. Oh, and he REALLY loves to talk.

Walter, Rochester's accordion man, playing outside an Amerks hockey game in the War Memorial parking garage tunnel. [PHOTO: Craigslist]
For over an hour he told me every little detail about his life. One story immediately followed by another and another – with little room for me to get a word in edge-wise. I found myself being wildly entertained, not by accordion music, but by Walter the man.

He told me about his childhood growing up near Scranton, PA. His parents had a little bit of land with 12 apple trees and some blueberry bushes. His father would send him into town with two bushels of apples and blueberries in a wagon and told him, “don’t come back until every last one is sold.” So that’s what he did.

As a child Walter learned to play the trumpet. His sister took accordion lessons. One day his father brought a used accordion home to give to her as a gift. But to his surprise she refused it, deciding on the spot she no longer liked playing. Walter gladly picked up, and he taught himself. He also had prior experience playing on his Grandmother’s piano. So, Walter says, “it just came naturally.”

He also told me he’s written hundreds of letters to the past five U.S. presidents… and how he was invited to the White House to play for Ronald Reagan once. He played The Battle Hymn of the Republic he proudly recalled.

For 25 years Walter was a pastor at a Tabernacle church outside Scranton. How he ended up in Rochester is “a looong story” he says. For some time he traveled around with the Billy Graham external link Crusades… Pittsburg, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toronto… playing at various other events along the way. One thing led to another and somehow he ends up in Rochester. I didn’t quite follow the entire story. But it sounded like a good time.

His favorite song… You Are My Sunshine external link which he says he likes to play for young couples in love.

Walter uses the tips he collects from sidewalk performances to print photos of himself and his accordion which he then autographs and gives to anyone who throws him a dollar. I asked him about rumors I’ve heard, that he is very well off financially and doesn’t need the charity. He contests right away, loudly going into detail about his Social Security check and how most of that goes to keeping his car on the road so he can get to all of his games; his gigs.

At 76, Walter says he now thinks about retiring. “But people want me to keep playing. And as long as I’m in good health,” he takes a rare pause, “I think I will.”

He then proceeds to explain (at length) how a steady diet of Schweppes ginger ale and bananas keeps him going.

• • •

Help Walter keep his music going

If you’d like to send Walter a few bucks to keep his accordian in working order, you can send a check to:

Walter Palmer
P.O. Box 39591
Rochester, NY 14604

• • •

Thanks to Rebecca for bringing me this story. And thanks to Jeff Gerew at C7Photo external link for the great shot of Walter.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014 at 7:51 am and is filed under Art + Culture, Interviews, Rochester Destinations, Rochester History, Video. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Meet Walter, Rochester’s Accordion Man”

  1. Rebecca says:

    LOVE IT!!!!!

  2. Renee says:

    Walter has also played his accordion around downtown Rochester through the years. I remember watching him play his accordion at the bus stops on Main Street when I was kid. He is very talented! I am sorry to hear that people stole Walter’s accordions. Keep the music going Walter!

  3. Renee says:

    Thank you for sharing and posting this story Rochester Subway!

  4. Tate says:

    I also remember him playing downtown at the bus stops, and he also used to hand out colorful strips of paper that said “God Bless You” on them. I think I still have one from when I was a kid & used to take the city bus to & from school, stopping downtown at Main & St. Paul, where Walter would wander by singing &/or spreading “the good word.”

  5. @Renee, thanks! It was a real fun story to do. And I have a new friend in Walter. He called me again last night to tell me about Cleveland. Ha!

  6. joey flower says:

    Seventeen years or so ago I found myself stranded outside the Water Street Music Hall after a concert without a way home. I’d meant to call my father for a ride when the show got out, but neglected to bring a quarter for the payphone (oh the days without cell phones). I’d stuck around after the music to see if I could meet the band, and by the time I made my way outside, it seemed everyone else had made their way home, everyone except the man who’d been outside playing his accordion. He asked me if everything was alright and offered to let me use the phone in the lobby of his apartment building (turns out he lived right around the corner). I’d seen him around at the Amerks and Redwings games over the years, so he felt less a stranger, and headed over to make the call. While we were waiting for my dad, he told me a few stories and before I left he gave me a photo of himself on the NYC subway and signed it “Walter”. I don’t think I’d known his name up until that point. Never forgot that small act of kindness. Glad for the opportunity to return the favor.

  7. @Joey, That’s awesome!

  8. Jnana Hodson says:

    Characters like this fueled my novel, “Subway Hitchhikers,” before it was published in 1990. I’m glad to announce the work’s just been reissued as an ebook, and equally delighted to see the concepts cropping up in your corner of Upstate, which so much feeds the action down in The City.

  9. MrRochester says:

    This was great, thanks! Walter is part of the fabric of Rochester that makes living here so great. His quirkiness is a true Rochesterism. I have seen some of the drunk kids be mean to him and he holds his own, I just hope he stays safe. In the same vein, I have seen Walter make some crude comments to the ladies as they walk by in the East End, even one to one of my dates that was dressed to the 9’s. I wish Walter the best and hope he remains smart about the locations he chooses. His virtue shines through, while he should be cautious about the virtue of some of the people that stumble by him.

  10. Mike says:

    Given his status as a local legend, I think Walter should be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame someday!

  11. Brian says:

    Went to State College PA for a football game and was surprised to see Walter playing the accordion outside the Creamery Building.


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