Lifelong hobby continues
By Denise Baran-Unland Correspondent January 4, 2013 3:24PM
Accordian musician, Art MacKay plays recently at the Willowbrook Ballroom. | SUBMiTTED PHOTO
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:16AM
Art Mackay, 86, of Joliet was sitting in a local restaurant with Steve Cooper of the Steve Cooper Orchestra when the woman working the cash register overheard them talking about Lawrence Welk and told them she was a distant cousin to Welk.
That was especially thrilling to Mackay since Welk, his idol, had once let him play his heavy accordion in the 1940s when Mackay was vacationing in New York. This was also exciting for Cooper, who has kept Welk’s brand of champagne music alive for more than 30 years.
“I had a recording of the Welk band at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York from the same week Art was there,” said Cooper, who has played on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and at private parties for Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Jim Belushi. “Art couldn’t believe it. I gave him a copy of the broadcast as a surprise present.”
Mackay, who fell in love with the accordion at age 5 and still gives regular accordion lessons, has played with the LaGrange Park-based Steve Cooper Orchestra when it performs at the Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs.
Cooper said he occasionally invites a guest instrumentalist or singer to join his orchestra. So when Mackay contacted him and shared his dream of playing at the Willowbrook Ballroom, Cooper gave him music to a polka medley, which included Mackay’s favorite, “The Beer Barrel Polka.”
“He was so enthusiastic and if he played Lawrence Welk’s accordion and followed his music, I knew he’d be competent to play with us,” Cooper said. “He was very appreciative and had a good musical attitude. In this day and age, it’s hard to find musicians with an appreciation for little things. He has a wonderful zest for life.”
Mackay’s father used to sing along with a friend who owned a concertina and Mackay, enthralled, loved to listen to them. Mackay begged for an accordion and lessons to go with it but growing up in the Depression meant no money for such luxuries.
“My parents bought me a toy accordion instead,” Mackay said, “which I took to bed instead of a teddy bear.”
At age 12, the opportunity for two years worth of lessons became a reality, until the teacher was drafted. Mackay was still in high school when he and three musician friends organized their first combo; it played at such venues as Partak’s Bar & Grill on Joliet’s East Side. In 1943, Mackay met Welk for the first time when Welk appeared at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet.
“I told him about my band and he invited me to come out to Willowbrook and he’d give me some music,” Mackay said. “So we went to meet the guys and he gave us his whole band arrangement for ‘Sweet Lorraine.’”
Two years ago, Mackay read “Wunnderful, Wunnderful! The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk” and phoned the secretary to Welk’s orchestra to discuss a screenplay Mackay had written based on the book (Mackay’s other hobby is screenplay writing). The secretary put Mackay in contact with Cooper.
Mackay still plays other venues, too.
For instance, Joliet kidney specialist Dr. Mohammed S. Shafi often invites Mackay to play the accordion at professional and private gatherings because of Mackay’s skill, personality and ability to transform an ordinary event into an interactive, musical treat.
“He mesmerizes the crowd not just by the quality of his playing,” Shafi said. “He plays the songs they love and engages them; he doesn’t just play as other musicians do. He creates a magical atmosphere at parties.”